Before teaching my first course in College Composition, I had been thinking about teaching for a while (my most likely alternative to teaching was a brief but exciting career as a tunnel rat for the US Army in Vietnam), and my initial pedagogical decisions may strike normal folk — who do not teach College Comp. or throw around "pedagogical" — as a little weird. I don't mean that the decisions were weird in themselves, but a little weird in that they were the decisions I made first.
First of all of them, I decided on a grading system.
I'm not sure the "CIRP Freshman Survey" of
attitudes and values was up and running in the mid-1960s — I remember
it from the later '60s on — but I didn't need a scientific survey to
tell me that the primary concern of most of my students would not be
what they would learn in my course but the grade they got. I didn't like
that attitude, but I decided to go with it; after all, even my most
idealistic colleagues usually talked about grading student essays, not, say, "carrying on a dialog" with the essays.
So my very first decision was that I would grade "blind," not looking
at the students' names. This system would make it difficult to track
individual students' progress in learning how to write, but it would be
fairer: I'd be grading the essay, not the student.
Later, I got some indication that grading blind was a good decision
when several of us TA's compared our grading and found that those who
looked at students' names were far more consistent, "across the line" of
grades in their gradebooks than those of us who didn't. Our inference
was that teachers looked at a student's name on the paper, had an idea
of the student's ability, and honestly saw — or tended to see — a paper
in that grade range. "A" students wrote "A" papers, and so forth. Not
always, but usually, what people expect to see is what we do see, and
seeing a student's name may set up in a teacher's mind a grade range.
Still later in my career, a student said that she counted on this
teacherly tendency in her schoolwork: she established herself early in a
course as a "A" student and tended to get "A's" even if she
subsequently slacked off and handed in what she saw as pretty much "B"
work. My system, she ruefully noted, interfered with her system.
In any event, grading "blind" allowed me in one sense to respond more
to my students as human beings, including my human response of liking
some human beings more than others. So long as I was professional and
polite to all, I could feel my human feelings without worrying about
favoring students I liked and penalizing any I didn't like — although
most students did a good job at invisibility in class, so I didn't feel
much about them one way or another, and I'm confident that's how most
felt about me. There was always a potential there for an "I/Thou"relationship
with some of my students, but ordinarily we were "instrumental" for one
another: they supplied me with essays, and I supplied them with grades
and comments and, if all went well, aid in improving skills. We also
taught each other important stuff, on occasion, and on rare occasion
made real human-to-human contact — friendly contact mostly (I remain
friends with some former students) — but such moments weren't central to
our day-to-day operations.
I also decided that I'd grade numerically, in part, and on a kind of
sliding scale: a system of "weighted" grades. That is, I'd give the
essay a letter grade, but then translate the grade into a number
according to the standard university system: A: 90-100, B: 80-89, C:
70-79, etc. And then I'd translate those standard numbers into something
more modest for the early essays and of increasing "weight" as the term
went on. So the initial essay in the course might be worth 5 points,
then 10, 25, 50, 75, and 100, with some tweaks to encourage revision —
"Good essays aren't written; they are rewritten" (usually) — and I gave moderately generous points for participation.
With this system, every piece of writing counted, but improvement was
rewarded; and with this system someone could sit in class in silent
invisibility and get an "A," but it would really help if s/he
occasionally bloody well, as we used to say, contributed
something. (When e-mail came along, shy people could get credit with
e-mail participation, and I stressed even more that there was at least
an ethical imperative to participate in some way: it's not fair to just
take notes and pick others' brains and never add anything of one's own.)
My second decision came a bit later, after a colleague of mine got my
attention by throwing back at me one of my favorite lines — but the
groundwork for it had been laid long before.
My first day as a college freshman, after my advisor and I had reviewed
the few choices I had to make in the "Specialized Chemistry" curriculum
for budding biochemists, my first real question was, "Uh, what do you
call people around here?" The answer to that question, at that place and
time and in that context, was "Mister." In my introduction to serious
academic snobbery, my advisor told me, "In a department such as this, everyone has a doctorate" — and just about everybody on the U of Illinois Chemistry faculty ca. 1961 was male.
So I'd call my instructors "Mister _____," and they'd call me "Mr.
Erlich." Now to some extent we were in a civilian variation on the story
of the British sergeant major telling his second "leftenant" trainees
in the standard-issue sergeant-major voice, "I shall call you 'sir,' and
you will call me 'sir'!" (beat, more softly and intensely) "The
difference will be … that you will mean it." Not much, though:
for the most part, I think that during my undergraduate career, my
teachers called me "Mr. Erlich" as a matter of custom and courtesy and,
that far, meant it. Only as a graduate student was I called "Rich," and
then I very tentatively guessed and called my adviser "Barry." (When my
adviser was being recruited to be my adviser, I'd been referred to as "a
cynical little bastard from Chicago, with a background in the sciences"
— but that's another story.)
Anyway, I'd been brought up on "Mr./Miss/Mrs./Ms." and addressed my
students that way, until some of them told me the formal forms of
address made them uncomfortable, and I complained about that complaint
to one of my colleagues. "Jeesh!" I said, "It's a matter of
indifference!" To which he replied, "If it's a matter of indifference to
you, but not to them, just do it their way."
As I said, that got my attention.
My colleague might have known — as in, Iikely bragged about it in his
presence — that my first and only big "gotcha" moment on my first
student/faculty committee was when a very senior colleague said to me,
"It's a matter of indifference," and I smiled and replied sweetly, "Then
just do it my way"; so that won the argument for my students. Or did in
part, since I also saw what would later be called a teaching
In succeeding semesters, I would go over my grading system first day of
class and then spend a few minutes on our one moment of class
democracy: determining "Forms of Address." Simultaneously, I introduced
"Forms of Address" as a possible topic for the class's first
essay/writing sample, a topic just about nobody ever selected.
(The other topic was on clothes, with some very brief selections from John T. Molloy's Dress for Success and a paragraph from Sir Thomas More on how in Utopia,
anyway, clothing competition is forbidden. [The Utopians are commies
and pretty egalitarian.] Many of my students were scarily sophisticated
on matters of dress and did well to write on it.)
Anyway I'd offer my student a Formal Option for forms of address, where
we'd call each other "Mr./Ms." — few married undergrads at Miami
University, Oxford, OH — and an informal option where we'd call one
another by first names. I also mentioned the option where I'd call them
"Mr./Ms. Whatever" and they'd call me "Rich," but rejected that one, and
also rejected anyone's calling anyone else just by their last names:
that's either really, really friendly among equals or the form for a
social superior to address a social inferior. I'd tolerate, I said,
calling them by their first name and their calling me "Mr. Erlich" or
"Professor Erlich," and I told them the U of I Chem Dept. story for "Dr.
Erlich" — but I'd be a little uncomfortable, I said, with that
With maybe one exception in many years of teaching, my classes elected
informality, and I said, "Hi. Call me 'Rich'" (beat) — "but I'm still
giving the grades." And we'd spend a bit more time talking about forms
of address and their significance and how writers can find topics all
around us if we just look at "The weirdness of everyday life," or what
starts appearing weird when we start thinking about it.
I was trying to get them into what's called in an awkward English word
"defamiliarization" or even more pretentiously Verfremdungs(effekt) or priyom ostraneniya. To paraphrase a dead White male poet, I'll say that I was trying to "make the familiar strange" for them, as a way to find topics.
And more than that.
Every now and then, I think, my mini-lecture on grading got students
thinking about grades and what they mean and how grades function in
their (academic) lives. Moving out from there — the great majority of my
students preferred blind grading, and their recognizing that preference
could, on rare occasions, get a few asking potentially radical questions
on whether they really wanted to be treated personally and be graded as
human beings — or, given that preference, was it okay to treat them
rather impersonally and professionally and grade them on their work?
Forms of address are no big deal in themselves, but they tell us
something about power relationships. "Hi. Call me 'Rich' …" but I gave
the grades, and choosing forms of address was one of the very few
exercises of democratic choice my students were going to encounter in
their classes. Equally, forms of address are what we might call "age and
generation inflected." My students were uncomfortable calling me "Rich"
in part because they very legitimately didn't want to think themselves
old farts such as I was to them even in my thirties, which is fair
enough. But to what extent did they reject the "Mr./Ms." designation
because they were uncomfortable thinking of themselves as adults and, as
adults, my social equal, however much I might outrank them as their teacher?
Grading in a College Comp. class is no big deal, and neither are forms
of address. (When asked once how I'd like to be addressed, I said I'd like
"His Grace, Richard, Duke of TriStates" — Oxford, OH, is near Indiana
and Kentucky — so you have some idea how earnestly I take the issue.)
the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom and directing it to
the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us," as Samuel Taylor
Coleridge said; getting young Americans to see the weirdness of the
world we see as natural, as I would vulgarly put it: that's basic to
education and good to get to on the first day of class.