Monthly Archives: May 2008

back to London . . .

I’m currently working from an internet cafe on the Kilburn High Road, but I just wanted to say that I’ll be working this week from London, and will post some more as time permits.



for memorial day

From Voltaire’s Candide, Ch. III:







 THERE WAS NEVER anything so gallant, so spruce, so brilliant, and so well disposed as the two armies. Trumpets, fifes, hautboys, drums, and cannon made music such as Hell itself had never heard. The cannons first of all laid flat about six thousand men on each side; the muskets swept away from this best of worlds nine or ten thousand ruffians who infested its surface. The bayonet was also a sufficient reason for the death of several thousands. The whole might amount to thirty thousand souls. Candide, who trembled like a philosopher, hid himself as well as he could during this heroic butchery.

At length, while the two kings were causing Te Deum to be sung each in his own camp, Candide resolved to go and reason elsewhere on effects and causes. He passed over heaps of dead and dying, and first reached a neighbouring village; it was in cinders, it was an Abare village which the Bulgarians had burnt according to the laws of war. Here, old men covered with wounds, beheld their wives, hugging their children to their bloody breasts, massacred before their faces; there, their daughters, disembowelled and breathing their last after having satisfied the natural wants of Bulgarian heroes; while others, half burnt in the flames, begged to be despatched. The earth was strewed with brains, arms, and legs.


blessings and curses

As I was sitting in the pews the other day, watching two of my daughters’ friends go through their bat mitzvah, I saw that the Torah portion was from Leviticus 26.  This passage described the blessings and curses that the Israelites had to look forward to, depending on how well they followed divine instructions.  And the code of behavior offered there had a pleasingly logical and predictable character to it: if you do x, you will be rewarded, but if you do not-x, you will be punished, over and over again, until you wither like a dry-blown leaf.  This was G*d’s grading policy, handed out at the beginning of term, and we have all been warned.

These passages, with their frank acceptance of the logic of retribution, reminded me of a very different scene of authority, obedience, and collective guilt that I found in the essay, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.”  This was an Atlantic article written by Professor X, an anonymous adjunct who teaches at “colleges of last resort,”–Northeastern community colleges and small private colleges of no particular academic reputation.  Professor X is, unsurprisingly , an unhappy soul, or better yet another Underground Man (he does work in a basement, after all), confessing his sins large and small to a largely indifferent world.

Like the first Underground Man, Professor X is a Disappointed Idealist, devoted to Literature, touchy about his adjunct status and career trajectory, and resentful of his students and their inadequacies.  When talking about their deficiencies, cluelessness, or, worst of all, indifference to him and his teaching, Professor X’s rage deepens, mixed with bewilderment at his own plight: why are they here? he wonders, and, more importantly, why am I stuck here with them?   Whether out of haplessness or malice, these no-goodnik students stubbornly refuse his best efforts to improve them. Most infuriatingly, they remain immune to his precious values or ideals, whether he is talking about the genius of James Joyce or the importance of MLA form.  He writes:

Remarkably few of my students can do well in these [required English 101] classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.

As both sides seem to understand, their poor writing and lack of prior reading leaves them vulnerable, however they react to his teaching.  Consequently, they sit mute and motionless, slouched over their desks while he chatters on about topic sentences or James Joyce’s Araby.  And though Professor X complains about the poverty of their ideas about literature, his own discussions of literature seem as out of date and unimaginative as anything they offer him.  Clearly, something is going on in Professor X’s classroom, but it’s not teaching.

No, students like these are sitting ducks for his resentment, or maybe more like the shackled quail that Dick Cheney occasionally likes to hunt.  But one way or the other, these students are not going anywhere.  And so they take their Fs seemingly without complaint, while Professor X hands large numbers of failing grades to one class after another without much input from those either above or below him, in an atmosphere of deeply entrenched futility.  And despite all his nightmares (or fantasies) of New York Times headlines about his grading decisions, his failures takes place in the obscurity of a second-shift evening class, with the kinds of students he had never thought he would have to confront, day after day for the rest of his life.  Welcome to the basement, Professor X.

Now this is a depressing first-hand report, and I suppose the easiest response would be to follow Professor X’s own lead, and mock or condescend to him because of the helplessness of his position, and blame him for his inability to rise out of an exploitive situation.  This is the individualist, free marketeer position, and without a doubt his message that “not everyone deserves to go to college” will give a lot of comfort to those who already hold such views.  Here, let me try it on him: so why didn’t he publish a brilliant essay in graduate school, firmly grasp the brass ring, and get a better, less humiliating job?  Huh?  And the better, because it is the more charitable response is, because the educational “marketplace” (we know that it is more than a marketplace) does not rationally sort job candidates in a consistent way, any more than it sorts out the students he must confront.  The market does not render decisions, it delivers outcomes and consequences.  And Professor X sometimes receives a glimmer of insight about his shared plight with his students, though it seems to have disappointingly little effect on his own teaching:

But my students and I are of a piece. I could not be aloof, even if I wanted to be. Our presence together in these evening classes is evidence that we all have screwed up. I’m working a second job; they’re trying desperately to get to a place where they don’t have to. All any of us wants is a free evening. Many of my students are in the vicinity of my own age. Whatever our chronological ages, we are all adults, by which I mean thoroughly saddled with children and mortgages and sputtering careers. We all show up for class exhausted from working our full-time jobs. We carry knapsacks and briefcases overspilling with the contents of our hectic lives. We smell of the food we have eaten that day, and of the food we carry with us for the evening. We reek of coffee and tuna oil. The rooms in which we study have been used all day, and are filthy. Candy wrappers litter the aisles. We pile our trash daintily atop filled garbage cans.

So while I criticize Professor X for the self-pity that seems to have overtaken and disabled some important capacity in his face-to-face teaching, a temptation I have often had to fight off myself while doing my late-night or early-morning grading, I applaud the insights he is developing, dimly perhaps, about a life and career in the basement of higher ed.  Who knows better, after all, than an adjunct, jammed into an educational system whose contradictions he has been asked, personally, to solve, in a classroom full of people who seem to have no business being in college?  For some time now, Marc Bousquet and many others have been pointing out the anti-social and anti-educational consequences of the adjunctification of undergrad instruction, for both adjuncts and students.  Professor X should become exhibit A for such arguments.

And this question of blaming students takes us right back to the problem of authority and obedience I began with.  In my mind, the notion of grading-as-ranking almost always flips over and becomes a way in which we as teachers are reminded of how we have been ranked and sorted ourselves, into institutions and departments with reputations good, bad, or indifferent.  The temptation, at institutions like mine and Professor X’s, is to impersonate the kind of punitive, absolute authority that renders grades to its helpless students as if they really were blessings and curses.  The temptation to act out in this way, I think, actually gets stronger the further one is from any real or effective authority in one’s institution or profession.  But it seems important to me to prepare our graduate students for these kinds of ethical questions as they enter the profession, or “marketplace,” of teaching.


grading, teaching, and ranking

Last week, while I was still trapped in Grading Jail (busted out at 2:46 AM last Tuesday), I saw these discussions of grading in In Socrates’ Wake and Inside Higher Ed, and thought that they deserved some attention.   

Michael Cholbi at ISW is pretty straightforward about his problems with end-of-term grading, which can distract both teachers and students from the real goals of education.   In his view, end-of-term grading becomes an end in itself, rather than a means, and cuts off possibilities for further interaction. 

For those who understand teaching as a process that develops organically between students and teachers, end-of-term grading interrupts what may well be the most valuable part of the process: the meta-discussion that allows both sides to recalibrate their behavior.  As Cholbi says, “Grading too often ends an inquiry rather than keeping it alive.” 

In my experience, I will teach a class over 15 weeks, and students may or may not attempt to absorb the materials during that time, but for me final grades represent the least satisfying feedback I give all term.  This is because those final verdicts go off into the unknown, wherever my students go after they finish my classes.  Since many of my students never pick up those final projects or portfolios, I am left to wonder what effects my teaching had, in either the long- or short-term, on my students.  Until they return for a letter of recommendation.

And yet, as Cholbi points out, “The time spent rarely justifies the meager contribution to learning.”  It’s worth reiterating how time-consuming and stressful end-of-term grading is for teachers as well as students. This is because grading has a dimension that reaches past the private, essentially motivational questions of individual performance, and moves into the institutional, collective dimension of peer comparisons: how should we rank one student’s classroom performance relative to his peers?  This is where we conceive the “audience” for our grades not simply as the student herself, but our own peers, locally and nationally.  In other words, grading is one of those points at which our teaching goes public, but not in a pleasant or particularly controllable way.  Who wants to known by the performance of our weakest students?

Sommers in his IHE piece raises a lot of interesting issues, but ultimately I agreed most with the commenter who observed that “[end-of-term] grading has little to do with teaching or learning and a lot to do with ranking and sorting.”  This accounts, I think, for the stress everyone feels during the final stage of the process: because the teacher’s grade assignment represents not merely the quality of the work done in class, but the student’s chances at gaining external rewards like scholarships, credentials, honors, etc.  In this respect, I thought that Sommers’ notion that he could just do the teaching and allow someone, or something, else to do the evaluations a bit strange, like many other social science notions of objective, uncontextual assessments.  

Ultimately, the work of Alfie Kohn, whose work is summarized in this website, gets referenced in both discussions, because grades are the clearest reflection of an educational system that emphasizes the arbitrary power of teachers and the rewards they hand out, rather than, say, intellectual collaboration, generosity, or independence.  If we want our own teaching to operate outside such a narrow set of values, then we should probably rethink how we are grading and why.


Jonathan Swift visits London, Paris, and (of course) New York


[Bust of Swift from St. Patrick\'s Cathedral, Dublin]As one of the governors of the city’s hackney coaches, carts, and carriages, [Swift] enjoyed preferential treatment by the coachmen of Dublin, but this pleasure, along with his delight in evening walking, had to be curtailed because of dizziness. Swift nevertheless continued to regard the liberty of St Patrick’s (a precinct independent of the archbishop’s administration) as a little world under his own absolute control. (Clive Probyn, ODNB, “Jonathan Swift”) (image from Sacred Destinations Travel Guide)


It’s funny how much we associate Swift with cities, but these are never major cities, at least not in his own mind.  The Journal to Stella has some superb descriptions of London, and apparently there was an intended trip to France (and, I presume, Paris) in 1727 that was scotched because of George I’s death and Stella’s final decline. 

Throughout Swift’s writings, satirical and otherwise, we can always recognize his rage at his displacement from the centers of power and authority, as well as his resentment at not being where he was supposed to be.  Dublin is not London.  No wonder that Said wrote about Swift with such solicitude for his “exile,” which was a fate chosen for him and a role he consciously assumed.  There were two equal and contradictory desires, to return to the center to receive his due, but also to stay where he was and exercise power and authority on his own terms.

But how easy is it to imagine Swift in the role of Addison or Prior, as a successful politician, courtier, diplomat who just happened to be major writer?  When I read Swift on the abuses of power, his ridicule carries an unmistakable whiff of frustrated desire, an aftertaste of sour grapes along with his disavowals.  In his impersonations of the stupid and the powerful, he works with what is almost a sympathetic identification with their banality, as if to say, “this is what I might have become.”  For Swift, the pain of exclusion provides his insights into the workings of power.


End of Semester Fun Ride

We’re well into the fun part of the semester right now, when you are sliding down a chute and getting ready for that little bump at the end.  In my case, that little bump is end-of-term grading.

As I sit by my desk, I’m surrounded by little piles of papers: papers to be graded, papers already graded, committee work, random stuff, etc. etc. 

There is a peculiar rhythm to the end of semester.  A final week of desperate calls, emails, and conferences, a strange in-between calm when people are off obsessing by themselves, followed by a rush of papers to grade.  There are always a few stragglers to track down, too, and the feeling that time has run out, and I need to make some final decisions about their work and my own this term. 

As I surf the internet, trying to google what seems like a potential plagiarism case, I come upon an excellent Foucault course website here, created by John Protevi, a French prof at LSU.  And, I think, well, at least someone is teaching this stuff well.  And, with the site tagged, I can thank my student (perhaps not a plagiarist, after all) for leading me back into what interested me in teaching in the first place.  But first I have to finish grading these papers.


Happy Cinco de Mayo from the Long 18th!

(Counter-protester photo from Houston Chronicle, 5/1/08)

Come to Houston and celebrate the batalla de Puebla and Gen. Zaragoza’s victory over the French army in good, plain English.