Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Grade appeal

Semester grades were due yesterday. I submitted them on time, and then fell into a deep and untroubled sleep. I was suffering from the exhaustion of undergraduate prose.

This morning a student in my Philip Roth seminar wrote to protest his B. “I did not get any indication through out the semester that my performance in class was less than adiquit,” he wrote. (Since when is a B “less than adiquit”?) True enough, he had followed me into my office one day after class to complain that he disliked the class, disliked Roth, disliked me personally. He had intended to sign up for a different seminar, he said, and regretted his mistake. He disapproved of my teaching style: I firmly directed the conversation rather than letting the students lead the way; I took class time to enunciate my own views and did not scruple to correct a student’s approximations and blunders.

For the rest of the semester he publicly acted out his dislike. He repeatedly yawned in class, loudly and dramatically, dropping his head to the seminar table with a thud, as if to say, “This is sooo boring.” He dismissed Roth’s ideas, after a careful exposition of them on my part, as “stupid.” He would not explain further, when pressed. He laughed aloud when I momentarily lost the thread of the discussion.

Most importantly, he seemed to think that his role as a student was, on slim literary qualifications, to agitate for the opinion that Philip Roth is not a great writer, with little or nothing worth saying. Even if he had had the critical talents commensurate to it, the undertaking would have been beside the question. My purpose in teaching the seminar was neatly set out by Leon Kass in the inaugural issue of National Affairs last fall. It was an “old-fashioned purpose” and it was pursued in an “old-fashioned way”:

I have sought wisdom about the meaning of our humanity, largely through teaching and studying the great works of wiser and nobler human beings, who have bequeathed to us their profound accounts of the human condition.The question facing the seminar, in other words, was not whether Roth is great, but what he has to say and how he says it. His greatness—that is, the profit to be had from attending to Roth’s saying—was the course’s donnée. Now, this approach belongs to my larger critical and scholarly project of “paying less attention to texts [as autonomous icons] and more attention to authors.” Next semester I’ll be doing something similar with Nabokov’s American writing.

But even if this approach is flawed, something like it is a necessary precondition to attention. If I decide in advance that you are “stupid,” I am not likely to listen to you very closely. And by conversion: if I decide in advance (for whatever reason) that I am not going to listen to you, I will have small difficulty in concluding that you are stupid. In literature there is an obvious corollary. “Poetic faith” may or may not require a “willing suspension of disbelief,” but critical reason demands a willing suspension of disapproval. Right now there is probably no writer I dislike more intensely than the Anglo-Irish novelist John Banville. In replying to a spasmodic expression of my dislike, Richard Crary reminded me of the critic’s first responsibility—before rejecting a writer out of hand, always read more of him, and especially his best. Thus I have assigned myself, as punishment for my irresponsibility, the chore of reviewing Banville’s latest novel The Infinities when it is released in the States next year. (In the mean time, here is Tom Cunliffe’s pleased review over at A Common Reader. Tom Deveson in the Times was decidedly more ambivalent, and in the Guardian Christopher Tayler was even more so, but I am trying not to let them prejudice me in advance.)

My B student, however, went in a different direction. When he had informed me of his dislike for Roth and the seminar, I had urged him to judge them by their own standards. Here is what he thought that I meant. Since I had argued in class (as I also wrote on this blog) that “the worst thing” ever done by Alexander Portnoy was the sexual degradation of his lover the Monkey—he had earlier held out for the dissenting view that Portnoy’s real sin was to be an unreliable narrator—my student claimed that Roth is to be weighed by the same measure.

After all, what is the “Zuckerman device” but the degradation of other human beings, by taking over their stories and determining their meaning, and merely to “fit his needs as a storyteller”? “It is the height of arrogance to think that you are better suited [to tell their stories] than the people who live through them,” he concluded. That these people do not even exist outside Zuckerman’s narratives—that their stories would not have been told at all without Zuckerman’s “presumptuous inventions” and dreamed-up “realistic chronicles”—was not even a possibility to my B student.

In short, he rejected the premise, not only of Roth’s nine Zuckerman novels, but of narrative fiction as such. If he had enrolled in a history seminar with a similar attitude (“I don’t take no stock in dead people,” he might have grumbled), or if he had told his chemistry professor that he disapproved of classifying substances and developing techniques for their transformation into other substances, how would he have fared? Would a B have even been a generous grade?


R. T. said...

Was the disappointed (and annoying) student attempting intentional though feeble irony by offering you the flawed spelling ("adiquite")?

How on earth did you maintain civility with a student so openly hostile throughout the semester? (I simultaneously admire and reject your patience and restraint; I am undecided about how I would have handled such a student's classroom antics.)

Was the student's work in the course still really worth a "B" when the aggravating evidence seems to mitigate against such generosity? After all, the student now becomes an annoyance to someone else in the university system (and in life).

R. T. said...

May I share my student complaint experience?
A student who could not write coherent sentences and paragraphs wondered why she had received a "D" in the English composition course. I explained that 80% of her course work had been generously graded at 71%, and I also explained that she failed to complete 20% of the course requirements. She countered, "But I really tried my best."
Here is the sad part of the story: Except for not completing 20% of the work, she really did do her "best." She is the classic case of someone who had been promoted throughout elementary and high school years even though she remains barely literate. She has also been openly received into the state university system (a system that generally perpetuates the sins of the elementary and high schools). So, I become the only (first) person to tell her (through grading and comments) that she is not very competent as a writer. Of course, I am now the villain because--after all--she still believes that she did her "best" which ought to be more than enough.
Do you encounter similarly unprepared and unteachable students?

D. G. Myers said...

Do you encounter similarly unprepared and unteachable students?

The principal change over the course of my career has been in the students’ attitude toward my professional role. Almost universally now, students see their professors—and they say so openly—as their employees. “I pay your salary,” they tell me; “you work for me.”

Consequently, they do not owe the world of learning a damn thing; it owes them. More and more, then, students expect a B or better merely for showing up to class and turning in their assignments. The highest grade on the objective portion of my final examination in one course, measuring how much of the reading had been completed, was 47%.

R. T. said...

My university also embraces the "business model" of education, and this means that the student is the customer--and, of course, the customer is always right (so goes the adage).

I would have thought the A&M would have avoided the "business model" for universities.

Do you imagine that this is a common model in American universities?

If so, perhaps my early (forced) sabbatical from teaching should become permanent; my cynical view of students and education is causes me much frustration. How do you cope with (suppress) your cynicism to keep up the good fight? Your advice would be most welcome.

Steven Riddle said...

Dear Sir,

I'm not certain I like Philip Roth's work either. I would love to take your seminar and hear an intelligent exposition of what others think is going on in his work.

However, youth is not that way, and when I was an undergrad, I have to say that I would more likely have behaved like the student you describe (shame on me) than the person I hope I've become.

I'm going through your Roth posts here slowly. I still trying to come to terms with The Dying Animal and wonder whether Roth is actually critiquing the points of view of some of his characters--it's difficult to say for certain. More, The Dying Animal gives a very different timeline/lifeline of the main character than did The Professor of Desire and so I feel left out somehow. So, obviously I need the help of one who has invested energy in making sense of these works. It's a shame that it takes us all a little time to come to terms with that. Youth tends to arrogance--my view is the only one.

C'est dommage, ca.



Buce said...

Here's a possible response:

Yes, I do work for you. But we need to be clear as to what is on offer. What you've bought here is an opportunity--an opportunity to test your skills, to find out what you can accomplish, and to succeed or fail as the circumstances may dictate.

What I offer is a structure, a framework, a bit of coaching and my best judgment in appraisal. I am proud of this product, and I work hard to make sure I present it at as high a level of quality of which I may be capable. If this is not the product you want, then I urge you to take your business elsewhere; indeed I hope you will.
FWIW, I hardly think the "work for me" delusion is new, nor is it peculiar to teaching. Plenty of lawyers will tell you of clients who hire for the advice they want to hear, not the advice they need. Have you ever read Thomas Szasz on what he tells (told) his psychiatric patients (I do think Szasz goes overboard, but in the right direction)? Did you happen to see the old PBS soaper about King Edward VIII who abdicated the throne without understanding the consequences because he kept nobody on hand who would tell him the truth?

I am old, I teach only part time, and only electives, so they can stay or go. Some go; some stay. I do have quite a few former students--some now nearing retirement age themselves, whom I count as friends. As one might say, it works for me.

Buce said...

On a different note--what is the median grade among your lot? Is it A, then I suppose I can decode his assertion that a B is less than adiquite. If the median grade is a B, why the hell didn't you give him a C?

D. G. Myers said...

A lawyer does work for his client. But not a professor. For if I work for you, you can fire me. But, well, a student can’t.

Tom Cunliffe said...

Thank you for referencing my blog (and thank you to Google Analytics for telling me).

I've just compiled a list of my top ten reads for 2009 and The Infinities doesn't feature in it. I enjoyed reading it and thought it was rather clever, but the long-term impact has not been so great.


Steven Riddle said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

I agree with your point and it is not one to be conceded. You don't work for every person who may or may not pay taxes or even tuition.

Moreover, given that the person involved freely chose the course he took, he had every opportunity to "fire" you by withdrawing from the course and going elsewhere. If he was not happy with what was going on, this would be the appropriate course of action.

But again, I used to stick around a make trouble--not because I wanted serious trouble but because most of the fun in any English course was the discussion. I would often say things I didn't believe in the least because I knew they were provocative. And I suppose you could tolerate that--it is the arrogance of assumption that is so galling in this behavior. One is not a provocateur in such a situation, one is merely a whiner--and no matter what where you're coming from--whining cannot be considered ingratiating or even very interesting.

Hope it all works out well and ends soon.



Richard Badalamente said...

My fondest memory of the disaffected student is the one who protested to me after receiving his test score, "This exam isn't representative of what I know."

Anonymous said...

Although I am on your side regarding the teacher/student issues, I find Roth's fiction to be boring and pedestrian. If I were that student, I would not have taken the course in the first place.

D. G. Myers said...

The best course that I took in graduate school was a seminar on Milton, whom I had always found “to be boring and pedestrian.” It was precisely my desire and willingness to understand why someone more learned than I found Milton to be otherwise that made the seminar so rewarding.

R. T. said...

Question: Is the student (at the center of this discussion) an English major? If not, I ask: Why was he taking the course? If so, I ask: Why is he still an English major? (With respect to the latter possibility, should not someone in the department have a heart-to-heart chat with him about his goals and attitudes?)

D. G. Myers said...

Is the student . . . an English major?

Forgive me, Tim, but how is that relevant? Do I need to be a history major to enter into the spirit of the study of history?

R. T. said...

English majors presumably want to be in literature courses, and their positive motivation to learn about literature should be part of their attitude; if that motivation is missing, perhaps they ought to pursue different academic majors

Other students (not English majors) generally take literature courses because of elective requirements, and--in my experience as a teacher--many of those students dislike reading and learning about literature.

There is probably little that a teacher can do about motivating and engaging some students in the latter category. On the other hand, I think the English department has a duty to weed out the unmotivated students in the former category.

Does that make sense?

robertarood said...

Fascinating post and subsequent comments. I taught in high school for eleven years and for all the inherent frustrations, I never had an experience such as you have described. Of course - that was some years ago...
Meanwhile, it might be calming for you to gaze upon these beautiful creatures:
Thank you, Professor Myers, for including me in your blogroll.

Anonymous said...

I was a college student at the time of the Vietnam War, when the military draft was in effect. The English Department faculty were accused of sending young men to their deaths in Vietnam by means of failing grades in English 101 classes. Ah, the good old days when a grade meant something.


Bullwinkle said...

I hear this complaint about students from professors I know. But what it really reminds me of is William Stoner's run-in with a student in his seminar in the book I just finished: "Stoner" by John Williams. It was published in 1965, and set between WWI and WWII (at least the incident with the student is), so perhaps such has always been the teacher's lot.

Of course, a student who dislikes Roth but honestly engages with the material and the course may be the student with the most to learn, and the most to contribute to the course, particularly if he continues to dislike Roth.