Saturday, April 21, 2007

Thoughts while grading

I'm very resolutely at home grading tonight, because I've been out too late and too debauchedly a couple of nights this week (am planning a post contextualizing that). Finishing up the grading of fourth-year seminar papers that's on my plate before an exam on Monday brings in more grading, and I collect several leftover papers I'm waiting on because I am an incorrigible pushover (even though I have vowed twice to stop that behaviour - sigh).

A couple of things have been swirling in my head these last couple of hours, as I read.

One paper is by a top student of mine, with whom I've struck up a bit of a friendship (and am so glad it's the end of term so we can actually LIVE this - decidedly non-sexualized, in case you're wondering - friendship, and not feel constrained by the roles the academy slots us into). I can't recall ever reading a student paper that was both as original and as well-researched as this one. (Recall that I don't yet teach grad students.) I have a couple of students who are probably more stratospherically, weirdly brilliant than "Alice" - let's call her Alice because she reminds of Alice from the L Word. But I have none who embody scholarly rigor the way she does. In this paper, which was truly a pleasure to spend a portion of my Saturday night reading, Alice critically engages with the theoretically sophisticated literature on her topic in a way that I don't recall ever seeing before in undergraduate work. She is writing herself into a community of scholars, engaging and critiquing them with reason, confidence, and ease. And she is actually adding to that literature, making what I believe is a completely original argument that would productively contribute to the theoretical debates on this question. And opening up an aspect of the topic that has been completely overlooked - doing the first theorizing around it. I wrote on the grading sheet that I want to talk to her about publishing it. It would obviously fit in a grad student journal, if we can locate the right one, but I can even see it - revised a bit - in a regular scholarly journal. It's that good.

What's also interesting about this paper is that she wrote a very long one, because she got permission from me, the program Chair, and another instructor to turn in the same paper for both classes - as long as it was twice as long. Her thinking about this - she was talking to me about it as she devised the topic, so I'm aware of some of her thoughts around it - is evidence, for me, of her originality. Of her ability to make lateral, theoretical connections. Of course I said she could do the double-paper thing: I encourage and reward genuine engagement that results in seeing things anew, making connections between disparate classes/fields.

For the immediate future, Alice is pursuing journalistic ambitions. She is graduating in a month, and has been elected editor of the university newspaper for next year. She applied and was short-listed for (but didn't get, in the end) a radio internship. I don't know how presumptuous it is of me to have a conversation with her about the possibility of grad school. Yet I want to have that conversation. It's just tricky - as much as we have this budding friendship, the power dynamic that exists between us is not miraculously gone. I know - because she's said as much, and others have said it about her - that she looks up to me a great deal. I don't want that power to push her in a direction she's not comfortable with. I remember, though, that she has said before - nearer the beginning of the year, and with her characteristic shyness, skittishness, self-consciousness - that she kind of harbours a fantasy of grad school. So maybe I can think of it as encouraging a person with unnecessarily lacking self-confidence to do something she'd love to do, but is terrified she's not good enough for.* In any case, the conversation needs to be had very delicately, I think.


After reading Alice's work, I read a paper by another student. She was the student on whom much of my anxiety settled, in this singularly anxiety-provoking course. Older than I am, she has a kind of blustery confidence and brashness that freaked me out, and the fact that she was very obviously bringing it to the table in our crazy class was dreadful for me. She made me feel mousy again. Another student - a friend of hers - mentioned in passing (disclosing way too much) that this brash student...let's call her Mouthy...had "basically written off the class", presumably because of some of the other students, and the weird undercurrent of conflict in the course. This did not help matters - it made me feel smaller.

Mouthy is also pretty smart and well-read, and, I think, is rewarded - she's a strong student. That, combined with her mouthiness, confidence, and brashness, made me believe she was brilliant.

But in reading her paper - as in reading the numerous critical responses she's submitted - I can see that she's not all that. Sure, she's a good writer, and ultimately produces work on the cusp of A. But I see where I have been misled by her Mouthiness. I've kind of been bamboozled. Behind all the bluster there's not all that much. I really needn't have lost sleep over her the way I (literally) did. In fact, I should probably have exercised my authority to get her to stop bringing her damaging, dismissive tone into our class. But she cowed me.

I think of Mouthy and then I think of Alice - so smart, but so much the opposite. Quiet, self-deprecating, anxious. It pisses me off that bluster and bluffing are consistently rewarded in the classroom. Including by me, who should know a lot better, considering that I was a terrified mute all the way through university and grad school. Let that be a lesson to me.

* God, considering the number of pretty much mediocre students I hear are "planning" to go to grad school, Alice needs to know how incredibly right she is for grad studies.


Earnest English said...

Hi Hilaire! I'm back from the dead (almost), and here we are, both working on a Saturday night. Nice to have a friend in the blogosphere but I wish you were out having fun!

Hilaire said...

Oh no, I was *quite* happy at home last night. Fun was had other nights this week - and it exhausted me! Last night I made yummy dinner, ate strawberries and settled in quite contentedly.

It is you, my friend, who needs to get out into the spring!

Anonymous said...

I had a visceral reaction to your post, probably in response to some feelings I am having about being a mediocre student. I guess for me, it is hard to watch the really smart quiet kids get all the attention from faculty all the time, and even though I work really hard, and diligently, I know I am one of those lower A students. It seems like only those academic superstars are the only ones profs see. I can sum up my existence by being very resourceful, and skilled in many areas, but not especially good in any one thing. I know what I want and the way to get it, and I have never lost track of that. My supervisor is good, but I catch him giving up all the juicy research to his prized undergraduates. It is not easy to watch. Do you think that maybe some of us good-A-but-not-so-special students are blustery and pseudo confident because it is the only way to attract some kind of attention too?

Just curious!

Hilaire said...

Hmmm. That's really interesting. It's pretty much the opposite of the way that I've thought about it. In my experience, bluster and confidence are rewarded, and the quiet ones (who are often lacking confidence) are not "seen" in the same way. It's hard to say in the case of this student, Mouthy...I think there's more going on there than meets the eye -- something about her age (she's in her forties) makes her dismissive of others' work and opinions. At any rate, I'm not sure that it's confidence that bugs me (I have another VERY chatty, confident, also cusp-of-an-A student in that class, and I adore her - and, I think, reward her to some extent), it's throwing weight around and undermining the class by doing so.

Thanks for you comment - you've made me think!