Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Hardest Part

...of being a teacher is grading, and I've just finished off the end-of-semester marathon: 14 fiction projects, 14 final personal essays, and 45 freshmen papers. The last round of the semester is especially difficult: one evaluates not just the last piece of writing, but the student's whole semester, aiming to come up with a final number for class participation as well as for the class. And of course, one evaluates onesself.

So many decisions. I feel my forehead furrow even as I write this in a moment of breathing and debriefing.

Yes, I'm aware I have to really work on my breathing while grading -- I tend to tighten up, tense up, hunch up...an old, unhealthy habit I fell into long ago when working hard. Now I'm picturing my yoga teacher admonishing me to throw back my shoulders -- sit up tall!, she says. Or as my beloved therapist said gently all last spring, "it's okay to breathe..." This matters, I've gradually come to understand. Grading is a process of hard truths: grading is the field and the farmer both -- the humus scrutinized for depth and health, the farmer taking a taste of the soil, like my dad used to do, and taking a measure of what's there. Did we seed with enough rye grass? Is it getting enough oxygen and drainage? Is it too alkali?

Funny to be thinking about my dad standing in his much-fussed over little plot down in Ohio decades ago. But I see the instinctive rightness of this analogy for me. There's a cycle to it -- a cycle of planning, high hopes, constant tending, the frenzy of planting and harvest, then the hard realities: the strawberries just didn't make it. The rabbits got into the lettuce. The beans are diseased. The tomatoes never ripened up right. But those potatoes -- what a crop! And how will we deal with all those glossy green zucchini? Did you ever taste such sweet cantaloupe? Welp, I can hear him saying, there are a few things I'll have to do differently next year.

Over the past couple of years, I've become a tougher grader. I'm on the alert about this: part of me wary of advancing codgerly despair at the lunkishness of the young. But another part of me argues it is right to demand something of the younger generation. I want to say to them (and do -- probably more often than I should) , "Pay attention, dammit. Some of this stuff matters. Wake up!"

So I anguish over individual situations that I know affect my students' performance. Was I too hard on the one who's pregnant? Was I too hard on the one I got into a kerfuffle with midway through the semester because he loudly complained about the book I'd chosen -- and then proceeded to give me some of the worst writing I've ever received in a fiction class? Was I too rough on the kid whose thinking sparkles but whose proofreading is horrible -- knowing that she grew up in foster homes? Was I too easy on the eager kid who did okay, not great, because I know his mother was in jail? Was I too easy on the one who praised me and shared my political beliefs? Did I bend over backwards for the one who quoted Glenn Beck and was watching for any sign of liberal bias? How to keep the head clear and focused on the text: the paragraph after stumbling paragraph rolling out on that screen.

We only had 14 weeks together -- not nearly enough to really learn to write. Or for me to concentrate on these individuals before me, focusing on their complications, their needs, their resistance to learning.

It is not a question of whether I am objective or subjective, but rather a question of how subjective I am and in what direction. Even within the system of criteria, rubrics and points I have devised with few illusions, the matter of how many points I dole out has at least a partly visceral dimension. With writing there is hardly a cut-and-dried system, at least not that I am ready to embrace. Some of it is intuition -- and thus the perils of teacherly misuse of power.

But then again, my job is to try to help my students be better writers, not to solve all their late-adolescent life crises. So it probably doesn't help much to give them a break if they don't deliver what I think they need to know. It doesn't help them, I say primly, and it doesn't stand as good teaching. That's what I say to myself when I make the hard calls: give 'em consequences -- build the connection between what they do and what happens to them as a result. Good old Skinnerian behaviorism. But then, but then, writing IS life. All those complications, all those complexities -- they're what feed and challenge the writer. Tra la, tra la.

So, my body achy and craving relief, I fill the bathtub with the hottest water I can stand and invite my husband in for a long chat. "The point of life is learning how to adapt so you can survive," my husband reflects, the steam puffing at our faces. Our tub is big enough for us to sink in up to our armpits with heaps of bubble bath on top of that, our knees white Pyrenees. Used this way, the two of us sharing it, facing each other, our legs intertwined, the hot water lasts far longer than a quick and thoughtless shower, and it does us both good to take our time. It's something we've learned.

1 comment:

Sara said...

Yes,yes and yes. A beautiful and accurate description of the end of the semester and the strange relationships we, as writing teachers, develop with our students. I finished my last group of papers yesterday--

then promptly got the stomach flu. A hot bath sounds better.