Professor Brofelby loved most things about his job; however, like many writing teachers, he always dreaded grading papers. It wasn't that he didn't like reading his students' essays—not at all. He loved those little glimpses into how their evolving minds worked. A nostalgic intimacy warmed him as he pored over their earnest endeavors to wrestle with the same Big Questions so many generations have grappled with before.
No, it wasn't the reading that bothered him—it was the grading.
Shakima undoubtedly spent hours on this assignment. She re-wrote the introduction entirely after I told her to get rid of all those generalizations. Her revised thesis statement—that political cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy—is so much sharper than its predecessor (voting is pointless). Sure, she is still dropping in quotes out of context and switching points without transitions, but she has made real progress. She is growing. How can I take all her blood, sweat, and tears and reduce it to a “B-”?
It was time to put his foot down. No more grading.
He was reminded of 2003, when he protested the Iraq War. He knew he would be misunderstood, but he also knew he had to follow his conscience. Maybe this wasn't a matter of life and death, like the war had been, but grading (he was convinced) was its own kind of violence.
An essay is not a game of bowling to be scored in so many boxes. Nice argument! Strike! Your next two paragraphs are now worth double points! It's a window into a multi-dimensional consciousness, into a thinker/speaker/feeler, into a human soul, goddamit!
No, he wouldn't do it. He would still read them, of course. He would still write his little paragraphs of feedback (mostly encouraging, with a little constructive criticisms here and there—nothing too overwhelming). But that was all. No points. No percentages. No big red letters with circles around them. No checks or check pluses or check minuses.
After he handed back the first batch of essays, he braced himself for the backlash. But it didn't come. Not right away.
Maybe they won't notice. Maybe they'll just read my comments and reflect on them and think about how to make adjustments for next time. Maybe this will solve everything.
He knew that was mostly fantasy.
More likely they think I'm getting senile and just forgot the bloody grades. Or maybe they're afraid to ask.
Professor Brofelby was only five foot two, and didn't really understand how anyone could be intimidated by him, but he knew from experience that students often were.
They're confused. They're afraid to ask. That must be it. Should I say something? Make a little speech? Do I owe them an explanation?
He decided no, he preferred not to explain. He would just pretend, as long as he could, that nothing had changed, that this was the way it had always been done.
After the second round of papers were returned, there was still no reaction in class. No hands went up, though Professor Brofelby was sure that everyone was thinking the same thing: What about our f&*%ing grades, dude?
Not surprisingly, Shakima was the brave one who finally broke the silence. She was that one student—Brofelby seemed to be blessed with one every semester—the one who stopped by during office hours to show him her rough draft; the one who would email him, with excessive formality (Dear Professor Brofelby, Ph.D.:) asking for clarification about some citation minutiae (Yours sincerely, Shakima Jackson, from your MW ENG 101 class that meets at 9:40am). She was driven, and not just for a perfect GPA; she really believed that education was going to change her life. Still, she needed to know.
“Shakima, hello! Come in; have a seat. Would you like a chocolate biscuit?”
(Brofelby was not British, but he always seemed to have a tin of McVitties on his desk—and always eager to share.)
“Oh...no thank you, sir.”
“What's on your mind, Shakima?”
“I was wondering if I could talk to you about my last essay.”
“Of course. Did you get a chance to look over my comments? I hope my handwriting was legible.”
“Yes, sir, I did. I think I understood them. I was just wondering...I mean...you were very specific about what you liked and about what you thought was...you know...not-so-great. But I guess I was wondering what you thought of it overall?”
“Overall, I thought it showed a lot of promise. Your critical thinking skills are really starting to shine through.”
“So...is that like...a 'B'...ish?”
Brofelby frowned. Then he sighed. He knew he couldn't answer her question, but he knew he had to say something. He liked her; he sympathized; he pitied her. The world had so conditioned her to the violence of grading that here she was longing to be disciplined—longing to know the dimensions and decorations of her pigeonhole.
No, Shakima—I will not place you in a box.
“It's a good essay, Shakima. It has its flaws—it's not the best you will ever write—but it's good.”
There, that was honest.
“But...aren't you going to give it a grade?”
“I would really prefer not to.”
“But...why? What does that mean?”
He thought, for a minute, about trying to explain it to her. He felt confident she would understand. But he was a little afraid that she might repeat what he said to others, and that she might not represent his “grading=violence” epiphany with complete accuracy. Paraphrasing, he knew, was not her strongest skill.
“I'm doing things a little differently this semester, that's all. Don't worry about your grade. Just worry about your writing. Better still, don't worry at all. Just keep doing what you're doing. It will be fine. Trust me.”
Shakima gave him a look—a new look—a look he had not seen from her before. Her lips tightened and her eyes narrowed. Brofelby guessed that he wasn't the first person to ask for Shakima's trust in such a dodgy manner. He had set off some red flags.
“So does this essay...does it even count?”
“Of course it counts. Everything counts.”
“I mean does it count for our grade.”
Brofelby had not yet decided what he was going to do about final course grades. He knew, even with tenure, it would be difficult to avoid submitting them. He didn't like the idea of giving everyone “A”s (or any other grade). He had read some articles about “holistic” grading, but reducing an entire semester's worth of struggle and growth into a single quantity seemed even more violent than doing that to an essay. In short, he didn't yet have a plan, but he was not prepared to confess this to Shakima.
“Is that all you care about, Shakima? Your grade?”
This was not a fair thing to say, and he regretted saying it, even as it huffed out of him.
Shakima appeared stunned. Brofelby had only ever been kind, generous, and somewhat awkward around here—never defensive or insinuating. Maybe he's just having a bad day, she told herself. It probably has nothing to do with me.
“I'm sorry, sir. No, that's not what I meant to suggest. I just want to do well in your class.”
“I know, Shakima. I'm sorry, too. I know you're hear for the right reasons. Just keep working on your writing and try not to worry about grades.”
“You'll let me know, though, right? If I do need to worry? Later on?”
“That's a fair request. If I think you're getting off track, I'll let you know.”
“Ok, professor. Thanks for your time.”
“No problem, Shakima. Take care. And take a biscuit before you go.”
“Ok,” she said, with an uncertain smile, reaching into the tin. “Thanks.”