Thursday, October 2, 2014

"Brofelby" (Part 2)

(continuation of a work-in-progress)

At first, the absence of grades seemed to haunt each class, like the ghost of an elephant in the room. No one would bring it up, but everyone was worried about it. Brofelby suspected that Shakima had shared her conversation with some of her classmates and the word had gotten out--everything counts, but nothing's being graded. Whatever that meant. It smelled like a trap, so everyone was on guard.

Unsure of the algorithm Brofelby would ultimately use to generate grades, students became somewhat paranoid that any little screw-up might one day be used against them. What if it's just based on attendance? What if it's all participation? What if he's taking off a point for each comma splice or spelling error? 

So they came to class on time; they participated; they edited the best they could. It was the only way to manage the anxiety.

Then, oddly, after awhile, everyone seemed to just forget about it. Class became interesting because everyone talked. When essays were handed back, students couldn't find any grades, so they were forced to read the comments, looking for little hints. What they found instead were little bits of praise for their efforts, and a suggestion or two about what to try next time. This was a pleasant surprise. Maybe not quite as viscerally satisfying as knowing you had an "A", but agreeable nonetheless. 

During Finals Week, when students presented their portfolios, they were genuinely proud not only of their own work, but of each other's work. Students lingered around after Brofelby's end-of-term pep talk to compliment each other and to make plans to meet up during break.

No one asked about grades. Brofelby might have thought, Success! They have been liberated!, except that he didn't. It simply wasn't on his mind. He was just enjoying the end of a particularly successful semester.

Three days before Christmas the dream was shattered. Brofelby was wandering around the King of Prussia Mall, a little lost, shopping for his wife and dog, when his cell phone rang.

Dum-dum-dum-dum-dum. (His ringtone was the opening bar from Beethoven's Fifth.)


"Professor Brofelby, this is Tom from the Registrar's Office. We seem to be missing your grades from all your courses this semester. Did you try to submit them on Banner? We're trying to figure out what happened."

It was the first time anyone had mentioned grades to him since his conversation with Shakima. He was, initially, shocked and confused. What is the man talking about? Doesn't he know I don't do that sort of thing anymore? Then he realized his mistake. No -- no one knew. Only his students. And they weren't here to help him explain.

"'m think I'll have to get back to you about this."

"Ok, professor, but please do so soon. If any students didn't pass, we'll need to readjust their schedules for the Spring. The sooner we know, the better."

"Of course. I just need to...check my records."

"The campus is open tomorrow, but then closed for the holiday. Do you think you could figure things out in the morning?"

"I'll do my best, Tom. Thanks for calling."

The next morning, Brofelby woke up early, walked his dog, cooked pancakes for himself and his wife (she preferred agave syrup on hers; he maple on his), put on his second best suit--complete with vest and tie--as well as his scarf, gloves, hat, and overcoat, and made his way with his own two feet to his supervisor's office.

The Dean was a good man, and Brofelby respected him. Many times in the past the two had debated matters of great importance--the modern relevance of Great Books, the conditions (if any) when it is advisable to split an infinitive--and although they didn't always reach consensus, they knew that each was committed to a dignified vision of progress.

Brofelby was a tad out of breath when he arrived at the Dean's office (which was on the fourth floor). The Dean heard him panting as he approached.

"Brofelby! Good to see you! Why the hell haven't you turned in your grades?" This was not said angrily, but more in an affectionate oh-you-incorrigible-absent-minded-professor-you way.

"That..." Brofelby paused to catch his breath, "is what I need to talk to you about."

"Let me guess. You did all your grading on an Excel spreadsheet for the first time, and then you spilled your coffee on your laptop and it wiped everything out. You're worse than the students!" Oh-you-so-and-so!

"No," Brofelby said, simply. The Dean heard the strange tone of his voice and dropped his jocular demeanor.

"What is it, Brofelby?"

"I've more grades."

The Dean beamed. Brofelby is such a character! He couldn't wait to find out what this was all about. 

"What do you mean, Brofelby?"

"I won't be grading anymore."

"How is that, exactly?"

"I'm just not doing it. I haven't been doing it all semester."

Brofelby felt much better now that he had confessed.

"You didn't grade any papers? How did you get away with that? I mean, nobody likes grading, but everybody does it. It's part of the job, Brofelby. What were you thinking?"

"I read my students' essays. I gave them comments. I assessed their work qualitatively. I think that should be enough."

"But no grades."

"No grades."

"But why?"

"It's better this way."

The Dean nodded. He had to admit, it made a kind of sense. But it put him in a very awkward position. Students were bound to call. Parents were bound to call. The Provost will want an answer. There have to be grades.

"So," the Dean said. "Should we just give them all 'A's?"

Brofelby shook his head. "No grades."

"You're serious about this, aren't you?"

Brofelby nodded.

"This is going to be a hard sell, you know. I can't see it going over well."

Brofelby nodded.

" grades. That's something."

For an instant, Brofelby felt a kind of electric surge--he wanted to give one grade. Shakima. She deserved an "A." There's always one. One who stands out. One you know is going places. You want to give her that "A" because she's given you so much. 

But then it hit him. She doesn't need it. She doesn't need my "A." She'll be fine. 

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