Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Brofelby (Part 3)

After his meeting with the Dean, Brofelby was summoned by a chain of administrators: a vice-provost, a provost, a vice-president, a president. They all asked the same questions, and he gave them all the same reply: no more grades.

But it's part of the job, they pleaded.


They were hesitant to accuse him, openly, of insubordination. He had taught at the college for twenty-five years. He was well-liked. There was also the union to consider, but it was hard to imagine how the union could support him on this. Grades were part of the contract. Yet he refused.

Finally Brofelby was called before the Board of Trustees.

When he arrived, he was reminded of when he interviewed for this job, two-and-a-half decades ago. He was single at the time--fresh out of graduate school, with ambitious plans of forcing Plato and John Dewey onto unsuspecting first-year students. Oh, all the terrible ideas he tried to put into practice! PowerPoint presentations on comma splices!! Automatic C+ for anyone who mixes up "it's" and "its"!!! And now here he was--older, wiser--with his grandest terrible idea yet. He loved it; he feared it; he clung to it like it was his destiny. No more grades.

Brofelby sat at one head of the conference table in the board room. The Chair of the Board sat at the other end. The rest of the board members filled out starboard and port. The proceedings, at last, began.

"I think we're all here," said the Chair. "Let's get started.

"Thank you, professor, for joining us today. We've heard from the President, Vice-President, Provost, and Vice-Provost--as well as your Dean--that you have taken a rather peculiar stance lately on the issue of grades. We've heard that you refused to give any grades at the end of the Fall term. Is that correct?"

"Yes, that's right."

"And why exactly is that?"

"It's better this way."

The board members shifted their gazes back and forth, as if watching Federer and Nadal.

"Explain, please."

"I would prefer not to."

This was a little joke that Brofelby couldn't resist, but no one seemed to get it. Instead, they were simply puzzled, annoyed, and more than a little shocked.

"And what about in the Spring. Will you be grading this upcoming semester?"

"No. No more grades."

"Professor, pardon my frankness, but how can you expect us to continue to employ you if you will not grade your students' work?"

"I'd still like to teach. I enjoy teaching."

"Isn't grading part of teaching?"

"No. Not at all."

"Please, explain."

"I would prefer not to."

It wasn't a joke anymore. What would be the point of explaining? They wouldn't understand. Maybe years ago they could have. But not anymore. Or even if they did, they'd be too afraid to admit that they did.

"Well if you're not willing to discuss these matters with us..."

"It's not that I'm not willing...."

Brofelby and the Chair both seemed stuck in an extended pause.

"But you'd prefer not to," the Chair finally said.

"Exactly," said Brofelby.

"Well I guess we'll have to respect that."

Brofelby thanked the Board for their time and saw himself out. The Chair and the rest of the Board remained to discuss what to do with him. Brofelby noticed that the dining staff had already set up the Board's lunch buffet, and so he decided to help himself before leaving. Roasted vegetable wrap, potato salad, and one of those delicious little chocolate mousse cups. He decided he better enjoy it--in case it was his last supper.

A week before the Spring semester was to begin, Brofelby received a call from the Dean.

"Is this it, then?" Brofelby asked, fatalistically.

"No one's talking about firing you," said the Dean. "But we can't let you teach anymore, if you're not willing to grade."

"What will I do?"

"We're still discussing that. Writer in residence, maybe? Drop-in tutoring? Mentoring new faculty? No, scratch that last one. I don't think the Board will go for it."

"But I'd prefer to teach," Brofelby said.

"Well, that's entirely in your hands. If you weren't being so stubborn, you could teach another 20 years. You could teach until you couldn't see anymore, until you couldn't hear what your students were asking you. You could teach until you didn't even know where you were when you walked out of the classroom--and you could continue teaching, even then. But not if you won't give us what we need."

"You mean grades?"

"Yes, I mean grades. That's all we ask. Show up. Do whatever you want in your classroom. And then gives us grades at the end of it all. Is that so hard?"

Brofelby frowned, and the Dean could hear it.

"What's changed, Brofelby?" the Dean pleaded. "You were always a little odd, but you always did what we needed you to do--and we don't need much. Just the normal things. What changed?"

"It's just..." and he trailed off, staring out the window. It was brilliantly sunny outside, the light reflecting off the snow. All that brightness, one would think it must be warm out, but no. It was quite cold.

"They just want to be done with it. Before it's even started, they want it to be over. And can you blame them? All we do is judge them all their young lives. Just so we can tell them where they stand in comparison to one another."

"I'm not sure I follow."

"I just can't be part of that anymore."

"Well I don't see how you can teach if you won't grade."

"And I don't see how I can teach if I do grade."

The Dean was saddened by this. He didn't want to take Brofelby's classes away. He didn't want him fussing around the library all day with nothing to do. He didn't want to hire 2.5 adjuncts to take his place, while the college continued to pay him to do not much of anything. But what was to be done? He wouldn't fire the man. By God, he just wouldn't. And there seemed to be no way to talk sense to him anymore.

"What if you teach, and I grade?" the Dean asked.

Brofelby shook his head. Again, somehow, the Dean heard.

"Yeah, that was a dumb idea. I'm grasping, here."

"I appreciate that you're making the effort," Brofelby said. "But perhaps there's nothing to be done."

And that was that.

When the semester started, Brofelby went about his ordinary routine. Walking the dog around campus when the sun came up; drinking his Irish breakfast tea while solving the NY Times crossword; walking back to campus mid-morning. (He never liked teaching the early morning classes--students were always too tired to keep the conversation rolling.) For awhile, he could pretend that, not unlike previous semesters, it was just a slow morning for office hours--those who needed the extra help weren't willing to get here early for it. But then he remembered. No one was coming. And he had nowhere to go.

There were three other professors whose offices were adjacent to his. As the day moved along, and they checked in and out, and their students stopped by to chat, Brofelby would have to leave. Listening to their conversations filled him the an unbearable longing.

Eventually he would find his way to the library--no, the "learning commons" it was called now. There were still a few stacks of books remaining, amidst the endless rows of computers, the coffee kiosk, and the collaborative study rooms. He would find a book, and although it wasn't easy to find a quiet spot to read it, his hearing, fortunately, wasn't what it used to be.

One day he came across Shakima. Her face lit up when she saw him.

"Professor! How are you?"

"Good. I'm good," he said, though this was clearly not the case. "How are you?"

"Not bad. I'm taking 'Greek Drama' this semester."

"How's that going?"

"It's a little dull, actually. He just lectures all the time. I miss our discussions."

"How's your writing?"

"Ok, I guess. I wrote my first paper about Antigone, and I got a B+. But I heard he pretty much gives everyone a B+. I don't know if he even reads the whole thing."

"What did he say in his comments?"

"What was it...oh yeah...'Interesting thesis but somewhat vague.'"

"That's it?"

"Yeah, but I don't mind. A B+ is a good enough grade. I just need a 3.0 to keep my scholarship."

"Last semester...our class...did that impact...I mean...since I didn't..." Brofelby stumbled.

"Oh, yeah, I was so nervous since you weren't giving us grades, but then when I saw my 'A' at the end, I was like, 'whew.' That must have been part of your plan, right? Keep us in the dark so we keep working our butts off?"

So they gave her an "A." They probably gave one to all of them. 

"Something like that. I'm glad things are working out for you. Let me know if you ever need a letter of recommendation."

"Thanks so much, Professor. Nice seeing you."

"Likewise, Shakima. See you around."

Brofelby had always fantasized about having a class where each student earned an "A." However, like most fantasies, when it actually came true, it was rather disappointing.

Now what?

Brofelby walked back to his office. He wanted to write that letter of recommendation for Shakima. Just in case she ever asked for it.

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