I find myself grading more slowly these days, oppressed by encountering the same mistakes and writing the same comments over and over again. I try to remind myself that this student hasn't yet had me make that correction on a paper, and that I need to explain myself as clearly as if his were the first paper I'd ever seen with that particular citation error, or a heap of sentence fragments, or a paragraph that ended up being about something completely different than whatever its first sentence promised.
It's a struggle, and I understand why crotchety older faculty sometimes insist that college students are getting stupider: when you see the exact same problems, semester after semester, it's easy to foget that most individual students do improve, sometimes quite dramatically.
I keep telling myself this, and I think it's been changing the kinds of comments that I make on my students' papers. Here's an example: I read an essay that did a fairly nice comparative reading of two of Shakespeare's sonnets; it was a solid, respectable B (which for an essay in my class is pretty good), but the last page veered completely off track into an explanation of how relevant these poems are to us today, and how true to life, and how many examples of this situation we can see around us in the world today.
In the past, I would simply have slashed out those two or three paragraphs with my pen, written "inappropriate" in the margin, and moved on.
This time, reminding myself that many of my students don't have a stable sense of what is and isn't appropriate in a literature essay--and reminding myself, further, that this particular student was a sophomore and had chosen a rather challenging topic--I wrote something like, "This is all true, and I'm glad that you're so personally invested in this subject. However, this isn't appropriate in a formal essay. You'd have done better to use this last page to expand upon how the poetic devices that you so nicely identify on page 4 actually work within the poem."
(Yeah. You can see why it's taking me longer to grade these days.)
I'm not an especially patient person, and neither am I, by nature, a validator. My knee-jerk reflex isn't to say, charitably, "well, I can tell that you're really passionate about this topic, Suzy!" but rather to think, "Jesus Christ. What kind of stupid person would say that?" But I've been forcing myself to be more patient, in part because I've inadvertently learned a little more about the academic histories of some of my most impressive students.
Let's start with Liz, a senior, who is unquestionably my smartest and most thoughtful student this semester; it didn't surprise me to learn that she was applying to grad schools in English and that faculty members were practically fighting to write her recommendation letters. What did surprise me was when I met with her to talk about her applications, and I learned that she'd started her college career in the honors program at a nearby university, flunked out within a year, spent a couple of semesters at a community college, begged her way into Regional U. . . and has gotten nothing but straight As ever since.
Another one of my standout students did indifferently well in high school, fucked around for several years afterwards--but since starting at RU has gotten nearly perfect grades in his two majors while also holding down a full-time job. He rocked the LSAT and has gotten into several top-10 law schools.
Those are two students who have volunteered information about their academic histories. But as I look at the transcripts for my other top students, I see a similar pattern more times than not: this one got all Cs her first year. That one failed or withdrew from as many classes as she passed until her junior year, when suddenly her grades become all As and Bs.
I don't know what happened with those students--family or personal crises? Not ready for college? Stuck in the wrong major? I have no idea. But the fact that so many of my best students have chequered careers is reminding me that this year's C student might, next year, be the student who drops by my office just to boast about how she'd talked her way into the rare books room at the local R1 because she wanted to hold their 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass in her hands.
And even if she won't be, I need to treat her as if she could.
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