Reflections • December 13, 2009, at 8:33 am
I’ll spend the day, so far as I am able, assigning grades to student work. And it seems likely that, I’ll also be thinking about the role of effort, examination, criticism, judgment, and instruction in our lives in general.
The economics of the student-teacher relationship are more complex, I think, than virtually all other forms of commercial interaction. By complex, I mean that the incentives and “pay structure” of this relationship are oddly configured. My fellow-professor spouse and I like to joke together that ours is the only profession where the clients are often actually happy when we don’t do our job. That is, if we cancel a class, let a class out early, or announce the cancellation of an assignment or deadline, our young students will often welcome this news with notable cheer.
This may be one reason why the ancient Athenian teacher Socrates insisted that it was wrong to take money to teach philosophy.
If a typical landowner wants to build a house, she will hire a builder. In the relationship between a landowner and a builder, the landowner pays the builder for the builder’s expertise and effort. Then, the landowner receives in return for that money a building constructed by the labor of others.
Similarly, the basis of the student-teacher relationship is the student’s desire for an ‘end.’ Ideally, the student desires something. Not a building, of course, but some kind of “Bildung,” to employ the German term for development through education. To achieve the desired ‘end,’ the student pays the teacher. But the student immediately discovers a painful truth. The teacher can do nothing on his or her own. It is the student’s effort to learn which brings about the learning. In effect, the student pays the teacher to supervise, judge, and guide his or her own efforts.
Other professions offer services in return for pay; these services lighten the load of the client in some way. No time to clean your house? Hire a maid. No time to launder your clothes? Dry cleaner. No desire to move all your heavy furniture? Movers. Unable to deliver a package across the country? The mail. Unable to make your own food? The chef.
But the coach, the guide, the teacher (and to a certain extent the therapist or doctor): we are all in a different position, economically, with respect to our clients. They pay us to improve their experience or path through life in some way, yes. But our work does not relieve them of their burdens. In fact, we increase their burdens with assignments, drills, and exercises. Unless the students or athletes or clients want to work harder than they were working before… unless they want to exert effort to learn, to grow stronger, or to achieve a new position in the world, they will never get what they “paid for.”
What College Students Want
College professors would like to believe that students come to them mainly because they are seeking guidance for their efforts at self-construction, or “Bildung.” If only students were concerned only with the betterment of their own lives, their own souls! We could then all act like Socrates. But this is not the world of the college professor. In fact, many students seem not to be seeking either of the two things that a professor might actually be able to offer: a public certification of student work, or guidance in an effort to acquire knowledge.
In my particular branch of this enterprise of “Bildung,” things can get rough. I deal with 18-21 year olds whose desire for the outcomes of education is not well formed. Many of them do not understand or want “Bildung.” Rather, they want to please their parents, or to do what they have been told they are supposed to do. It’s not their own money, they think, they are spending for their education. It’s their parent’s. Or the school’s. Or the government’s. Or they have borrowed the money, and they aren’t old enough to have any idea what it will be like trying to pay that money back.
Many students, perhaps being overly used to getting the hamburger they pay for when they go to McDonalds, seem to expect a simple transaction to take place at college. Their tuition dollars are for them just a way of purchasing a passage to a better life. Like buying tickets to a train. The train ride is very expensive, and it takes four years to get there. Perhaps the journey will be boring, but at least along the way there’s the beverage cart, and the opportunity to meet other fun people on the train. The promise is, if you can just ride it out, you are guaranteed to find yourself in a better place than before.
Often, my students seem to be under the false impression that school is a time of waiting for life to begin. And they think that during this period of waiting they “receive an education.”
Many students believe, quite wrongly, that their education takes place in the classroom. They think that when they show up for class, and listen to the teacher, that they are “learning.” As if my speaking about a topic that I know about actually could confer knowledge upon them!
How, then, is knowledge produced?
Knowledge is power. You have doubtless heard that interesting adage. Let’s take it more literally than we perhaps should, and compare the acquisition of knowledge to the acquisition of increased power in athletics.
Does the athlete who wishes to grow stronger and faster achieve this end when the coach demonstrates a lift or an activity? Possibly, the mere demonstration of a better technique can instantly help an athlete accomplish more work on the very next effort. But it is far more likely that, after demonstration, and even after repeated demonstrations, the athlete will need to practice the techniques for a long time before achieving any gains in strength or speed. It comes from the effort of the athlete. It is not the yelling of the coach, though this plays a role. But if the athlete does grow stronger, or faster, over time, it is only because she herself has striven for that end. Her desire and her effort alone can, in some cases, be sufficient. Naturally, the coach brings something more: experience, an outside perspective, and an understanding of how “Bildung” can take place through certain directed and concerted efforts on the part of the athlete. The athlete pays the coach to help him or her achieve more than they could achieve on their own.
What Grading Is
I do hate grading the students. Students are unhappy not to receive good grades. I am unhappy to give them. But inevitably, if a student does not receive good grades, it reflects his or her own lack of desire to learn, or own lack of practice, or own lack of effort. (I am not saying a professor gives an ‘A for effort.’ Do the judges necessarily give the blue ribbon to the athlete who most desired to win, and most earnestly applied himself in practice? Certainly not. But neither did the winner achieve the win without the desire, or the effort.)
Why do we bother grading student efforts at all? Why not simply accept the fact that some students achieve, and others do not?
Let us examine grades for a second (I am writing this essay because at this moment, the idea of examining grades seems better than actually grading examinations). If you are paying an accredited institution to issue you grades for your work, write them on a transcript, and then, if you qualify, to issue you a degree, then the grading of your work is an inherently public act. Grades are issued not only as a form of feedback to the students, reflecting the outcomes of their efforts or lack thereof. They also serve as a record, for the outside world, of the achievements of the student. Students produce outcomes, professors “grade” them. We apply our outside perspective, our experience, and comparing our reasonable expectations of student learning outcomes with the outcomes actually produced, we issue letter grades.
Students are paying us for a public power that has been conferred upon us by society. Students pay us to certify and testify about them to others: graduate schools, potential employers, etc. The student who hires a teacher that grades your work must be willing to risk being judged and criticized by the outside world. The teacher brings to bear on student efforts the perspective of a particular discipline. It is a highly structured and formal process of comparison, between student work and an external body of standards and practices. The grades we give students are inherently social and collective; they belong to a larger context. They “go down on your permanent record.”
It is perhaps this aspect of our work that drives me most crazy. My power to “certify” students is what most invites student misunderstanding of and resentment of my role, as a professor. Many students never seem to realize that the teacher standing before them examines their efforts in light of the unforgiving standards of an external world. They pay their money, they expect respect. But they purchase their ticket to Disney World, and find themselves instead in Orlando. They get honest criticism of their work, and their response is: “I paid for a hamburger, not a shitburger. Why have you given me a shitburger?”
Ah, my young friend, it is not so much that I have given you a shitburger. You yourself have created this shitburger. The real question is, why would you want to eat something like that?