What I quickly came to dread, however, was reading, commenting on, correcting, and grading the students’ papers―six per student, 700 to 1,000 words per paper. In the words of Thomas Wolfe, briefly a college instructor himself, the “huge damnation of that pile of unmarked themes.” The grammatical ruin and ideational impoverishment of 80 percent of the papers throughout the semester staggered me. Every 10 days or so I’d face another mountain of tenses in disagreement; sentences incomplete; capital letters disregarded; periods missing; ideas tangled and incomprehensible; Liquid Paper applied with all the delicacy of a bricklayer; margins, lines, and paragraphs ill-formatted, even with papers obviously “word-processed.” Slack-jawed, staring into space, I wondered: Have any of these kids ever read a book cover to cover? And: How many hours of MTV have contributed to this rhetorical wreckage? And: Which concerns “Destini”―a student of mine rarely modest in matters of midriff―more: her ability to write or the visibility of that lightning bolt tattooed on the base of her spine?
I usually graded the papers in my study at home. However, when I began to sense that my desk was weakening beneath the blows of my frustrated fist, or that the spine of my often airborne-and-crash-landing American Heritage Dictionary was further deteriorating, or that my next-door neighbor was about to call the police and report what he erringly believed was a domestic violence incident, I’d shove the loathsome papers in my Samsonite, drive to my lonely BNSF railroad crossing in the desert 30 miles southwest of Albuquerque, and grade the travesties in relative composure while imagining hopping the Amarillo- or Flagstaff-bound cars of the passing freights or summiting the ethereal peaks of the Sierra Ladrones in the distance.
Meanwhile, I knew the exasperation would only repeat itself, for I was certain that 90 percent of my students, upon receiving the graded paper, flipped immediately to the final page and, with yet another shrug of resignation, merely looked at the familiar “C-” and headed to the student union for a cup of coffee or the Frontier Restaurant on nearby Central Avenue for a sticky bun, forever ignoring my written comments and corrections smeared by my blood, sweat, and tears. As the term progressed, I had a terrible feeling that my students were perceiving me less as an advocate and more as an adversary.
Given this, how I looked forward to the day of the final exam, although not simply because it meant the beginning of the end of reading those papers. In a clever stroke, the UNM English department (and, I suspected, many other higher-education English departments across America) designed the exam and its method of evaluation in a way that I was certain would relax those teaching assistants who, due to lack of experience, likely needed some soothing justification for their unpleasant plans to flunk one or more of their students.
The department fashioned three different topics for the exam―for example: “What did Ralph Waldo Emerson mean by ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . .’”―one of which the student was free to choose. Each exam was identified only by the student’s university identification number, and each was graded on a pass/fail basis by three teaching assistants, with the majority grade―or, in the case of complete success or failure, the across-the-board grade―determining the student’s fate. A failing grade theoretically meant the student was required to repeat the course. Ideally, such a blind “pass” or “fail” evaluation confirmed the assessment of the student’s regular instructor. The failing student could challenge his or her evaluation with the English department, with the student’s instructor perhaps acting in the student’s defense.
On a December afternoon, as the fall semester neared its end, in a spare room of the Humanities building, I and about a half-dozen of my fellow assistants, brandishing pens, sat on the carpeted floor or at desks amid stacks of exam “blue books.” The atmosphere was buoyant, even giddy, as we read exams and gaily entered our “P”’s and “F”’s―and, mercifully, not a damn thing more―on the insides of the books’ back covers. No holds were barred, no imagined feelings spared. Occasionally a direct quote from an exam was tossed out by a grader for the group to . . . consider. Some quotes amazed us with their insight, even their poetry. More, however, were received with incredulity and merciless, chortling ridicule. (To wit: “I question evolution. How does a cell walking out of the ocean for the first time know its going to some day be a guys ear?”) Because that was the point: It was finally our turn to kick back and let go.
Several days later, I received the results of the evaluations of my students . . . and was rather amazed―and heartened―at how my standards aligned with those of my fellow instructors.
A final, traditional letter grade―that is, “A” through “F”―for each student who passed the final exam was assigned by the student’s personal instructor based upon the student’s performance throughout the semester. Several of my students who had performed poorly during the fall, yet had somehow managed to pass the final, put me in that twitchy “D” realm, twitchy because a “D” student was required to repeat the course as well. However, after several beers at a popular bar on Central Avenue, the alcohol managed to unlock a tender spot in my heart and I issued each of those theoretical “D” students a “C” and hoped each was going to major in engineering. In each of my two fall classes I awarded several “A”’s and about as many failures, with no students contesting my grades.
Nonetheless, throughout the semester, I had an increasingly nagging feeling that I, my fellow assistants, and even the English Department were lowering the bars for each of the passing grades; that is, grade-inflating. However, several beers, once again, with said assistants would make this feeling go away. I went on to teach another semester.
Again, despite the frustration, I enjoyed teaching, including the camaraderie with my fellow assistants, many of whom were pursuing their doctorates. Yes, they were busy cranking out those “scholarly” papers I so poked fun at. Yet I respected their hard work, their love of literature, the pleasures they took in reading and writing, and their eloquence and wit on any number of topics literary or mundane. Finally, I was as proud of being a teacher as I was of being a hard-rock miner or a computer nerd.