How I looked forward to the day of the final exam!―although not simply because it meant the end of reading and commenting upon at numbing length those dreadful 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 unappetizing 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, often giddy, as we read exams and gaily entered our “P”’s and “F”’s and mercifully nothing 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 blowhole.
Several days later, I received the results of the evaluations of my students . . . and was rather amazed―and heartened―at how my standards, such as they had evolved, aligned with those of my fellow instructors.
A final, traditional letter grade 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 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, 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, a few beers with said assistants at a popular bar on Central Avenue directly opposite the campus would make this feeling go away, providing I didn’t spot a student I was preparing to flunk imbibing there―perhaps, like me, to drown a concern―as well.
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 derided. 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. I was as proud of being a teacher as I was of being a computer programmer.