Sometimes Grading has to be Personal

Stress was building up in my shoulders so I gave them a shrug, rolled my neck and took more than a couple of deep breaths. I settled into my chair, squared up the paper on the corner of my desk, and put on my game face. Staring blankly at the walls around me, I waited for the knock on the door. Then it came. “Come on in and have a seat” I said. “How are you?” I asked. “Fine” he said.

I rolled my chair out from behind my desk and closed the distance between us. My index finger was lightly tapping his paper. I set my eyes on his, selected my serious voice and said the words which none of us want to hear.

“This is not good enough.”

I have been on the receiving end of that comment before. It stings. I do not like saying it. Yet, I have sit-downs with students on a regular basis. Student reactions have varied over the years. Sometimes there is an acknowledgment of personal responsibility, a handshake and a renewed commitment to the task at hand. Other times (well, a lot of times), there is argument, flushed faces, tears, and going in circles as they grasp for external explanations (including me) for their lack of success.

Sit-downs can go bad. They have gone bad. Sometimes, they can go really bad. So bad, in fact, that I began to fear them and their fall-out. On more than one occasion, I have watched close, healthy and enjoyable student-teacher relationships burn up in front of me. No more waves. No more smiles. No more approaches on campus.

I ask a lot of my students. And, there are times when I have doubts about my approach. Am I asking too much? Am I suffocating them with unrealistic expectations? Do I strike the right balance between critical feedback and encouragement? Do I even have the skill set to strike the right balance?

There is a part of me that wants to welcome them into my office and tell them that their work is enough, they gave it their best and that is all that matters. I want to leave them smiling, laughing, and feeling good. I want an easy-going, back-slapping, glad-I-ran-into-you-on-campus kind of relationship.

But, what that part of me wants is not what they need.

They need to be stretched. They need to be moved forward. They need an invitation to leave the crowd and enter into the arena (ht Brene Brown). And, I am not talking about the arena of academic excellence. That arena is highly overrated. Indeed, with all of its clearly marked and well-lit paths to success, I am not sure that it even counts as an arena. I am talking about your-head-on-a-swivel-not-sure-where-danger-is-going-to-come-but-you-have-to-deal-with-it-anyway kind of arena. I am talking about getting them ready to lead a life worth living. As teachers that is our prime directive. The enthusiastic and efficient delivery of content comes a distant second.

I can and do extend this invitation by marking up their papers in red and depositing a “D” at their conclusions. Yet, sometimes a nudge is not enough. Sometimes they need a bit of a shove, a sit-down, a face-to-face, eye-to-eye extension of the invitation. Sometimes grading has to be personal.

Why?

Students can become inured to poor performance marks. If they do, then I need to make them feel their mediocrity, feel their second-best, and feel their “good old college try.” I believe sit-downs can do that. And, what I am asking them to do is not easy. I am asking them to walk into the arena to take their licks. This cannot be accomplished in one step. I cannot just stand outside the gates and tell them that they need to go in. It is a process. I need to walk with them under the archway and down the tunnel. I must stand with them where the shade ends and the light begins. I have to be there for that last bit of encouragement if it is needed. So, I signal my commitment to them and this process by taking my licks as well…in the sit-down.

Shawn Humphrey, the Blue Collar Professor (@blucollarprof)

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