Friday, November 4, 2011

Error qui non resistitur approbatur

Any aspiring professor who could be shown the total mass of written work to be graded in succeeding decades would tremble. Some might turn away and never return. The piles of a single semester's midterms, term papers, and finals are such to make every other routine task (dishes, vacuuming, cleaning out the septic tank, brushing the dog's teeth) an urgent matter requiring immediate attention.

Some disciplines have it easier with grading, but perhaps harder in other ways. Subjects that use almost exclusively multiple-choice exams might, for example, face far more pressure to bring in external funding for research. So I'm not complaining about either how much, or what kind of tests I have to grade. I do get paid to do it, and I knew it was coming because they were the same kinds of tests I'd always had as an undergrad and grad student.

What was most difficult shortly after beginning my career, and then for a long time after, was knowing exactly what kind of issues on written work I wanted to grapple with and bring to the students' attention. Some instances were always clear-cut. I'd be shirking my duties, for instance, if I didn't point out errors of historical fact or the failure to provide enough specific evidence to support an essay's thesis. But every single spelling mistake? Unclear antecedents of pronouns? Run-on or comma-spliced sentences? Repeating the same noun or adjective three times in two sentences?

At first, if I erred, it was on the side of marking anything that I wouldn't have knowingly submitted in my own work. I've never forgotten the reaction of a student in the back of one of my earliest upper-level classes on the day I returned term papers. As he leafed through his paper, he asked a friend, loudly enough for me to hear, "is this an English class?" My not forgetting is a sign that somehow the sarcastic query wounded me. I have to admit I'd never had a class or any kind of instruction on what to mark and what not to bother with on history essays. I must have felt insecure, revealed as a fraud who didn't realize that in all other history classes students looking over their marked essays would never have seen such corrections as "the man that started the First World War" (I always insist on "who" in these cases). If the student got reasonably close to the spelling of Gavrilo Princip, then maybe I was supposed to keep my stylistic advice to myself.

My biggest insecurity, the one that led me to mark every error I perceived, of whatever nature, was being seen as someone who'd allowed a mistake to slip past him. My father, once a self-employed accountant and tax preparer, had hired me to check his work for precisely this reason: I loved catching others' mistakes and being seen as smarter for having found them out. Normally, my father hated it when I did that to him (although I'm certain it's a trait I copied from him). Yet he knew the consequences of making a mistake on a client's taxes were so high that his ego could no longer afford to overrule his good sense. Meanwhile, I'd work for the minimum wage of slightly over $3 an hour and the pleasure of an occasional triumph.

Potentially being viewed as slipshod, ignorant, or the dupe of a student who'd run a mistake right under my nose motivated me to keep my pen ready for action at every instant while I graded an essay. Even if my insecurities were groundless, there was the potential professional malfeasance of condoning a mistake or harmful stylistic quirk by failing to mark it. As the years wear on, it's this reason rather than any other that keeps me marking misspellings, who/whom confusions, sentence fragments, and other distractions from the flow of the paper. I'm now happy to allow students to believe they've put one over on me in many settings (well, usually). But I can't bring myself to approve their writing mistakes by passing them in hurried silence. They deserve to be taken seriously as long as they've put some effort into their writing. Pointing out that their words were read with care and found wanting in places, rather than being seen as officious meddling by a history professor, should actually be taken as a sign that the students were viewed as as a colleague while I was reading the essay, someone to whom I owed my fullest attention.

No, it's not an English class. But we like to understand you all the same.

3 comments:

Bad Wolf Bay said...

Dr. Rogers,

I stumbled upon this after a long night of grading papers. It made me chuckle as I looked at the papers covered in red beside me. I remember your corrections. I knew that your eyes would examine every word, which encouraged me to seek perfection. I hope my students feel the same way.

Becky W.

Dan Rogers said...

Hi Bekcy,

Did I know you were teaching? If so, it slipped my mind. Thanks for the kind words, and say hi to Tim.

Dan Rogers

Bad Wolf Bay said...

This is the first semester I have taught since I was a grad student. I love teaching.
Tim says hello. We stopped by to see you a few months back but you were out of your office. We have not been back to Mobile since then. Our next trip is to Europe. We will see London, Heidelberg, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Koenigsee, Vienna, and a few other places. Do you have any plans to travel to Europe this summer?