As a scholar who works in historical fiction, I find myself thinking about the past often. Sometimes, I even think about my own past. Today was one of those days. Looking for something else in the closet, I grabbed a copy of my transcripts, and spent some time thinking about the classes I took and the work I did. And then I realized that I don’t remember most of the work I did as an undergraduate, and only a little of the work I did as a graduate student.
That is, what I mean is that I don’t remember most of the papers I wrote. I remember the undergraduate honors thesis on Dante that I wrote, and I have a vague recollection of a paper on the moon as a symbol in the works of D.H. Lawrence and Iris Murdoch. Looking over the rest of the classes I took, I honestly could not remember a single paper I wrote as an undergraduate. I have a slightly better memory for the papers I wrote in my MA program, although that may be because one of them was published in the department journal of graduate student work, and another was published by Translation Review. And as far as my work for my PhD program, I admit that I have a tough time remembering anything before the dissertation, which effectively repurposed all of my brain. Looking over my transcripts, I remembered a course I had forgotten about. Thinking about it for a few minutes, I may have written a paper on Thoreau’s political essays and the Constitution.*
In a similar vein, I spent a fair amount of time this past week grading essays from my two upper-division classes. I read and thought about each essay; considered their various arguments; grappled with the torturous prose, and marveled at the well-written passages; and considered how and for what purpose they used evidence. Then I wrote down a grade, made a few comments, and moved on. If you asked me right now, I could probably tell you what most of the students wrote about. If you ask me next month, I likely will not remember most of them. A year from now, I won’t remember any of them.** And truth be told, I doubt my students will remember these papers for much longer.
This does not mean that my students will not have learned anything lasting. And I can certainly say that my inability to remember the papers I wrote does not reflect anything about my own education. I have very clear memories from my years of study: of exploring the sexual politics of the novels of D.H. Lawrence with Kinley Roby, grappling with the complexities of poststructuralist theory with Robin Lydenberg, and arguing with Jerry Phillips over the beauty of James Fenimore Cooper’s prose.*** However, none of this made it into any of the papers I wrote. Most of what I learned in all of my classes never made it anywhere near my papers. Some of what I learned made it onto final exams, but even those exams only touched upon all of what was covered during the semester.
Far too often, students – and I was not that much different when I was a student – see papers and exams as the hoop one must jump through in order to earn a grade. Sometimes, and these are the best times, students find something that grabs them and won’t let go, and they use their papers to investigate something in depth. But let’s be honest, that doesn’t happen nearly as often as we would like it to. I took plenty of classes that I didn’t care about all that much****, and did the work because I wanted good grades. That said, I always did learn something, even if what I learned most had more to do with researching skills and new directions in literary theory and scholarship.
As an educator, I know that grades do not reflect what students learn in their courses; they reflect how well those students did on the assignments for those courses. We cannot test students on everything. Well, I suppose we could, but then we would spend all of our time testing (and grading) our students. Take, for example, my course this semester on Poetry of the Beat Movement. I recently finished writing the midterm, and had to compose questions that incorporated the variety of works read thus far. I could devote the entire exam only to Jack Kerouac, and we could never explore everything the students might have learned. Hell, I could devote the entire exam to Mexico City Blues and still not cover all of the choruses, all of the issues, all of the various references. There’s no way my midterm will adequately tell me how much my students have learned. My final exam – because it will have to cover twice as much material – will be even less helpful of a marker of what my students have learned.
There’s one student, I will call her Carol^, who took a class with me. Having worked with Carol for multiple semesters, I know that she learned a great deal from the first course she took with me. Her ability to connect material from the first class to subsequent classes betrayed a depth of learning that her final paper for that first course did not demonstrate. In fact, her final paper was not very good. She took a risk, it did not pay off, and her grade suffered as a result. Carol is bright, and has taken a great deal out of her classes with me. But her written work can only touch on part of that. What she has learned, what she will take with her after she graduates, will be far greater than what she can demonstrate to me in her written work.
In theory, I could have more assignments. Every semester I have students who, in their evaluations, ask for more assignments. They all note that more assignments means more chances to do well, and a better chance at earning a better final grade. Every student who has offered this piece of advice has always noted how this could have helped the student to earn a better grade; not one has noted that this would have helped the student learn more.^^ I could make students turn in written work for every author we study, every book we read, every idea we cover. But that makes me ill, and not just because I would have to grade it all.^^^
Instead, I design my classes to allow for a certain depth. My students will read works for weeks before I ask them to write anything (in the form of an exam or a paper). I want them to read deeply, to have the time to go back and re-read work, to spend time thinking about what they have read and making connections between the various works (as well as whatever they have read and studied in the past). I want my students to have the time to think without having to worry about being graded. So in my upper-division classes, the first paper – the first piece of written work – is due in the 6th week of the semester. I want students to have time to read, to think about what they are reading, to take ideas out for a test drive in class discussion and/or office hours. And I want students to have plenty of time to write notes, throw those notes away, and write more notes; to draft and revise and edit. Certainly, many students do not take advantage of this time; many students will spend no more than one weekend on a paper, no matter how much time they have to work on it. However, some students do take advantage of that time, and their works reflect it. This semester, for instance, Carol is doing some exciting thinking about an author – about a series of works – that she just discovered and finds fascinating. She has come to my office numerous times, and has thought deeply and compellingly about the course materials and the wider world.
I want my students to have the space and time to learn something, and not worry about whether what they are learning will be on the test. I want my students to have the ability to determine what’s important to them, and how they can craft their writing for my class in a way that reflects their interests and values.
Admittedly, this approach does not work for all of my students. Many of them don’t want the chance to explore something in depth, to spend time following a research question in a variety of directions, to read novels with no clear end-goal in mind other than finding something engaging to pull them through to the final pages. And sadly, it sometimes seems like many of my students don’t want to learn. Instead, they want to know what will be on the test, so that they can add that information to their short-term memory and repeat it back at regular intervals until a final grade is posted.
Looking back over my undergraduate transcripts, I was surprised to see the grades I earned. Admittedly, many of those grades were As.^^^^ But not all of them, certainly. If I were given a list of my courses, I would not be able to tell you what grade I earned in most of them. I would not be able to tell you what I wrote for most of them. But I certainly did learn quite a bit from them. And I can pick up any work I read from any of those classes – yes, I kept the books – and talk to you about all of them, to some degree.
I’m trying to design classes that allow students the chance to really learn something, and to have some control over what that might be. I still have a long way to go, and I’m still learning about how to best engage my students. But at the core of my pedagogy is the simple fact that, if students are going to learn anything from me, I have to give them the time to learn it.
*I’ll beat you to the punchline: in case you were wondering, no, I didn’t get laid a lot in graduate school. And I’m sure I was only moderately fun at parties.
**This is why one of the first things I ask for from students who ask for letters of recommendation is a copy of their work, or at least a title and short abstract to jog my memory. I much prefer writing letters for students I am currently working with, but sometimes students come after some time looking for a letter.
***I love Cooper’s prose. My position may be unpopular, but I prefer to think of myself as under-appreciated. Much like Cooper’s prose style.
****I remember hating most every day of a Shakespeare class I took as an undergraduate, and being bored in a class on Romanticism in my MA program. Both classes fulfilled requirements, so I took them seriously, but my heart was in my other courses, like my classes on The Magician in Literature and Milton.
^This is not even close to her real name.
^^I do not agree with this thinking, and do not believe that more assignments gives students a better chance to earn a higher grade.
^^^Though, honestly, that’s a pretty big factor. I already spend more than 40 hours per week doing my job. I’m not sure that my spending more time designing, assigning, and grading work is a good idea for me or my students.
^^^^I was a bit of a geek long before I got to grad school.*