Intricate Keyhole

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Intricate Keyhole

An "F" Made Me Who I Am

I read an interesting article today by Michael Allen Gillespie in the Chronicle of Higher Education where Mr. Gillespie bemoans the tendency in academia to inflate grades. Here's a brief quote from the article:

I... feel confident that almost all academics agree that grading is the worst part of our job.

Part of this is simply the onerous character of the task itself, which seems worse every year. We also worry that grading will reveal that we did a poor job of teaching the course. But the worst thing about grading is that we know that poor grades will cause our students pain—contrary to many students’ opinions, we are not sadists. Moreover, poor grades may provoke an emotionally draining confrontation with the student.

It is easier just to give the students better grades than they deserve. We spare ourselves the drudgery, the anxiety, the guilt, and the confrontation. The students feel good about themselves. We get good evaluations. Everyone is happy.

And yet it is hard to imagine anything worse for our students. Education means leading young people to improve themselves, to help them understand their strengths and weaknesses. This in turn requires us to give students honest grades, not in order to demote them to some netherworld of B’s or even the Tartarus of C’s but to show them that they are not yet who they could be.

As a teacher, I certainly understand exactly that pressure. A "C" no longer tells the student that they performed well enough to pass and were solidly in the middle of the class in performance. Instead, a "C" is tantamount to failure for the damage it does to their GPA and eventual transcript. For a grad student, a "C" (or even a "B") is failure if they intend to move into a position in the academy themselves.

Yet... If I'd not once received an "F", my life would have been entirely different...

I was a lazy student in grade school. I didn't have to work very hard to achieve passing grades, and so I didn't. I was satisfied with the nice combination of a few "A's" and several "B's" on my report card. However, in 8th grade Art class, I was so massively bored by my Sister Rose Julie's insistence that we draw flowers and trees, that instead I drew spaceships and airplanes. They were, I thought, very nice spaceships and airplanes and adequately demonstrated my artistic ability. In fact, in my mind, my renderings were far superior to the flowers and trees everyone else was producing.

That quarter, I received an "F" on my report card. For Art.

I was incensed. I'd never failed a class before, never even come close. I was furious. In fact, I was so furious that when it was time to take the entrance tests for high school a few weeks later, I also signed up for the drawing test to get into the art program there, something I hadn't intended to do.

I did well enough that I was allowed to enter the art program -- an achievement I would, in one of my less-proud moments, throw back in the face of poor Sister Rose Julie. I'm certain I didn't cause the breakdown she had at the end of that year. Honest.

I'd do well enough and enjoy the Art program enough in high school that I'd continue that study through college, and graduate with a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Art) in Art Education degree. Mind you, I never used that degree -- playing music was more enticing and I ended up doing that for living for a time -- but the decision back in 8th grade, a decision sparked by that "F", set me on the path that led me to where I am now. I (obviously) don't know what might have happened had Sister Rose Julie given me the "A" or "B" that I expected from my artwork back then, but given that I'm relatively happy with where I am now, in retrospect, I'm glad she failed me.

That "F" shook my world and threw me out of complacency. That "F" started to help me realize that if I worked harder, I could accomplish far more. That "F" was one of the most effective lessons a teacher has ever taught me.

I'm not a hard grader myself, but I do try to be an honest one. I've failed students, and I know that I have students who probably hate me for doing that. But maybe, to one or two of them, I'll be their Sister Rose Julie and set them on a path they'd otherwise have missed.

I can hope so, anyway.

netmouse January 15th, 13:21

I had no idea you had a degree in art.