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Stories that are no longer true: the myth of hardness
Would you fail a student if it meant sending them to fight in Vietnam?
Here is a story my grad school adviser told me one day over lunch at an Indian restaurant in Bloomington: his own adviser was a notorious hard-ass as a teacher. She taught during the Vietnam war and the draft that went with it, when being a college student gave you a higher draft number (making it less likely that you’d be sent to fight). A male student who was going to fail the class came to the professor’s office at the end of semester, begging her to let him re-do an assignment. To complete extra credit. Anything, he would do anything, because if he failed that class, he failed out of college and got sent to Vietnam.
The professor said no. I don’t know what happened to the student. That’s not what this story is about.
This story was a tale of academic rigor and standards, you see. The professor was to be admired. Emulated. And if a student came to me, begging for an extension or a re-do or extra credit, I had this story ready to pull out of my pocket. “This professor didn’t cut her student slack to save him from Vietnam,” I would say. “Why on earth should I save you?”
In many ways, this story is all you need to know about a certain attitude in higher education. There are suggestions of sadism and masochism, but to call it S & M would be an insult to the deep commitment to mutual consent in those communities. Whatever you call it, it is true that suffering and cruelty are a kind of currency in academic circles. As a student, if you’re not suffering enough, you’re not truly worthy. As a professor, if you’re not inflicting enough pain, you’re not truly teaching.
I think of this story as our semester ends and I send e-mails begging students to send me some work—anything to save them from an F—before I have to turn in their grades. In my almost twenty years of teaching, I’ve never pulled this story out of my pocket, except perhaps to demonstrate what’s wrong with academia. As an example of the dangers of bureaucratization or rationalization or just, you know, stupidity.
Still, the story has stayed there, floating in the back of my mind over the years. It surfaces when a student explains to me that if they fail my class, they won’t be able to play their sport or stay in their sorority/fraternity. “That hardly compares to the danger of dying in Vietnam, does it,” I think. That story has served, at times, like a cloak I can pull around myself, woven of indifference and blind adherence to the rules, the rules, the rules. The syllabus, the syllabus, the syllabus. The holy tyranny of grades.
Like so many stories we tell ourselves, the tale of the hard-ass professor is one whose power is difficult to escape. She or he or they are close kin to the hard-ass coach. Or the hard-ass boss. Or the hard-ass parent. All of them bathing in that vaulted idea of tough love. And, yes, love is tough, but not in the inflicting suffering on other people sort of way. Love is tough in that it endures and persists. Love, good love, is like that college t-shirt that has been washed into a gentle softness that feels good against your skin, despite the many holes and tears and stains. Love is tough because it holds together. But I don’t think love purposefully inflicts pain.
All of us prop up the story of the hard-ass professor. It appeals to us because it is a capitalist story. A story of scarcity. There are only so many A’s to go around, right? So my students have great admiration for professors who give only one A per semester and sometimes, none at all. It is a badge of honor, not to have received one of those A’s, but just to have survived the class.
That professor, they or she or he of the rationed A’s, is a hard professor. Their classes are hard. Their tests are hard. Their lectures and readings are hard to understand their exams and test hard to pass. Hard is good. To be a hard science is better than to be a soft science. Hard is grit.
I am not a hard professor. I am easy.Soft. And even as I type these words, it feels like a failure to admit such a thing. I can imagine my colleagues collectively rolling their eyes. Snubbing their noses. I can easily imagine this because I’ve done it myself. “Yes, students like that professor because they’re easy,” I’ve said more than once. And when you read that sentence, imagine my voice, packing the word ‘easy’ full of all the disdain and condescension it can possibly contain. Imagine the word ‘easy’ practically bursting open with disgust.
Even now, in moments, I would still like to be the hard professor. It is such a seductive narrative, but the truth is, I don’t think I ever had it in me. At least for me, it takes so much effort to be hard. It takes a level of belief in things like grades that I’ve never much been able to muster.It takes a single-mindedness I don’t have, the belief that the stakes for passing or failing this class are ever so high. So much rides on this A or B. But it doesn’t. The stakes are high for my students physically and mentally surviving the semester and if being hard gets in the way of that, well, fuck it. At the very least being hard seems to take a level of indifference to pain and suffering, if not a little bit of pleasure in it.
The story my grad school advisor told me, about the professor and the draft, is not a story about the student and what happened to him after he failed out of college. It can’t be. The story only works because that student and his life are not the point. We don’t care whether he failed out or whether he got drafted or whether he went to Vietnam or whether he died there.
The point of the story is the grade. The syllabus. The rules. The point is hard.
The student isn’t the point. Life isn’t the point. I’m not a hard professor, because I don’t have it in me to see the world that way.
Local peeps, time is running out to get your seats in my memoir + personal essay classes, May 2 and May 16. Details and tickets here.
Also, I’m declaring May the Month of Manifestos! May is for manifestos! All the manifestos all the time! All throughout May, I’ll be writing my own manifestos—making clear the things I believe deeply and attempting to bring them into the world (manifest them, get it?). I want to hear all your manifestos, too. What are you deeply passionate about? They could be manifestos for gardening or parenting or parallel parking or cocktails or parties or cocktail parties. Start thinking now so in May we can get to manifesting!
Things I read and liked this week:
For thoughts on how to navigate the digital world as writers and a rallying cry (a manifesto, perhaps) for seeing more kestrels, i.e., pulling ourselves back into the non-digital world, or, you know, the world.
This from's project, 1,825 things, which I am late to the game, but thinking of starting.
Just, Ross Gay’s Inciting Joy, which I’ve been reading slowly in the mornings over the past month or so and has broken me open every morning, but made me fuller in the broken places.
Just step back for a tiny moment to contemplate that sentence—if you’re not inflicting enough pain, you’re not truly teaching. This is a perversion of everything that ‘teaching’ is and should be. As human beings, teaching each other is one of the most generous, compassionate things we do, necessary to our survival, yes, but also one of our highest callings. Here is what I know. Let me share it with you. Learning can be painful, yes, because it is change and most chain is painful. But the idea that as teachers, we should intentionally attempt to increase that pain is, I don’t know, just a really, really horrible perversion of the inherent goodness that teaching is.
Grit, which as Ross Gay points out in his amazing, book, Inciting Joy, perhaps one of the best books I’ve ever read, might be the most capitalist word ever deployed. And not at all coincidental that we’re talking about grit in this particular historical moment, as capitalism is becoming more and more cruel in what it deprives people of and the daily pain it inflicts. Capitalism might have reached new heights of suffering, but instead of working to, you know, destroy it, let’s get gritty instead. Let’s set our jaws and grind our teeth to nubs and develop some grit, so that we can, in the end, be worn down to that very thing—grit—small loose particles of our former selves.
Because I’m trying to be sensitive to the danger of binaries, let me say here that there are not two kinds of professors—hard and easy. It’s more complicated than that. There are lots of other qualities that make up a teacher beyond hardness and softness, though those do tend to be the ones we emphasize. But if hard and soft are continuums, I’ll lead toward the soft side.
Another story that is no longer true for me—the idea that I don’t give grades, but students earn them. This is another vaulted story of academia. Students talk about the grades they ‘got’ from a professor, but, no, no, we say. We didn’t ‘give’ them a grade. They earned it or didn’t. Frankly, this is horseshit. Of course I gave them grades because every single type of grading is subjective. Grading is inherently subjective because you are quantifying an unquantifiable thing—learning. Learning is a process. It is ephemeral. It is located deep inside the student’s brain or mind or soul or body, in a place we have no access to. So we make up grades and we distribute them. We give them out. This is one of many reasons that grades are stupid.