A colleague once remarked, “I teach for free. They pay me to grade.” I suspect anyone engaged in pedagogy understands that sentiment, especially those of us who teach in the humanities.
In the STEM disciplines, at least it appears to me from afar, you’re more likely to have objective evaluations — something is either right or wrong – whereas we humanists are constantly juggling several criteria: What is the quality of the argument? Does the writer substantiate her thesis? Is the writing organized, clear, compelling and grammatical?
All of this comes to mind at the conclusion of another academic term well into my fifth decade of teaching. And so, I offer a couple of gratuitous observations, one about the definition of novel and the other about the moral virtues of failure.
It has been my privilege — and, believe me, I don’t take it lightly — to have spent my career teaching at elite institutions: tenure at Columbia and Dartmouth, visiting appointments at Princeton, Yale, Northwestern and Emory. In recent years, however, I have been dumbfounded to learn that undergraduates don’t know the definition of the word novel.
In two of my courses, I ask students to choose from a list of several dozen books, read the book and write a review. The overwhelming number of books on the list are non-fiction, but when the papers come in, many students persist in referring to their chosen book as a novel, apparently under the impression that novel is a synonym for book.
This misunderstanding has become so common that prior to the assignment I now take a moment in class to explain that a novel is a work of fiction and that although a novel is a book, not all books are novels.
Also, because I am an insufferable grammarian, I include a statement at the beginning of my “Guide to Writing Excruciatingly Correct Papers,” a handout that includes such gems as the proper use of commas to separate the names of cities and states, the difference between it’s and its, and the admonition to avoid pretentious words like amongst and whilst.
The opening paragraph of my “Guide” reads in part: “A novel is fiction, whereas a work of history or sociology or anthropology is simply a book, or non-fiction (or sometimes a monograph, if it is a specialized study).” Nevertheless, I continue to receive papers reporting on such “novels” as H. G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights.
I started noticing this trend about a dozen years ago while I was teaching at Columbia, but it has continued at Dartmouth. Do undergraduates seriously not understand the difference between a book and a novel? Apparently, they don’t.
Is this a big deal? No, probably not. And no, this is not a jeremiad about falling standards in the academy. If anything, my impression is that today’s students are better than many in years past.
Still, I wonder. If students don’t know the difference between a book and a novel, will they be able to discern the difference between legitimate news and fake news? Or will they bother to notice that most of the voices screaming about “fake news” are the same people generating misinformation for public consumption?
My second observation has to do with giving students a failing grade. I’m reasonably certain I could count on two hands the number of students I have failed over the years. I don’t enjoy doing so — especially for senior theses or the time I cast the decisive negative vote in a doctoral defense — but sometimes failure is merited.
One of my students this past quarter basically disappeared for the second half of the term and submitted his principal assignment a month late, after the end of classes. I’m old enough and old fashioned enough to believe that college is preparation for life, so I take deadlines very seriously, in part out of fairness; if most of the students labor to submit assignments on time, it’s unfair to accept late work without penalty.
Although it was a worthy paper, when the penalty points were deducted, this student earned a failing grade. And then the barrage of appeals began.
“This is my final term at Dartmouth,” he said, and “I won’t graduate without passing this course. I’m no longer on scholarship, and my parents have sacrificed a great deal to provide me with this education. I have ADHD,” and on and on. “Please, please, please!”
I’ll cut to the chase and reveal that I relented and gave him a D. But, in the course of adjudicating the appeal, it struck me that one of the most important lessons a young adult can learn is that actions have consequences.
I’m trying not to sound like a moralist here — and I don’t think I am — but it occurs to me that many people in our society, especially those more privileged, have never dealt with failure.
They’ve collected “participation trophies” for athletics along with endless academic assistance and affirmation. Both Columbia and Dartmouth, the places I know best, have elaborate safety nets in place to shield students from failure.
For many, it’s unthinkable to deal with the consequences of failure, and in that vein the nation’s immediate past president comes to mind. At least until recently — court cases are still pending — he rarely or never faced the consequences of his actions, whether in business, politics or personal behavior. He stiffed workers, defaulted on debts, cheated on wives and taxes, and lied with impunity.
We, as a nation, will be repairing the damage for decades to come. I wonder if a failing grade or two along the way might have taught him that actions have consequences, lessons that may have altered the course of history.
My failing student was pathetically grateful for my largesse. I certainly didn’t want to create additional hardship for his family, but I sometimes wonder if I did the right thing. I’m confident that I made him sweat a bit, but I may also have deprived him of an important lesson.
An Episcopal priest, Balmer is John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and the author of more than a dozen books, with commentaries appearing in newspapers across the country. He is a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.