On Grading

Unless you are in the honors program or a graduate student, in which cases situations vary, you can tell me your class and a little bit about your life; I will then guess what your grades are and be right. I hardly need to see your work, because I have diagnosed you by class and situation, to wit:

A, D, or F. A is a result of studying. F is a result of not studying. D is a result of not studying, but still listening in class.

Junior/Senior: B or C. At this point those persons making F have either flunked out dropped out. Those making D have improved to C, because a 2.0 is required for graduation. The A students, meanwhile, have moved to B because they are working too many hours and also because their sisters need babysitters and their cousins need sudden rides to Westwego, Harahan, Gonzales and other tenebrous places.

Some senior and graduate stars do still get A, however. This is very fortunate because the quantity of D and F people I have at lower levels are making me feel like a true failure. My grades at this time are A in alienation, confusion, longing and nostalgia. These four subjects constitute a full load.


Earlier this week I gave a ride to a colleague in another department – a rather fancy professor I do not even know, but who is also on the relevant committee and needed a ride – to a system meeting across town. We had civilized, collegial conversation on the way and on the way back, without having to watch our words or translate ourselves to the other person. It was like alighting in reality. For more than a day afterward I was in a state of exultation about having had the chance to experience reality for a few moments.


8 thoughts on “On Grading

  1. Reality is pretty rejuvenating. I have found a similar kind of thing with doing this Secular Party stint. For the first time in I-don’t-know-how-very-long I have had most of my words taken at face value, and have not had to suffer as they were reinterpreted through a lens of femininity or some other arbitrary identity structure. You have no idea how that feels — to be able to stand up straight to my full height without feeling like I will be beaten for daring to look the Master full in the face. This is so, so wholesome. But it also indicates to me that I am right in general about Western society’s according of a priori identities to people and how wrong that is.

  2. “This is so, so wholesome.”

    And necessary. This recent experience was sobering in that it showed me how truly limiting the ‘reality’ I exist in most of the time is. I tend to think I am just complaining or have just not learned to ‘manage’ it, but no.

    “But it also indicates to me that I am right in general about Western society’s according of a priori identities to people and how wrong that is.”

    This is also true. And as we’ve said, they do it from the left as well as from the right, and it all seems reactionary and dehumanizing to me.

  3. Perhaps I should not be so amused, but you often make me laugh when you write about dealing with your students. (I have gotten a few D’s in my lifetime, but from D’s to B’s, I am one of those students who has frequently negotiated her way to the next level up…)

    I think that my relatives keep me grounded, or provide another version of reality, at least, though usually I feel like my head is spinning when I am visiting with them. I often feel like the black sheep everywhere, with them, in Cambridge, etc. One cousin told me the other night she does not see me that way at all (unlike her sister, who she considers not to fit in and insane, though the latter would make her like the rest of us!), and I think it is because she must equate the status of MIT with her status as the youngest officer ever at her company, and with another cousin’s achievement of the uber-fancy Pottery Barn-esque suburban home and lifestyle, despite the last starting as a young single mom w/only a h.s. ed.

    Yes, it seems we are all strivers, this is the word I have been thinking of, so I guess in that sense she is right.

    As for the non-reality of academia, my boyfriend last night, who began the program one year after me, was all pissed off over the futility of being a grad student and trying to have some power in the fractured, factional, and exploitative dept. life that is academe. I sympathized, because I’ve been there, but not in at least a year. I have dis-engaged pretty strongly from the dept. When I hear him rant from a position of involvement, I wonder if my head down approach will be problematic eventually. I assume yes, though I hope my productivity will make it harder for others to screw me over (isn’t it a shame I anticipate this) too overtly for both my “doesn’t play well with others” personality, or my gender, though high productivity in itself can be threatening, as I keep learning recently in my consulting work.

    Sometimes I think I would really like to teach because I do find in academia at least more people who like to argue and debate ideas (there are enjoyable moments in the process of everyone expending so much hot air), but then I wonder if I could honestly handle the gossipy, incestuous, infantilizing culture that academia seems to breed. I have worked for for-profit companies and non-profit organizations, and now here, and I find the former to be the least emotionally f*cked up of them all so far, though clearly I had problems with working towards the single monetary bottom line. Who knows, I’m always wandering off after 2-3 years from most places anyway.

  4. I’m glad it sounds funny – it is funny – but it feels tragic! I need a grounding type of family, it would help.

    Disengaging is good. No it is not problematic – they just tell you it is problematic when they are trying to sabotage you by engaging you in silliness.

    “I wonder if I could honestly handle the gossipy, incestuous, infantilizing culture that academia seems to breed.”

    I can barely handle it. The larger your department and the larger and more urban your school, and the better your school, the less of that there is in my experience. Places I’ve worked as a visiting that I liked: UIUC, UCB, U of O. Lumpenprofessoriat disagrees, saying people are also miserable in fancy places. I say they play at misery in fancier places and have more free time to brood, but things get much more surrealistic as you go into poorer states and poorer schools.

  5. This is also true. And as we’ve said, they do it from the left as well as from the right, and it all seems reactionary and dehumanizing to me.

    Not only that — but it works against those who practice this. I wonder if they realise that perception goes two ways? I find it amazing the way some people kind of have the urge to suddenly expose to me what I perceive as their lack of intellect and/or moral integrity. Later, they expect that I haven’t seen what I have. Or perhaps they think that in their moment of extreme petulance, they were showing me a fiercer aspect of themselves than they would usually do –they think that if I react at all to it, it must be only to show resentment.

    But actually what they don’t see is that they’ve shown me the degree of weakness they have. If they turn around and act strong and certain, and as if they expect me to forget that they have actually DEMONSTRATED to me that they are weak in various ways, I do not forget the earlier demonstration. It isn’t retracted. It doesn’t disappear. It is now part of the fabric of the history that has taken place between us.

    So it is with all sorts of people who have tried to command me with their “strength” when I have not asked them to do so. They form a case against themselves — and against their favourite ideologies.

  6. I am certainly reporting from a diff. perspective as a grad student still, but my dept. prides itself on being the “largest planning dept. in the U.S. (if not the world)” and we are certainly rife with politicking, though perhaps varying degrees of misery, actually…One of my (tenured) advisors loves our dept. compared to elsewhere (UCLA, the New School – I think) because she finds the interdiscpl. nature and size much more intellectually stimulating. Another tenure-track jr. faculty relies on her Phd students (and I’m sure others) to manage her insecurities and neuroses about dealing with the cold, cruel world of MIT (and waxes nostalgic about the warm fuzzies of UNC-CH where she got her PhD, a planning dept. where only one woman has ever been awarded tenure, ironically). When I listen to my man complain about out dept., it always sounds like he has a point of comparison (maybe his Master’s program at UCLA?) but I don’t know who else to compare us to. I spend a lot of time at Harvard Sociology and they are much more mentoring and nurturing of their students, but because of that and because they are not interdiscpl., I find the students there to be much more rigid and timid in their thinking, really afraid to step outside the discipline’s boundaries. I do find MIT to be very freeing in that sense, both because planning is interdiscpl. and because the entire Institute has a culture that encourages entrepreneurship, discovery, innovation. The ugly flip side of that is you are totally on your own, with very little mentorship, guidance, and clear guideposts as to what the hell you’re supposed to be doing. Most of the time, I enjoy that freedom, but right now, for my general exams, to be specific, working under a blase political sociologist, an absentee political scientist, and an overworked cultural sociologist, I feel like I am piecing together enormous literatures and figuring out intellectual traditions more or less on my own. That it’s mostly a formal hurdle and I’m not likely to fail, since so few students do, it feels even more frustrating, because even though I can see the benefits of finally learning how different strands of thinking come together, I wish it…mattered outside myself. I’ve watched faculty pitch other students’ work in the trash immed. after meeting with them, and listened to them complain about how students take up so much of their time. Knowing right now I am in that role and this hurdle-exam that has caused me no short of sleeplessness, agita and binging will be read 10 minutes prior to my oral exam defense of it is sort of annoying. But I suppose I should be thankful for the personal growth of it all.

    The thing I’ve found most jarring about the academic endeavor is how totally isolating and autonomous it is, if that hasn’t come across loud and clear already. As for the false reality, that is what my guy complains about from a grad student perspective, that we are encouraged to participate in shaping the dept. when in actuality we have no power and no one gives a sh*t what we think. The 2 of us with another TA did try this once, by protesting being overworked and abused and asking for more $$, and we were instead “fired” from our positions after being thanked for our thoughtful input.

    So I don’t know how to compare MIT to elsewhere, and I know I’m certainly referencing a pretty elite tier. My dept. I believe certainly rests comfortably on a status I’m not sure is still warranted, and accd’gly I’ve heard rumors it graduates students others find totally unprepared for research (for instance, we offer no methods courses for PhDs except for a few x-registered with us taught by faculty from other depts.; most of us take our methods courses in other depts or at Harvard). We are very geared toward our large Masters’ students populations, so PhDs are more or less on their own; they admit 12 or so of us yearly and fund ~5 of those admits, and usually the funding packages are only 3 to 4 years. I know elsewhere places don’t fund at all, but we’re losing many applicants to places much more generous than us. This is why I always say I snuck in the back door of MIT, because my acceptance letter said (paraphrased) “Congrats! You’ve been admitted to this very fancy place but we have no $$ for you so you are only able to enroll if you can PROVE you have 2 years of external funding.” No one ever checked, and I ended up getting some $$ for a research project at the biz school and then picked up some dept. $$ in my 2nd yr earmarked for 2 students in front of me who ultimately didn’t come, so I’ve done ok. But I remember when I mentioned to the head of the PhD program that no one checked my papers before I enrolled, he was mad, and promised to crack down on future unfunded admits. (He’s also the one who told me I might be forced to TA econ and when I suggested someone else, he said she’d done her share for the dept. and it was my turn. I reminded him she was accepted with full funding and didn’t have to work and that’s why she had the time to join committees, etc., and he left me alone after that.)

    Wow, aren’t I just RANTING suddenly!! Perhaps I should be posting all this over at The RP. Grr grr grr.

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