Dominique Homberger

Google the title of this post if you do not know what I am talking about. It is an interesting story, but I have another.

One day long ago I was sitting at a large table in the LSU Student Union, because my office was too small for this work and the then new hangout, Highland Coffees, would be too distracting. I had stacks of papers in a humanities discipline, written in three different languages, around me, but in front of me was a swath of butcher paper upon which I was doing math.

Someone was walking over to me. I was young then and new, so I was used to being approached by  men and did not look up right away.  When I did, I was amazed to recognize my calculus T.A. from my undergraduate institution. In school I would go to his office and ask questions about calculus problems, and he would ask me questions about the French class he was trying to pass. We had both done well, and his reappearance now was a positive sign.

“You may be surprised to meet me here,” said he, “but I am not surprised to meet you, because I have been in this business long enough now to know that one does meet people again. Neither am I  surprised to see you are teaching in your discipline. However, I do not understand why you are still doing so much math.”

“I am trying to learn how to curve grades,” I said. “I have never done it before. I am making projections based on different formulae to see how I can come up with a distribution I can stand by and the University will also respect. I have too many low grades here. I realize that the fulls give out an absolutely staggering quantity of Cs, Ds, and especially Fs, but I also understand I am in no position to do so myself. Hence my quandary.”

“I know,” said the T.A. “Earlier, I saw you reading the papers and muttering ‘Oh, God’ at the amazing errors they contained. I recognized myself as new faculty, and knew I had better come over here once I finished lunch.”

“So how did you solve the problem?” I inquired.

“Ah,” the T.A. said, “I realized that here, as at home, the grade of A+ is not normally given as it is awarded no extra grade points. So I invented it.”

“And how did that change things?”

“For myself, I place all the students to whom I would have assigned A and A- in the past in the category A+. That frees up A and A- for the students I would assign B+ and B, and then I take it all down from there. At the end I look at the spread and make a few minor adjustments, and I am finished. For reality checking, I have my ‘real’ grades, but these are then mapped onto a spread that is more reasonable here.”

I saw the logic of this strategy right away. I tried it out and it was good, and I have been doing it ever since. I still have grade complaints most semesters, but not enough to suffer the fate of Dominique Homberger.

Old calculus T.A., old artificer, stand me now in good stead.


22 thoughts on “Dominique Homberger

  1. I seem to have more than the usual number of grade grubbers complaining about getting an A- instead of an A or a B instead of and A. I am replying politely and helpfully, but I really want to yell at them for being part of the most boring group of students I have ever had for this class: smart enough, but not as smart as they think.

  2. Sometimes I just grade undergraduates as in graduate school.

    A=competent, you have unqualified permission to proceed
    B=adequate, but do not put me on your committee or ask me for a letter of recommendation
    C=inadequate, I recommend your funding be pulled
    D=severely inadequate, I insist your funding be pulled now
    F=terrible, I recommend your ejection from the program.

    Actually this fits Louisiana, where, it seems, tuition is paid only by those with GPAs below 3.


    And in fact if we started requiring everyone to pay tuition, we might solve part of our budget problem. I wonder if anyone has suggested that.

      1. That you are in a competitive program where they can make fine distinctions in types of As. That your paper had some tiny thing lacking. Any type of A means they think you have a future in academia, though.

  3. P.S. I thought I might drive up my hit count by having a post with the name of Dominique Homberger in it, but this has not worked.

  4. I really feel exceptionally stupid sometimes for not figuring the meaning of certain things out by osmosis or WTF ever, as everyone else seems to do.

    But then, I suspect that they actually do not, and that there’s actually a handbook or manual or maybe a series of super secret meetings that they have access to and I don’t.

    1. You really should get in on one of these series of meetings. My sources were two: professor in the family, and advanced graduate students in various fields, as well as foreign postdocs, living in my undergraduate dormitory. That group had very current info, for various departments, and they were successful yet also rebellious types, so they had good info presented with a critical eye.

      I didn’t listen to, or didn’t take seriously, a lot of the more misinformed and neurotic gossip that went around my own graduate department. That is, I listened selectively because I was pre-trained by these earlier experiences. I recently discovered that a friend from that era, not pre-trained in the same ways, suffered a lot and still suffers because of having taken seriously a lot of B.S. that was presented as “the truth.”

      Therefore, I’d say, either use your own powers of observation and deduction which are considerable, or get super reliable inside track information. You are better off in the dark than misinformed.

      1. Hmm, this is good advice. I have recently met some advanced graduate students, but they seem kind of bitter and jaded, not just about their experiences (that would be understandable) but about the value of the academic endeavor itself. So they may not be so helpful.

        My advisor is awesome, and he explains things to me, but I have to know what questions to ask. Sometimes I do well at working that out, and sometimes not.

        It really does seem that having a professor in your family is the way to go, if you want to be successful in the university.

  5. This post broke my heart–again. Not your fault the earlier times as spouse of an academic with the world’s stupidest tenure fight (that would be a soul-clearing conference) in the 1970s. Mother of son teaching in urban NYC university (after 4 books etc.) and knows he is profoundly lucky. But he’s smart too and caring about teaching…and it’s very hard.

    Some time I ought to blog about my 1980s efforts to take women’s studies out of academe as a feminist psychotherapist in Baltimore. Oh, did I learn much about political correctness starting with someone I admired suggesting that my title, “Women’s Studies as Therapy,” might not-so-good. Sure, inside the women wanted more legitimacy than therapy implied. Outside, women loved it. But, 1950s woman that I was, I eventually changed it.

    Have a great month. Thanks for leading me to consider ideas in your world.

  6. Gracias Naomi and that is fascinating … and also makes me realize why I find grading so heart rending (I tend to think of it as tedious, but not to give myself credit for the heart rending nature of it).

    You really should blog about that Baltimore experience.

    1. Heart rending. Yes, it is. You know, I think that’s why I spend ridiculous amounts of time on it – trying to make it less so. It does not work.

  7. No, doesn’t work. You have to just get ruthless, then adjust to an acceptable curve, exactly like my Calculus T.A. I need to do that. I also think all new goals and standards need to be understood very well. If one is going to grade “wholistically,” for instance, there have to be really clear standards for it.

    On having academics in the family, perhaps it does more good than I realize. I have a post coming up about that. Problems with it were that one was getting on their turf and they were nervous about that and destructive; that one had to deal with their jadedness and pain, and could never see anything with fully fresh eyes; that one never felt one had decided to do this on one’s own.

    My specific problem was that I was constantly told not to go into academia and that when I then finally found out what MY objections to it were (which aren’t the same as the Emeritus Professor’s) I just got, I TOLD YOU SO. Professors like to lecture and dictate, not to converse, and that is what I dislike about academia.

  8. Professors in the family — it does do good though, gives you some perspective, which lets you relax. I have this vague theory that the least neurotic academics are aristocrats of some kind, or from academia, else from the trades, the traditional working class, or the military. All these groups are used to the idea that they have some skills, a culture and a place. The struggling middle classes trying to rise and fearing a fall, are more insecure. They also have more chaotic personal lives, sort of like those of the nouveau riche. They can be very successful but never let go of these weird insecurities.

    1. Insecurity is a powerful force that keeps people divided and convinces them it is not safe to access their power. So yes, only aristocrats are allowed to feel secure.

  9. Also: there are all sorts of trades which run in families. I’ve often been criticized for doing something that runs in the family, because by (American) definition it must have been forced, could not be original, and so on. That attitude has to be ideologically motivated…

    1. Yes, it must be. We value rebellion in American culture. But not real rebellion or anything that actually results in real change; it has to be this pseudo fake rebellion through which we find our “real selves” and never realize we’re actually emulating people – a la “Stuff White People Like.”

  10. On rebellion, yes, exactly. And that’s a *great* point on insecurity and the reasons to resist and reject it. And maybe reject the people who insist on having it, even though that sounds cold. Reject taking them seriously.

  11. Either reject them, or teach them not to be insecure, depending on how wedded to it they are. If they’re too invested in being insecure it may be a waste of time and energy but if they can be taught another way, then they can reclaim their power and join it to ours.

  12. Hmm, what do you do that is trying too hard? I hate hints. Modeling is good. What about just explaining it to people?

  13. Well, brief explanations. Or what doesn’t take a superhuman effort. And they have to be interested / able to see. Say something and if they respond say more. I’ve gone to great contortions sometimes to explain these things, and had it not work or backfire — so that I realized, if they don’t get it then I’m not going to be able to talk them into it.

    Hm. I’m trying to think back on how people have gotten me out of insecurities. Usually it hasn’t been what they’ve said, as much as assumptions of coolness they’ve made — or actual coolness they’ve recognized although I didn’t see it myself.

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