Tuesday, June 22, 2010

rumi and the bell-shaped curve

Summer Session. Magic, Science and Religion. Possibly the very last Summer MSR that I ever get to teach. And so, I've really wanted it to be sparkling. Thoughtful. Deep. Fun. Engaging. Paradigm-shifting, if I can manage it. For them. And for me as well. But I always want this. Generally speaking, students signed up for Winter or Summer Session are highly motivated, albeit in a bit of a rush to 'finish' as fast as they can. Frequently, they're taking their very last class before graduating, and I want to send them off with something pretty special. If I can.

And as with all semesters or intersessions, I think we're on track for exactly that experience ... until I start grading the papers. In this case, the first Midterm of the session. And then all my optimism, desires for a joy-filled, meaningful send-off, and just plain exuberance in teaching this extraordinary material ... just plain falls apart.

Last night I read the following sentence in a short essay, that bore not the slightest resemblance to the topic at hand:

"It's always been taught to me 'it's not what you know, it's who' and I thoroughly believe that."

What a slap in the face at content. At the whole concept of a thoughtful–deep–fun–engaging–paradigm-shifting course. At what I've always thought of as performing cartwheels of the mind. It's a course that can change lives, and that does, if given even half a chance. A course that I'm only beginning to understand after all these years, is really at heart an attempt to understand trauma and suffering, and the lengths people can and do go to alleviate that suffering. Desperate acts, irrational but powerful—when rationality fails. I love this course! It encompasses the depth and breadth of the human capacity to try (something/anything!) in the face of the unfathomable.

And then, that one little sentence tells me that none of it matters.

Which maybe explains why there are more and more failing papers. Or barely passing students. Who, in their own words, "just wanna get outta here." Graduate. Without critical thinking skills. Analytical skills. Without having read the important thinkers (from Ibn Khaldun to Thomas Kuhn). Without spelling and without grammar. Without, dare I say it, a real education. And as if there's something spectacular waiting out there for them without these skills.

"I just need the piece of paper."

I've heard that more than once. More than a dozen times or more. I can turn as many remarkable cartwheels of the mind, but many in those classroom seats just want the grade that'll get them outta there.

I had a colleague once who referred to these students as 'the taxpayers.' That they were the ones who simply helped foot the bill for the few who really were engaged, who were excited by the learning. Whose eyes sparkled with delight and discovery. I used to argue with him.

"I aim," I said, "at the yawners." I figure if I can get them engaged, I can reach anybody. His response: Don't bother. But I do bother, and I am bothered, and the bother never goes away. I want everybody, not just the delighted and delightful few.

So, here's the weird thing. Over the many years that I torture myself over bad writing or the lack of analytical skills, every once in a while I examine the grades and discover that they work out to a fairly normal bell-shaped curve. All by themselves. And I find it shocking. The curve is not constructed to distribute the grades. The bell-shaped curve is simply there. Have I merely imagined that the writing has gotten worse over the years? Have I become more lenient in that hideous task called 'grading'?

The A's make me happy. Thrilled! But why are there so few of them?

Who made that curve? Is it a force of nature? Is it a distribution of innate intelligence? Is it one of Durkheim's 'social facts'?

And I wonder (and this really bothers me) why they can't all be A's? Is there some law of nature that says everyone cannot excel? I find the bell-shaped curve somehow insulting. Like if I'm really doing my job right, everyone in that classroom should be excited, engaged, and jazzed by the material (whatever class it happens to be). If I'm excited about the material, why aren't they?

The psychoanalyst Owen Renick used to say that teaching is a seduction. A seduction of the material, I'm sure he meant—not of the person. The teaching isn't about us at all, as far as I'm concerned. When I'm teaching, I feel like I disappear, and the only thing that's left is this remarkable material. Why bother otherwise? I think Rumi would say the same, although he would claim that what remains is God, not 'remarkable material' (but what's the difference)?

The pessimist in me is deeply offended that not everyone in the room is an A student. It just doesn't make sense to me! Why wouldn't every single person strive to achieve at the highest level? Strive for that Rumi-experience in the classroom? If we're not aiming for the extraordinary, why bother?

The mystical experience I await is the annihilation of the bell-shaped curve. Where every person in that classroom is on the same page, breathless and in awe of the thinkers and thinking produced over the millennia, of the beauty of nature and ideas about nature, of the remarkable diversity of understandings—including right there in the classroom.

We have the best job on the planet that we get to engage in the enterprise of the mind. And then the university ruins it by asking us to grade it...


  1. We had a talk this evening, a colleague and I, after class. He's convinced that the bell-shaped curve is an inescapable natural phenomenon. At the same time, he too longs for a class in which everyone's on the same page at the 'A' end of the curve... It was a wistful moment of solidarity.

  2. Ah, the frustration of teaching students seeking a degree, rather than an education! This summer I'm teaching what is probably the last introductory cultural anthropology class I'll ever teach. I'm already retired, so I feel really free to teach exactly what I want, and in the way I want. (What are they going to do, fire me?) Half the class will be devoted to Magic, Religion, & Ritual and Sex & Gender. I plan on doing some shamanic journeying with them. I long to get them excited about anthropology. To shake up their minds. Wish me luck!!

  3. The key phrase I'm hearing is "I'm already retired, so I feel really free to teach exactly what I want, and in the way I want" — so I'm hoping you'll throw a little transformative belly dance into the mix while you're at it!

    And of course, the difference between seeking a degree and an education. That's the kicker.

  4. What an excellent suggestion! Yes, there will be belly dance instruction in my class!

  5. "...the university ruins it by asking us to grade it..." -- Yes! I've been fortunate to teach for two institutions that ran more on the Folk School model than the University. One used alternative grading methods which faculty made up each semester: most were at least partially collective, and all were also based on process as well as product. The other did w/o letter grades altogether in favor of P/F. And I found it to be true: most students did much better work without traditional letter grades. They were also happier and saner.

    Of course, these programs invited self-selection: these students were there because they wanted to be. But my experience validates Alfie Kohn's argument that grading by an authority figure is actually counterproductive to learning. Why stretch yourself to try out new ideas when they know chirping back the safe and known will result in a better grade? Sheesh.

    I don't know if Kohn has yet recognized the positive effects of bellydance in the classroom yet, though. You go, GG.

    And Mir, I know you've rocked many students' worlds anyway, which is a tribute to your own extraordinary teaching mix of incisive intellectual ideas, generous spirit, and willingness to admit goofy wonder.

    OK, end of novella. :-) Nice blog, you.
    - Tina

  6. I wonder how much of my school experience would have been vastly better if my ADD had been medicated at the time. I have always hated writing essays, because they take so long! Every two sentences, I'd look up and get distracted and do something else and then come back a half hour later having forgotten what I'd been trying to say. A simple two or three page essay would take me five hours, at least.

    As one who is better at speaking than at writing, I've always dearly wished I could write a presentation and speak rather than try to write an essay.

    Maybe part of the reason for the bell curve is others like this, people whose ability to demonstrate learning doesn't flow well in writing for one way or another?

    For many of my classes, I used to forget about them until the day before they were due. Then I'd write a half of a good paper, and finish it terribly just to get it done and over with. I don't know if I ever turned in an essay for your class because I couldn't bear showing you one of these, and yet wasn't really capable of doing anything else. I can't be the only one like that.

  7. I got one of those papers just yesterday — the first page was brilliant, really brilliant. The second page was sketchy, and it didn't make it to the third page at all! He just couldn't get past the initial adrenalin rush of the first paragraph.

    You're absolutely right that some folks are just better speaking their thoughts rather than writing them. Not only do I admire those who can speak well, but I'm also grateful to them — they're the keepers of the dynamism in the classroom. And that includes you, of course!

    But the bloody grades demand the written word as evidence of achievement. My solution is a choice on the Final Exam. The Group Oral exam has been very successful. But the university still wants X number of words on paper...