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...