Dec 27, 2017

Christmas Thoughts of a Part-time Academic

This is our cat, Lucia, who has learned that if she rubs her cheek against that golden ball, the lights turn on and off. This has nothing to do with the blog post except that it is my favorite 2017 holiday photo!
When you are an academic, the holidays are always fraught with anxiety because it is also the end of the semester. Spreadsheets must be created, and grades calculated. This year, that task was complicated by Microslop's Windows 10. You know Microslop, publisher of the sloppiest code on the planet. Windows 10 has managed to affect the interface of every application I use, including Excel . . . but no more on this subject, otherwise I would have to title this post "Holiday Rant."

Computing and submitting student grades on time is complicated by online grading—and the mysterious practices of tech departments. (When I began teaching undergrad classes, there were no tech departments.) I have taught at four colleges since the advent of online grading systems, in two different states and, without fail, each December and June, the tech department schedules upgrades to the "system," either right before the grades are to be submitted or during the week when they are due to be posted for students. At one college, my department required midterm exams (not a usual practice in film or literature), after which professors were given 5 days to submit a midterm grade—just before Thanksgiving break. On the second day, we received an e-mail from the tech department stating that the "system" would be down for an unscheduled but minor "overnight" upgrade.

The upgrade erased everyone's password. It took several hours for all of us in the department to realize that we were not experiencing the usual problems of forgetting our password, or using an outdated password, or having our number lock or cap lock on—the error message was, in fact, the fault of the "system." Since people in different academic departments rarely talk to each other, and there were only a half dozen beleaguered students on the Help Line, and all of us got a busy signal when we called them, the entire institution was in meltdown until we received a second message from the tech department at 2 PM telling us what we already knew . . . But only a select few received that message because we had been clever enough to give the tech department our private e-mail addresses. Without a password, no one could access their college e-mail.

I am too pragmatic a person to be nostalgic; as a woman, I rarely feel that any aspect of my life was better in the past than it is now . . . but I have to admit that I miss the practice of each professor posting grades on their door (by the last four digits of every student's Social Security number). When I was a student, that end-of-term ritual of visiting professors’ offices, where they were required to be at their desks, often yielded informal conversations that, as an undergraduate, one simply did not have with professors outside one's major. For instance, I have the most wonderful memory of an astronomy professor I had as an undergrad.

I should first explain that in my last year of high school, I slid by with a "B" in “advanced algebra” solely because I had Mr. Turner, a gifted teacher who also coached our losing football team. If only Mr. Turner had taught geometry, I might have passed that, too. I went on to my freshman year at a very highly regarded “free school,” where math was not a requirement for students in the “arts”; I reveled in poetry and literature, and developed an interest in film that led me to change my major. Then, a family tragedy brought me back to New York City where I registered for my sophomore year at a city college. Fortunately, my required math class could be substituted with a science class.

By the time I registered, the only choice for non-science majors was astronomy. Chem was closed, as was biology. The registrar’s representative explained that the college had an observatory, and that I was lucky to have the choice of taking the course with a real scholar. It sounded exciting, so I signed up. By the second class, when Professor W began a lecture on parallax angles, I knew I was in trouble. A young man, who might still have been working on his doctorate, and who was on loan from an august institution, he quickly established “extra help” classes for us non-science majors. We met once a week for 1 ½ hours. The catch was that we had to attend all semester. I was the first to sign on, but I still barely maintained a “C” average.

Geometry had again been my downfall. With great trepidation, I approached Professor W’s door; on the grade list next to my Social Security number was a B-. I was absolutely convinced that it was an error, so I knocked and entered the small, windowed office where he was seated, a star chart spread across his desk. He smiled, and said: “Miss Garcia, you must be here because you think I have made an error, but you see, I haven’t. Before I explain your grade, can I ask whether you enjoyed my class?” I said that I loved looking through the telescope and the class lectures; I only wished that I understood more than I did. “I have never done so much work,” I said, “and mastered so little.” He laughed at that, and asked me to sit down.

I learned that Professor W had read the student newspaper where, earlier in the semester, I had been interviewed, along with five other students who had recently transferred from out-of-state colleges. Like the others, I had been asked what new and exciting thing I had learned this semester (a stupid question, I thought, at the time), but I vividly recall my answer: “That I can see into the past. All I have to do is look up at the night sky.” I had used it as the first line of a five-paragraph essay that was a rumination on my grandmother’s ability to see into the past and into the future. She was what Italians call a consigliera. It had garnered me an “A.”

Professor W had read the essay. “Your English teacher showed it to me at a faculty gathering,” he said. “It was fantastic. My second reason for the B- is that I could not accept that such an intelligent young woman, who has such a great love of science and should even consider switching her major to science, although perhaps not to physics, one who had perfect attendance, and who came to all of my extra help classes, could barely manage a C average.” Slightly embarrassed, I managed to say “thank you,” and had to stop myself from asking about the star chart on his desk. He had noticed me staring at it. “Do you know what black holes are, Maria?” It was the 1970s. I said I didn’t, but for the next half hour, Professor W explained them to me, and I actually understood what he said.

Assessment and grading is a necessary evil. It is not that I reject standards; I have lots of them, for myself and my students. I create spreadsheets so that I can defend my grade, if need be, and I am careful to record the extra points I add after calculating my students’ grades—they are often granted for extraordinary effort. But I do not always have the time for the more ephemeral assessment a teacher can provide, as Professor W did for me. His acknowledgment of my ability to adapt what he had taught me, and to use it in a creative way, in a very different discipline, was far more important than that B-.