Earning a graduate degree in English at Elite National University took intelligence and dedication, but it also required a person to learn the ropes of graduate-student performance. One of the basic rules involved never questioning the judgment of senior professors, especially powerful ones like "Dr. Dreedle," the director of the composition program. Since I feared his wrath, I wasn't the one who complained about his new series of presentations called Teaching Writing. I don't recall who did, but I do remember that Dr. Dreedle shut down all debate by announcing, "Someday you'll be glad we offered these sessions."
The hourlong talks were given by not-yet-tenured faculty members in the English department. Dr. Dreedle attended the sessions regularly, of course, as did the program's assistant director, "Dr. Cathcart," but none of the other tenured professors did. Junior faculty members showed up because they wanted to get in good with the powerful Dr. Dreedle. TA's showed up because Dr. Dreedle told us to.
The other struggling TA's and I would have welcomed a chance to become better at teaching writing, but we found the sessions useless. I recall sitting through a talk given by "Dr. Pathos," a professor notorious for emoting in public. She began by saying, "When you assign a paper, keep in mind that your students actually have to write it. Make sure that's possible. Try writing a paper yourself in response to each assignment before you give it."
So graduate students who were struggling to handle their own course work, plus grade 50 papers as a TA, ought to increase their workload by writing freshman papers themselves? I glanced at "Marcus," one of the best graduate students. He shook his head. I looked at another student, "Lucy," who just rolled her eyes. If even the most gifted of my colleagues wouldn't try this added task, I felt suspicious. Did Dr. Pathos, an assistant professor seeking tenure, actually write freshman essays before she assigned them?
Despite my skepticism, I listened on, hoping to gain something useful. At one point Dr. Pathos said, "A truly worthwhile assignment inspires the student to make an emotional investment in writing the paper. When you're searching for a topic, think of the writing assignments that excited you when you were an undergraduate."
Writing assignments that excited me as an undergrad? I couldn't recall ever feeling emotionally attached to a paper. I checked off a few in my mind: Duplicity in Richard III hadn't moved me, nor had Richard Nixon's role in Watergate, nor debunking potato-chip ads. Nonetheless, Dr. Pathos was an expert, so for my next class I gave my charges an assignment that mirrored my own experiences at Elite National U: I asked the students to write about a time they had great expectations that ended in disappointment.
The results disappointed me. Half the students raged about having to settle for Elite National U after getting rejected by institutions higher on the food chain; most of the rest lamented their parents' divorce. Only one essay stood out. One young woman, "Mindi," wrote about a time in middle school when she decided that having sex would make her life perfect. She began to seduce a boy, and described the experience in messy detail that I didn't need to know.
Another professor, "Dr. Logos," gave a presentation entitled "Teaching Logic." He was notorious for laughing too readily, but I went to his talk eagerly since I had a session on logic scheduled in my classes in several days. Dr. Logos began by saying, "I know that you came to hear a presentation on teaching logic." He giggled. "But I'm giving a paper on logic and literature at an upcoming conference, so I thought I'd practice on you." He gave a disconcerting guffaw, followed by repeated chuckles throughout the hour.
The topic of another session, "Grading Papers," sounded promising. The presenter was "Dr. Ethos," a gaunt woman unable to make direct eye contact with others. She spent much of the period going through basics that I already knew but at one point announced, "When you grade freshman essays, you really shouldn't spend more than 10 minutes on each one."
A murmur of disbelief went up from the TA's. "You need to be able to get six done an hour if you're going to survive in this profession," she said.
How could a person read six essays in an hour, consider their strengths and shortcomings, and make encouraging comments that would help students improve as writers? Was there some subtle trick to grading effectively at that pace?
Of course not. When she implied that a human being could grade six essays an hour—and do a good job of it—Dr. Ethos was lying. Even a novice knew that. I also knew that performing as a grad student meant not challenging my superiors, but I gave in to the desire that Edgar Allan Poe labels the imp of the perverse, the urge to do something just because I shouldn't. I raised my hand and said politely, "It's good to know that I need to grade six papers per hour, but right now I can handle only four. Could you and the other professors give us tips on how you reach the six-per-hour rate?"
Dr. Ethos stared in my general direction without making eye contact. Silence. I looked around the room. Dr. Dreedle and Dr. Cathcart, the only tenured persons in the room, glared right at me, but the junior professors all stared at the tops of their desks, just like my freshmen did when they couldn't answer a question.
Denouncing hypocrisy in public is more exhilarating than sitting in a classroom and haggling over Heidegger's infatuation with fascism. I wanted to stand up and say, "You know that the only way to process six essays an hour is to skim them. You aren't teaching us grading. You're teaching us how to avoid grading. You're lucky that our students' parents haven't caught on to this charade."
Yes, I wanted to declare something grand like that, but I also felt certain that if I stepped any further outside the boundaries of acceptable grad-student performance, Dr. Dreedle would end my career, so I remained silent.
Dr. Ethos looked down at her paper. "You just have to learn to pace yourself," she said. "Let's move on."
A week later, I had an epiphany about our exchange. Since earning tenure at Elite National U depended upon publishing a lot, and since grading essays ate up time that could be spent on publishing, the junior faculty members would be fools not to skim papers. When she told us about the pace of grading, Dr. Ethos was simply performing the part of a not-yet-tenured professor.
That insight opened the door to another. Why would the junior professors waste time participating in the Teaching Writing series? To make TA's better teachers? No, they were putting on a show so they would get a nod and a letter from Dr. Dreedle come tenure-decision time.
As they padded their CV's, however, the junior professors also modeled appropriate performance at Elite National University. Dr. Pathos didn't write papers to try out her assignments, but she showed the importance of claiming that she cared about her freshmen. Dr. Logos revealed that conference presentations are so important that he could trick graduate students into helping him rehearse. When Dr. Ethos stated that we needed to grade six essays an hour, she really meant that freshmen are an enemy that must be manipulated.
The junior professors couldn't speak those truths directly any more than the university could say to prospective students, "A liberal-arts college will give you personal attention, and a community college will offer you bargain-rate tuition, but come to Elite National University because we'll give you instructors we're paying to do research rather than teach you."
The series revealed that I'd become involved in a more sophisticated bait-and-switch than I'd realized, so Dr. Dreedle turned out to be right when he said that someday the TA's would be glad Elite National University had offered it.
What's more, Dr. Dreedle himself confirmed the lessons underlying the speakers' presentations. One day when a couple of TA's groaned about grading essays while trying to complete their own papers, he said, "If you ever have to choose between your own studies and the freshmen, shortchange the freshmen. They aren't the reason you came to Elite National University."
When the director of the first-year composition program tells his own instructors that they aren't at the university to teach, what more truth could a grad student ask for?