Not long ago, Michael Winerip, of The New York Times, visited Ursinus College to see the room where J.D. Salinger lived for one semester. He chatted with some of the students who had lived there in recent years, winners of the college's creative-writing scholarship.
Winerip also went to the archives of the school paper to read Salinger's column, presciently called "The Skipped Diploma." And, well: "The writing is so snide and hip and insiderly, it is almost impossible to tell what, if anything, he was trying to say. He was also the paper's theater critic, but his reviews were mindlessly positive and cloying, particularly when it came to female roles, and some scholars have speculated that his primary artistic goal was bedding coeds."
In other words, as a college freshman, J.D. Salinger was full of it.
If that's insulting, the insult is borne as well by us, as teachers, when the most maddening of our students turn in the most egregious excuses for assignments. I am talking about students who we know are capable of a much better effort, and about "work" that will take far longer to grade than it took to write.
Upon being presented with such dreck, the teacher has a range of responses from which to choose. I want to make the case for mercy. I want to argue that incoherence, distraction, and defiance are necessary precursors to originality. Many students, not just the geniuses, need the time and space and freedom to be full of it.
My thesis is not new, but it seems especially urgent right now, because it flies in the face of two powerful prevailing winds. On the one hand, there is the current crude reductionism of education to a financial transaction, masked by the pseudoscientific jargon of "outcomes assessment" and "value added." On the other hand, faculty are obliged to have a heightened reactivity to any whiffs of crazy—the hard-won lesson of incidents like the Virginia Tech rampage.
Still, let us remember that it has not been the regimentation of American higher education or the homogeneity of its "product" that has made it the envy of the world, and that for many of the world's geniuses, the road to conquering crystal peaks has passed inevitably through the slough of dung.
I think we also need to look closer to home, to the intolerance created by our own vanity. As teachers, we are heavily invested in the virtue of impartiality. We develop protocols to ensure fairness, and we stick to them. But of course every student is different, and of course, like most human creatures, we hate the feeling of being disrespected. It was fine for Descartes to negate all his professors and start over. Dandy for Manet to splatter the French Academy, for Einstein to reject the Gymnasium, for Dick Fosbury to flop his way to greatness, turning his back on generations of high jumpers before him. But when it's my student gassing on about Lady Gaga when I asked for a paper on Gilgamesh , that's a different story.
We say that we prize nonconformity and originality, but those dinghies can be hard to spot in the choppy seas of sloppiness, inattention, and laziness. I remember an occasion when a colleague stormed up to me, shaking in fury at a student "who just doesn't give a damn." In his hands was the prima facie evidence, its margins writhing with the ink of his indignation. The next day that student stopped by my office. She expressed disappointment over the lousy grade and astonishment over the apparent ill will in the comments. She'd worked on the paper all night. What she'd said was important to her. When I drew her attention to the obvious, she frowned, as if trying to comprehend the relevance of my point, and said, "Well, I didn't proofread it."
I imagine professors reading this, pausing here as the image of some particularly disagreeable student rises up like the Ghost of Semesters Past. I see their collective thought bubble: Tommy Smith was no budding Einstein—that kid was just full of it.
Well, weren't we all? Some of us, anyway. My senior year in high school, I was editor of the school paper. The first issue, of which I was very proud, unleashed a mimeographed pile of snark that was, as Winerip might have put it, "so snide and hip and insiderly, it is almost impossible to tell what, if anything," I was trying to say. I remember two faculty reactions. The first was that of Brother Leonard, my Latin teacher. Brother Leonard was also the track coach, and in his behavior he reverted to that role. That is, he dragged me into an empty classroom, shut the door, and proceeded to rip me up one side the blackboard and down the other: I was rude. Disrespectful. A joke as a journalist. An embarrassment to the good name of Precious Blood Seminary. Had not his vows precluded such language, he would have told me I was full of it, and not in those exact words. I know he was thinking it.
The second response was from mild, intellectual Father Dennis. He didn't say a word. Just handed me a copy of my broadsheet, typos and mistakes neatly marked. Coming from the hand of this respected teacher, the red ink horrified me. To this day, I get an evil little grin when I picture Brother Leonard, red-faced to the roots of his crew cut, wagging his finger in my face. To this day, I Taser myself inwardly when I remember that I once authored the headline: "Conductive to Learning."
Nor did it stop there. I went on to be full of it for most of my undergraduate and graduate career. I sometimes have the urge to write grateful letters to all the professors who indulged me or cut me slack, but I'm afraid they might take it the wrong way. And still, for all that, I'm no genius, damn it all. But I am, thanks to them, a more interesting thinker than I would have been had I been the product of stricter regimes.
At this point I am obliged to make the usual concessions. To admit that no, I don't want my heart surgeon to be the kid who was full of it in anatomy class. I yield the floor, temporarily, to everyone at the faculty meeting who needs to stand up and speak to our obligation to uphold standards, and to tell their glowing tales of students who made the great leap forward when a brave professor drew a line in the sand and dared them to cross it. Yes, granted. Recognizing the pluralism of effective teaching methods is just as important as acknowledging the variety of learning styles.
What, then, are we to do when a student hands in crap? Particularly when it comes from a student who we are convinced has a lot cooking upstairs. And not just crap, but work that's so far out in left field it needs a different ZIP code, when its outcome defies assessment, when its value-added quotient is in the negative double digits, when it seems the author could not have read, or else must be consciously spitting in the face of, the assignment.
What I do is take a deep breath. Put it aside and come back to it later. I assure myself, against all the screaming weenies of my vanity, that the person on the other side of the exchange did not perform this speech act out of contempt for me. I construct meaning out of the rubble, and endeavor, above all, to resist the delicious invitation to sarcasm: I like that your paper references popular culture, but you might bring in some mention of Gilgamesh, perhaps how Lady Gaga relates to the female deities of the epic. I treat my sense of insult as a barometer: The higher it spikes, the larger the potential, perhaps, that this person could become a most interesting and original thinker—even if, in this particular moment, she or he is totally full of it.
Concluding his review of Salinger's formative stage, Winerip wrote: "If there is one single thing he did at Ursinus that would hint of the perfect short stories to come: 'For Esme—With Love and Squalor'; 'Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes'; 'A Perfect Day for Bananafish'—no one has unearthed it yet."
And yet those perfect short stories did come.