Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Thurs, 24 Mar 1994
I slept in this morning and went out a bit later than usual. After all, it is the break between winter and spring quarters. It was very nice outside, a tad on the warm side, enough to break into a slight sweat. The entire route was lined by a sun-bathed nature bragging with a dazzling display of fluttering yellow butterflies, azaleas blooming in a variety of colors, flowering white and pink dog woods, beds of daffodils, and an amaryllis and bearded iris or two poking through here and there. I walked this morning with a sense of hesitant and reflective relief. The Quarter is over. Grades are in. The Judgement Days are over. The week-long dark and depressing period of senseless life-threatening torture on campus that contrasts with the surrounding beautiful reminders of renewed life has come to an end. My mortality has returned. My cloak of supposedly divine infallibility, now wrinkled and tattered and stained, once again hangs in the closet; my reserved seat on Mount Sinai once again stands empty.
During the last week of class, many of my students had been making their final exam presentations, displaying that awe, wonder, curiosity, risk-taking, knowledge and personal growth that education should be all about. There were Mickie, Eric and Christy singing their original song, music and lyrics, on slavery and racism; Mike, Sarah and Janice discussed their sculptured figures depicting their answer to the question, "What is an American?" Two triads ran an impressive bingo-type game called "Histo"; two other triads put together a takeoff on Hollywood Squares which they called "Schmier's Squares"; four triads presented a great Jeopardy show. Lamonica, Stacia and Travis involved the class in a profoundly realistic role playing skit that taught what it was like being the brunt of prejudice and hatred as a minority throughout American history. Brad, Tim and Mandy made a video tape of their original four-act pantomime play on the influence of religion in the American experience; Pat and Jaime presented their original, interactive computer program on religion in American history; and two triads sent the class out on a scavenger hunt all over campus that required a knowledge of the religious experience in American history.
How to grade that. How to take all that exciting and daring creativity, imagination, understanding, and accomplishment, and convert and compress it into an unexciting, impersonal, and inadequately revealing letter grade. My eyes still sting, my brain still hurts, my back still aches, my heart still tugs. I am mentally tired, emotionally drained, physically worn out, and just numb. It takes me a lot of time and effort and concentration to issue a final grade for a student. No computer grading programs for me! For six days, including a Monday all-nighter to meet the registrar's deadlines, for each of my 120 students, I have been struggling to "get a feel" for the "big picture," to see how far each student has come from where he or she was. I poured over their journals; pondered their weekly self-evaluations, final self- evaluations, and peer evaluations of each other; went over my daily class notations; reflected on the final exam presentations; recalled conversations with them; factored in both academic and character development during the *entire* quarter; balanced effort and performance; assessed just what it was each student learned; juggled quiz grades and weekly written assignment evaluations; thought about the nature of participation in daily class discussions and contributions to the triad. I pushed my "blueberries" perceptions to the edge. Then, second guessing myself, I went through the torturous process again. For more than a student or two or three, I called upon the "Schmier factor" for an adjustment here and there. Progress, development, improvement, growth, and process are words that reflect my guiding criteria for evaluation; not calculation or compilation.
I'd be dishonest if I didn't admit that there were times I was tempted to envy so many of my colleagues who with great ease coldly, distantly and quickly add, divide, calculate, record, hand in, and go off; or who let a mindless, heartless, computer program do the calculations for them. It would be so easy to agree with those who comfortably argue that their grades reveal unbiased judgement, consistent standards, impartial evaluation. I could avoid all of my inner turmoil if I accepted the fact that grades present precise instruments of evaluation, offer irrefutable evidence of performance, are scientifically arrived at, and provide absolute truth. Each time, I realize that handling an arithmetical compilation is so much simpler, easier, and safer than handling the unpredictable and extremely variable human equation. So many people place so much stock in something that is so arbitrary and means so little. They get so nervous thinking that there may exist things that are beyond standardized or absolute measure that they tend to measure only that which is measurable. I can't, however, in good conscience be intellectually or emotionally imprisoned, or immobilized by numbers, or shirk my responsibility by hiding behind scores, or feign innocence by proclaiming, "I had no choice. The grades made me do it!"
Those kinds of grades don't say how far each student has come, with what they had to struggle, the barriers they had to overcome. I wish you all could read some of these students' journals. If you did, you'd be gripped by the sincerity of Robin saying:
I have never ever relied upon anyone else or trusted anyone for anything. What I have painstakingly come to realize is this: no one could possibly do everything themselves all the time. Sometimes one has to depend on others to help them accomplish their goals. To not trust others and depend only on myself was cheating the other members of my triad of their responsibility. I learned much about myself and others during my time in this class. I believe now that was, aside from learning history, the main purpose from the beginning.
I racked my brain trying to figure out how to quantify fairly the immeasurable, how to gauge a numerical or letter value for those ethereal feelings and those accomplishments. I despise having to take the human quotient of my class and reduce it to cold, impersonal numbers and letters. It's like sucking the spirit out of the students and reducing them to the proverbial $1.47 cents worth of chemicals. I will not accept the assignment of the role of an academic meat inspector staining the rump of each student as they emerge from the class at the end of the quarter like so many sides of beef coming out from a meat-packing plant with a purple stamp of approval segregating them into: premium, choice, commercial.
I think that the personal growth the students take with them out from the classroom is far more important than the quizzes and tests they take and leave inside the classroom. The simple truth is that the more I get involved in the humanity of each of my students, the harder it is for me to ignore their humanity and the humanity of the classroom experience. And so, I admit a lot of non-measurable intuition goes into my evaluation because a lot of what I think should be factored in defies the quantative demands of the slide-rule. I just do what I tell my students to do. I take the risk, jump in, rely heavily upon my gut feeling, that "blueberry" sense, call it intuition, and issue a grade swearing under my breath, "never more, never more, never more."
Needless to say, that I have been agonizing about grades on most of my walks this past week. I can't say that any of the walks were easy. The rhythmic beats of my feet touching the asphalt during each walk, however, have made me feel increasingly lyrical about the subject, a phrase here and a phrase there. This morning, about a mile from the house on the return leg of my walk I felt it all coming together. I couldn't wait to finish. I gathered speed with increasing elation. A few blocks from the house, I started running. I rushed inside the house before the spirit left me. So, here I am with rivulets of sweat streaming down my body in a very giddy, "'Poe'-etic" mood:
Grades. Grades. Grades. The tintinnabulation of grades. grades, grades. Letter grades. Numerical grades. Pass/Fail grades. The student's chests are palpitating by the cold, inhuman calculating of passing grades, failing grades, average grades. From the juggling and the tinkering of professorial hankering with curved grades, sliding grades, adjusted grades. You can listen to the fuss over the minus and the plus of grades, grades, grades. Student spirits afluttering. Their tightened lips amuttering. Their tortured minds acluttering because of grades, grades, grades! Student moods are somber waiting for that number fighting for that letter that lets them think they're better. Just see their grades, grades, grades Telephones are ringing with the melancholy singing of desperate desire, rising higher, higher, higher. What a world of solemn thought these computations bade! What a tale of terror these recordings made! Hear muted voices groaning in their sleep amoaning. Their bodies tossing and turning, their fevered hearts aburning about grades, grades, grades Bodies bolt upright in the middle of the night dripping drops of sweat wondering what they'll get with an awful cravin' for that assuring haven of a passing grade, grade, grade. In the silence of the night, students shiver with cold fright of the coming light when the judgements on the door are posted of the ones the prof has hosted. Through the halls the students ramble to see if they had won their gamble. Afraid of that fateful blow; yet, all wanting to know "What have I made?" "What have I made?" "What have I made?" What a horror grades outpour, tho few can say what they're for There is nothing discerning that grades reveal any learning. It truly is a wonder that no one thinks they blunder when they kill that glorious awe and wonder With the drowning tintinnabulation of grades, grades, grades.
Make it a good day. --Louis-- Louis Schmier (912-333-5947) firstname.lastname@example.org Department of History /~\ /\ /\ Valdosta State University /^\ / \ / /~ \ /~\__/\ Valdosta, Georgia 31698 / \__/ \/ / /\ /~ \ /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\ -_~ / "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\ _ _ / don't practice on mole hills" -\____