Monday, May 11, 2009

Re-making the Grade

In which we see a student
poke a hole in a
stone wall of perception

The Felix Chronicles, #23

"Aha -- so there you are," Nate says to me as I'm about to ascend the stairs to my office. "I'd just been upstairs waiting for you, and decided you weren't going to make it."

Damn. I had hoped to use the twenty free minutes I thought I had to catch up on my e-mail. Nate has been talking for weeks
about coming to see me about that research essay of his. He never showed up last week for his appointment (something about a math test that ran long), which I didn't mind. I don't recall setting aside this time to talk, which we may well have. I don't write down appointments at times I expect to be at my desk anyway. Scheduling with students tends to be a fluid affair on both sides.

"Sorry I'm late -- I got hung up at the attendance office," I say, as if I knew he was waiting. "But I'm glad you're here. It's about your essay, right?"

"Yes." His affirmation has an assertive quality.

"Well c'mon back up. We'll finally talk about it."

Nate turns around and follows me as I head to my desk; I gesture for him to take a seat in what is happily an otherwise empty room, as the colleagues with whom I share it are all off teaching. While he pulls his essay out of backpack, I open up my laptop, check my phone (no messages) and look up to face him. "So, Nate, what's on your mind?"

"It's about my grade on my Stonewall Jackson essay. I worked hard on it, and think I deserve a better grade."

My gr
adebook is at my left. I silently pick it up, flip to Nate's class, and look at the ledger. B+. Actually, I think of that as a high grade for Nate. He's been B or B- for most of the semester. I really don't remember much of this particular essay. But my perception of Nate at this point is pretty well established. Prosaic ideas, weak organization: He's simply not an A student. "Why don't you tell me in your words what my message was to you," I say. My standard opening gambit.

"You told me that my essay wasn't focused," Nate reports. "That I had competing ideas. That I said that Jackson was brilliant tactically at the Second Battle of Bull Run and Chancellorsville, and that I also talked about how popular he was with his men. Which you said didn't seem relevant."

Now I remember. "Right. You had competing theses. Actually, Nate, I thought you had done a reasonably good job on that essay. The first draft as I recall was a mess."
An understatement, and one that compounded my perception of him as slapdash. I remember Nate was the last one to board the bus at one point on last fall's Boston trip. Claimed the bus driver told him the wrong corner. Whatever the reason, I was annoyed. And it's lingered with me, fairly or not.

"Yeah," he concedes. "I got off to a late start on the project. But I worked hard on it. You said the first draft was a report. That I didn't analyze. I guess that's true. But I did a lot of research after that. And I thought I was making a good point, doing what you asked, when I emphasized his ability to strike quickly and confuse Pope and Hooker."

"That's right," I affirm. You came a long way, Nate. And I wanted to honor that, which I thought I was doing with the B+. But in a way, you did too much of a good thing. I didn't see why his personal popularity was really relevant to your argument." I pause, as I remember something else: "And you have this bad habit of making unnecessary assertions. I mean, what difference does it make if Jackson was popular? And what evidence do you have that he was popular?" I've never thought of him as a particularly beloved general, like Robert E. Lee. He was a weirdo -- sucking those lemons all the time, raised arm into battle, and all that -- and he worked his soldiers brutally hard."

"That's the thing," Nate says, as if he's about to play a trump card, though I have a hard time imagining what that would be. "I was making a point about leadership. Jackson's ideas about tactics alone never would have made much difference if he didn't inspire his men."

"Yes, but do you have any evidence that he did? You don't support the point."

"Yeah, I do," he responds. "When I went to my branch of the New York Public Library over spring break, a librarian there showed me a couple memoirs and I have the quotes." He pauses and purses his lips: he's unhappy, but his ire is turned inward. "I meant to put those quotes in," he says. "I can see they would have helped."

"Yes," I say, "they would." I feel like I have the tactical upper hand here. But I also fe
el a twinge of guilt. Though I don't find the argument entirely compelling or convincing, I see Nate had real reasons to forge the link he was trying to make between tactics and popularity. And I'm surprised that he did bona fide research using primary sources. "Let me have a look at that," I say, taking the essay from him. Though there's no mention of popularity in the introduction -- there really should be if it's going to be central to the larger argument -- I see the fusion of tactics and popularity into to the key concept of leadership is explicit in the conclusion. I've sold Nate short -- not a lot, but definitely a little. But I don't want to concede that, for my sake or his.

"Okay," I say, resolving on a strategy that has a substantial amount of truth to it, "what I'm seeing here, Nate, is a classic pattern in which a writer has real ideas that he doesn't convey clearly enough to a reader. The reader wonders why the writer is saying what he is, and concludes that the writer is confused or fuzzy-headed. But the problem is in the realm of execution, not conception. I think that if you did a better job early on at conveying the relationship between Jackson's strategic brilliance and his appeal to his men, and being explicit that they're components of leadership, and then supported that point with the evidence you forgot to put in, the essay would be considerably stronger. Why don't you take another shot at it? Wouldn't take much work. Make those fixes and I'll see my way to doing something about that grade."

You can forget the straight A, I think to myself. I'll concede A territory to Nate, but still don't think of him as a sufficiently graceful writer or original thinker to merit more than an A-. (John, the chair of my department, calls this "protecting the A.") But I now see in a way I haven't before that Nate may get there -- and that the persistence he's shown today will be a factor in helping him get across the threshold, whether or not it happens on my watch.

"Sounds good," he says, clearly satisfied. "When do you want the re-write?"

"I dunno. How about Friday?"

"Can I have the weekend? I have a Spanish test on Thursday and a really big lacrosse game."

Don't push your luck, kid, I think. But really, I rebuke myself -- what difference does it make? I'm only going to skim it for the changes we've discussed anyway. "First thing Monday morning, then. Put it in my mailbox."

"Thanks a lot, Mr. Cullen. I appreciate it."

"No problem, Nate. Always good to learn a thing or two about ol' Stonewall Jackson."

And, I think as he leaves, a thing or two about my limits. Even if it stings a bit.