I’ve been thinking about a couple of my odder experiences in library school lately, possibly because I recently read my teaching evaluations from last fall and am also working on an article on the ethics of unobtrusive reference evaluation (which has required actual research, and has thus seriously cut into my blogging time). A chain of associations carried me back to an interaction I once had with a library school professor that I can only call an obtrusive teacher evaluation.
In one of those intro classes that anyone who could read could teach but apparently not teach well, we were required to write a one-page “essay.” I can’t remember if it was supposed to have any purpose, but probably not. Regardless, I cranked it out and handed it in. It came back with a grade of B. Okay, I could live with that, though it surprised me a bit, since I’m a competent writer. I was also surprised he’d turned one of my commas into a semicolon, thus creating a fragment, and turned my one semicolon into a comma, thus creating a run-on sentence. But everyone has their bad days when basic grammar is just too much trouble. However, I then found out in discussion with other students that everyone got a B. That is, every person in a very large class got a B. Nobody got an A. Nobody got a C, D, or F (are library schools allowed to fail anyone?). This seemed peculiar.
Still, I wasn’t going to complain. What’s one B more or less? But a couple of days later I was passing by the professor’s office and decided to ask him about it. Not so much about my grade, as about the odd fact that everyone got the exact same grade. When I asked him, he said they just all seemed like B papers to him. By that time I’d been teaching and grading essays in rhetoric and literature for a few years, and I found his answer very unsatisfactory. In a slightly disingenuous manner I asked him if he could articulate his grading standards for me, so that I might be able to meet them in the future. That is, what made a paper an A or a B or a C, what did he look at when grading, etc. At that point he started giving me the runaround, and it was clear that he had no idea. He didn’t know what made a good or bad essay, other than his gut “feeling.” Lots of people think grading essays is very subjective, but that’s not true. It’s fairly easy to articulate standards, and with common standards there’s often a broad consensus on proper grades. “Feeling” like a paper is one grade or another without being able to justify a grade is a mark of a bad teacher, and also means the teacher cannot guide those students who honestly do want to know what standards they need to meet to succeed.
We discussed this and some other teaching issues. The class in general was badly run and his teaching ethos was deteriorating quickly for me. Finally, his avoidance of straight answers led me to ask the most aggressive question I’ve ever asked one of my teachers. Angry at his vague evasiveness, I asked, “Have you ever taught before?” I felt a little bad, because he was a nice guy, well meaning and seemed kind, but I resent unqualified people being my instructors. After a bit more stammering, he admitted that he hadn’t taught before. So he hadn’t taught, hadn’t graded, and frankly couldn’t lead a discussion. And yet he had the power over my grade. I went to library school for free, and in this class I was getting what I paid for, which I suppose made up for the bargains I received in a few classes with good instructors.
I left in a huff, feeling angry both at having what I considered an unqualified professor and also at myself for letting it get to me. The denouement? From then on, every assignment I turned in got an A+, and there was still no explanation why. Probably he just didn’t want to have any more exchanges with that unreasonable, angry student.