Untenured

Untenured

A weeklong electronic journal.
Feb. 17 1999 9:30 PM

Untenured

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The German philosopher Walter Benjamin reminds us that hell is "the province of those who are not allowed to complete anything they have started." I spent another day in hell. If you read yesterday's diary, you will recall that I had promised to return a set of papers to my students. As of 9:30 a.m., I am just beginning to grade them. My worst fears are confirmed. I read the first one and discover that it is incoherent, badly written, and has no main idea. Worse, all the mangled phrases in the paper sound like someone has taped my voice and played it back in slow motion so that it makes the kind of canned groaning noises one plays in haunted houses to scare small children. The next one is a better-organized version of the first one. Here I am subjected to legible sound bites of my own voice. That is even scarier. The paper is dutiful, superficial, and full of spelling and grammatical errors. Quickly losing faith, I decide to cheat. I flip through the pile to find the one written by the student that I suspect should turn out to be the smartest in the class. The paper is unreadable; I stuff it under the bottom of the pile. Now I am frantically thumbing through the pile to find the paper written by the student who will really turn out to be the smartest in the class. In this paper, I discover the horrible truth. The student had clearly struggled and had honestly put on a good show, but even she could muster no real interest, conviction, or understanding of the book we had been reading over the last three weeks. I take a deep breath.

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Just then, there's a loud knock at my door. In walks one of my most respected senior colleagues. I haven't seen him for a year, since he has been away on sabbatical. He is holding a manuscript covered with scrawls. It is a chapter of my book. I had sent it to him and he graciously agreed to read it for me. After a preliminary compliment or two, he cuts to the chase. My argument is cogent but there are factual errors in my chapter. It seems that I make some claims that are downright wrong. He has generously documented my mistakes and suggested revisions. Oh well, I think. So much for having "finished" the chapter.

Nonetheless, I am relieved by his response. He, at least, is a "friendly" reader. What will happen when some less friendly reader gets his paws on the thing? Some of those less friendly readers live in my department. Others write anonymous reader's reports for university presses. I consider myself lucky, but now it is 11:15 a.m., and I have to run to class without having graded the papers but having graded just enough of them to make me feel both guilty and hostile. I am also quasi-underprepared because I stupidly thought that I would have the time to look over my teaching notes before heading off to class.

As I rush to class, late, I bump into the incomparable B. Today the sight of him fills me with horror--as if he had sprung fully formed out of my own description of him in yesterday's diary. Flustered, I rush into class and do the absolutely worst thing a professor can ever do: I apologize, I confess, and then I share my honest impressions of the papers I have read with the students!

I hear myself asking them whether they want me to grade "honestly" or whether they want me to "inflate their grades" to spare their feelings! I can't believe my own ears! I'm finished! I really must blame the Slate "Diary" for this. It has gotten me into the habit of reflecting on my teaching, and now I am confiding, confessing, and reflecting to my students.

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Now, since I hadn't returned the papers when I said I was going to, I do what every guilty professor does--I create more work for myself. I propose that they "sign up" for individual meetings with me this week so that we can discuss them as "drafts" and then they will rewrite them for an honest, but improved, grade. So now it is 1 p.m. and my papers are even less graded than they were at 9:30 and I have just lost eight more hours of the rest of my week.