Sunday, October 22, 2006

Ignoring (or Changing?) the Sabbath

Until today, I have continued to honor the sabbath. It helped that the last two weeks I was traveling on Sundays. Yet, those were not exactly restful and restorative days. They were reflective days, however. Traveling always makes me re-consider my life from a wide perspective.

This past Thursday turned out to be more of a real sabbath for me. We had a brief mid-semester break starting on Thursday (and ending today). I resolved to catch up on grading, but instead began writing my Quakerism and science piece. Since I allow writing on my sabbath (because it is good for my soul and makes me happy), it was Thursday that felt more like a sabbath for me than today.

Today, I have felt under pressure to catch up with the grading (which I have been working on on Friday and Saturday, but didn't finish). My students, coming back from break, will really hope to have some comprehensive assessment of how they are doing now that we are officially halfway through the semester. And grading definitely blows the sabbath. It is gruelling hard work, and it raises my anxiety levels considerably.

I find grading very very difficult for a number of reasons.

First, however, I should put it in a positive context: I do like seeing how students work with the material. I like giving them feedback. It's a chance to engage in one-on-one dialogue with them. It's a very important part of their learning process.

Regarding the giving of grades, while this may seem difficult in philosophy, I actually don't have too much trouble assigning grades. There are actually some pretty clear measures: Does the student have a good understanding of the philosphical ideas he or she is discussing? Does the student have a well-formulated philosophical response? Are there inconsistencies in the student's reasoning? Etc.

So what is hard for me, then?

One thing that is very hard for me is dealing with the students' psychological responses to their grades and my feedback. I have developed good pep talks that do help them to interpret my responses in ways that help them to learn and grow, but even so, I know that it can be hard on them to face up to how exacting philosophy really is. I'm a nice person, in person, and I think it is a bit of a shock for the students to see how high my standards are when I grade. Even though they respect me for it, I keep worrying that they'll give up on themselves too easily.

So much in our culture encourages young people to make premature judgments about what they should do based on whether others think they are good at it or not. If their grades in a particular subject are not as high as they would like, they too quickly assume that they are not good at that subject and shy away from it. They say things about themselves like, "I'm not a math person," or "I'm not good at writing," as if these are permanent statements about who they are, instead of being simply skills that require hard work to master.

No matter how eloquently I may try to counter these assumptions in my classes, mine is just one small voice in a culture that overwhelmingly keeps emphasizing the opposite. The students' disappointment in their grades burns more brightly in their minds than any consoling or encouraging words I can offer, which seem hollow and insincere in comparison. "If you really meant it, you'd give me a higher grade for 'effort' or 'potential,'" I imagine them thinking as I see their formerly open and trusting faces now turn guarded.

And my words are further rendered powerless by the exaggerated power we have given grades in our culture. Grades are not just private communication between teachers and students. They are a quasi-public testimony to what the world interprets as students' ability (not just peformance, but ability). Grades count in ways that really matter. They can open or close very important doors to opportunity: from continuing to receive financial aid to athletic participation to study-abroad to graduate and professional studies beyond college.

Professors are caught in an endlessly difficult dilemma about grading: we are under pressure on the one hand to resist "grade inflation" and set high standards and pretend that grades are just an educational tool. On the other hand, we realize that grades are interpreted in ways we do not intend if we do regard them just as educational, and we get contrasting pressure from students and their parents to be more generous and forgiving in our grading.

What's also hard for me in grading is that when I read student papers, I see how little that I am trying to teach is really getting through to the students. I realize that it is because learning is a developmental process. They need time to grapple on their own with ideas before they are capable of understanding those ideas in deeper and more nuanced ways. But I am haunted by that expression, "A little learning is a dangerous thing," because I cannot shake the sense that the "little learning" most students obtain about philosophy after one semester is highly dangerous indeed. Most simply become convinced relativists. While relativism may be better than an unreflective dogmatism, it's still highly problematic! I understand why Plato thought that people shouldn't begin philosophical study until they are 30!

But I try to console myself: I survived my own relativistic phase, and came through to a different place...but only after years of additional philosophical study. That's not the path most students take. Still, should I not just let go and trust? We who teach are mostly planting seeds. If we do our best in the moment, can't we trust that things will unfold as they should in the long run?

Then, today, as I was working away on the grading, a surprise e-mail came in. Someone saw a reference to my dissertation and has taken an interest in my work. He sees how much I have "in progress" but have not yet published, and says, "I hope you will be able to make good on your plans to publish some of the projects mentioned in your current CV." I am touched and moved. I look again at the student paper I am grading, sigh, close it, and realize that I need my sabbath.

What is it that the world needs most from me? My feedback on students' papers, or my research and writing?


  1. Don't feel guilty about having to labor on the Sabbath from time to time. Keeping Sabbath is good and healthy but as Jesus pointed out sometimes you just have to pull your ass out of a ditch. I don't find traveling relaxing. It often feels like work. Once a month I travel down to visit a worship group that meets on the coast about an hour and 45 minute drive from me. The time for reflection is a good way to spend part of my Sabbath.

    The need to give students accurate and not overly optimistic feedback on their work comes up for me in teaching upper division courses. When I face 50 students in a intro class it's not so much of an issue because the environment isn't so personal. It's also hard to face up to how little of what we try to teach them really sinks in. Philosophy is difficult and abstract stuff and students who are used to getting A's in other courses often don't appreciate how difficult it really is--we really do have standards though to an outsider it sometimes doesn't look like it.

    As for the balance between teaching and research it is often difficult to use discernment and figure it out. Is my research really producing some insight that will solve some problem or am I just getting caught up in an academic ego game? Conversely am I turning away from my research because I see it as not really important or because it's hard work and I'm lazy. It's hard to talk about this with someone who is a Quaker but not a philosopher because they don't understand the philosophy. And it's hard to talk about this with a philosopher who's not a Quaker because they don't share our values. I haven't figured out a good solution to this problem of discernment for myself.

  2. Thank you, Richard! I'm feeling absolved -- and understood! :-)