Old teachers never die, they just grade away.
Saturday, my mom graduates from her Master’s program.
Tonight, as we talked on the phone, she was checking her grades as they showed up online. She reported the points she’d earned on her assignments, and I logged in to my program’s website and looked at the points I’d earned in my last course.
We exchanged point information as badges of honor.
“I earned 388 of 390 points,” I said, “But, I lost those two points because of inconsistent APA citations.”
The less-than-perfect score with which I finished my last course was a result of formatting.
For a few entries on a list of works I’d referenced, I capitalized all of the first letters of the books’ titles rather than the first letter of only the first word as the American Psychological Association decrees.
In my defense, the books, themselves, had each first letter of each word capitalized.
While the Modern Language Association honors such formatting choices, the APA judges this level of capitalization as showy and ostentatious.
I remember when my score for that particular assignment came back to me with the notes from my instructor.
“The APA format of some entries need improvement.”
I was devastated.
It wasn’t for the reasons you’d think. Sure, my formatting was a bit off, but he’d scored my thinking as perfect.
In the last 30 years, I’ve had many thoughts. They’ve been varied in their depth and their breadth. Some were decent. Others were not so hot. I will admit now, not one single thought I’ve ever had has been perfect.
On that assignment and every other assignment for the course, I received perfect marks on my thinking and learning.
I began to worry I’d reached Maslow’s self-actualization, and it wasn’t all it had been cracked up to be.
There is, of course, at least one other possibility.
Given the portions of the assignment that had definite objective qualifiers, my instructor was able to give a less-than-perfect grade and feel justified in his thinking. There were standards, after all.
In the squishier, more subjective areas of the assignment where the quality of thinking, not the quality of writing or citation, was at question, leeway was abundant and doubt was given more benefit that it had earned.
I’m not saying I should have failed.
I earned an A for the course, and worked diligently for it.
My thoughts, though, were imperfect and should have been assessed as such. In some of my thinking, I was lazy. For some of my wording, I was imprecise. As each assignment unfolded, I learned such lackadaisical strategies would yield the same reward as strategies that were more detailed with both my language and my thinking.
I found the bar, sat atop it and never imagined what could be higher.
I’m working with my senior classes to help them practice their skills at close reading. Almost every day they analyze a piece of text for its linguistic, semantic, structural or cultural machinations.
It’s tough work and a skill to be refined.
As I assess their attempts, I’m tempted to give the same marks to the “almost” answers as I would to the “exactly” answers.
They can think more deeply.
They should think more deeply.
That will remain the skill I assess, and my standards will remain high.
If they cite their work with some strange bastardization of MLA and APA, I’ll be happy. So long as it’s thoughtful.