I went off on my College Prep students last night. They've been a troublesome group and that's been only partially their fault. This half semester has been full of breaks and holidays and every time I'd get a momentum going, we'd have a break and lose it. Labor Day, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Columbus Day—every other week, it seemed we had a holiday. It's also been troublesome because I'm not teaching all of the class. I don't mind team teaching, but I think it's a mistake to break these two components—reading and writing—apart, and treat them as though they don't influence each other. And the only reason I'm team teaching is because CUNY, like most universities, limits the number of hours adjuncts can be in the classroom, even though they've increased the instructional hours of the course itself. That's just fucked up on at least two levels: not only does it prevent adjuncts from making a decent living by teaching at a single school rather than at least two, it causes stupid bureaucratic snafus like this one, which hurt students.
But I digress.
I went off on my students last night because when I told them my recommendations about their opportunity to take the CUNY assessement test are due next week, one of them said, "well why should we bother coming back after that?" And I lost it. Sarcasm on full bore, I responded, "because you might possibly still learn something." And then I gave them my patented five-minute lecture about why college is not about grades, it's about knowledge and learning, and how little your GPA matters in the grand scheme of things, and how they're only cheating themselves if they put nothing into the effort of learning.
This fixation on grades is pretty common among high school students and undergraduates. I remember having it myself. But I also remember the moment I realized what bullshit it is. I'd completely blown the final in one of my biology classes, not because I didn't know the material, but simply because it was finals week and my brain seized up like an unoiled engine. All the information was actually in there; I just couldn't get it to come out in coherent sentences or filling in the blanks. I left most of the test blank, in fact, something I never do, because I was just blank myself. Even my prof asked me what was wrong when I handed it in. But I realized as I walked out of the test totally frustrated, that it didn't really matter, ultimately, because I knew I'd learned a lot. I could have gotten at least a B on that exam if my brain hadn't turned to a gooey frozen treat. But that didn't lessen the amount of knowledge I had in my head. And neither did the C I got in the class, though it didn't reflect what I actually knew, either.
And that's why grades as the main focus of academic learning are bullshit. With the crazy emphasis on assessment and test scores that is prevalent in elementary and secondary ed today, it's no wonder students are all about grades. And that does them a disservice too. The best thing you can teach a kid at that age (the earlier, the better) is to love learning. To be curious, rapacious, even, for knowledge. Because the grades follow from that. Grades are just an imperfect tool for trying to see how much of what you've thrown at the wall stuck, and sometimes for how students will use those facts for good or evil.
There's no test that's ever been devised for how that knowledge will shape that student's pursuits, personality, or their actual life outside school, and that's what's really important. Did you learn to think for yourself? Did you learn how to apply reason to your questions? Did you learn something about how the world works beyond the theories? Did you learn the weaknesses of theory without practice and experience? Did you learn how to be kinder? Did you learn how to see and hear and appreciate beauty in its diversity? Did you learn how to step back and see the big picture and where the small picture fits into it? Did you learn from our past mistakes, or at least how to recognize those mistakes?
Those abstractions are the foundation of everything else. And you can't grade those. You can only mourn their lack in the world we've created without them.