By Michael Dirda
The spring semester officially ended earlier this week at the University of Maryland. Last Sunday, May 20, under a perfect blue sky, seniors tossed their mortarboards into the air, then went on to open houses and lawn parties to celebrate. I confess that I can’t help but envy all those smiling graduates just starting out in life, so full of youth and energy and dreams. When I look back …
Stop. Let’s not go further down that path toward corny commencement-style remarks, shall we? After all, my own thoughts on such occasions can generally be boiled down to: “Best of luck, kids. Have fun.”
I filed the grades for my class on “The Modern Adventure Novel” last Friday. Setting aside the demands of marking 35 final exams and as many term papers in little more than a week, I would say that assigning grades is the worst part of being a teacher. Do you judge by performance and accomplishment alone? How important is effort or improvement? Should one err on the side of kindness—more grade inflation!—or insist on a return to standards, whatever those are?
In my own life, grades have always been a vexation. When I was very little, my report cards tended to be speckled with Us—for Unsatisfactory—or with hand-scrawled remarks saying “Needs Improvement.” In high school I regularly flouted pedagogical authority, such that I would often receive shockingly poor marks. For the first grading period of my senior year, I earned—and let me stress that verb—a D in English. As for college: well, I struggled manfully for two years to break out of the category of the hard-working B-minus student. I did eventually, but by then the psychological damage was done.
At any given moment, I’ve always assumed that nearly everyone around me was smarter than I was, more naturally gifted, quicker-witted, and probably capable of understanding Heidegger and Derrida. Even now people frequently snicker when I admit that I can’t fathom what Wittgenstein meant by “The world is everything that is the case.” They look pitying when I confess that all those “intuitive” aspects of digital technology aren’t intuitive to me. Yes, with concerted effort I can follow written instructions, but don’t ask me to simply grasp how to operate a smartphone. My own $20 Nokia from Radio Shack has features that even now remain mysterious to me. What, for instance, is a Media Net? Don’t even start to explain. It won’t mean anything to me.
No, long ago I realized that my only talent—aside from the rugged good looks, of course, and the strange power I hold over elderly women—can be reduced to a single word: doggedness. I’m sometimes willing to put in vast, even inordinate amounts of time if I find a project that interests me. I will then study with Talmudic devotion, consult with experts, adopt training regimes that would inspire Olympians, and then, suddenly, drop whatever it is and move on. For years I ran or exercised every day and wore size 32 slacks. That’s in the waist, not the length. Then, one day, I stopped, and now I’m embarrassed to get into my pajamas at night. My house itself is a shambles, being awash in vinyl LPs, classic men’s clothing, manual typewriters, luggage of all kind, scores of thrift-shop neckties and quite a few books. Okay, thousands of books. Many of them in boxes. In the basement. I’ve actually got six hulking double-sided bookcases, purchased from Borders when they went out of business, just sitting in my garage, waiting for a space to put them in. My wife draws the line at the dining room, even though we could easily eat our meals on trays.
People can be so judgmental too, and I have even heard words like “compulsive-obsessive” and “hoarding” spoken in my presence. That last sounds especially harsh. I really need all these heaped-up newspapers in the hallway. Okay, that was a joke, though I do have some pretty impressive stacks of old issues of the Times Literary Supplement. You never can tell when you’ll want to settle down with an article about Roman coins of the fourth century.
Anyway, that’s why I dislike grades. People are individual, so how can you reduce them to an A, a B, or a C? Or even, sometimes, to a D—along with an invitation to stop by for a quiet chat with Dr. Calta, the high school principal?
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.