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Smash Those Boxes (And Maybe Pee On Them A Little)

Reading, and absolutely loving, Harlan Coben’s novel ‘Six Years’. It’s a mystery story that feels genuinely new. But there was one passage, on page 44, that made me feel like shouting ‘hallelujah!’. See, the protagonist is a uni lecturer… and this is what he says:

I focused on the student essays. Most were numbingly tedious and expected, written as though to fit a high school teacher’s rote expectations. These were top-level students who knew how to write ‘A+’ high school papers, what with their opening paragraph, introductory sentences, supportive body, all that stuff that makes an essay solid and ridiculously boring. As I mentioned earlier, my job is to get them to think critically. That was always more important to me than having them remember the specific philosophies of, say, Hobbes or Locke. You could always look those up and be reminded of what they were. Rather, what I really hoped was my students would learn to both respect and piss all over Hobbes and Locke. I wanted them to not only think outside the box, but to get to that outside by smashing the box into little pieces.

How I feel and what I think, captured perfectly! University should be beyond ticking boxes. Maybe those things are necessary in high school: gotta learn the rules before you can break ’em. But once you know them, you ought to be able to break them good and hard. To be creative and critical and thoughtful, and to let yourself and the way you feel and think come through… rather than making the essay fit the same cookie cutter as the other couple of dozen on my desk.

When I’m marking, I’ll do all I can to recognise that. I can tell the difference between breaking the rules because you’re utterly familiar with them, and breaking the rules because you never bothered to learn them. I try really, really hard to make sure that when tutors mark work in courses I teach, they have the same view, and make the same judgements. Very occasionally, that doesn’t quite work – a tutor ends up wanting to mark which boxes have been ticked off. As I said, I try really hard to train and support and moderate and help them to think outside that frame…

But you know what? Not getting an A+ is not a tragedy either. The work has value in itself. If you wrote something that was amazing, and felt good while you were writing it, and stretched you to the edge of your powers and beyond, and that you know is good… then you’re confident enough to (a) query the mark it gets if you feel it doesn’t reflect the work done and (b) even if that doesn’t work, know in your heart that you did great work, and are capable of great work.

I’ve been on selection panels. And, believe it or not, that confidence that you are capable of great, creative, box-smashing work shines through in an interview, and is more likely to get you a job – at least, in a place discerning enough that you’d want to work there – than a pristine GPA.

2 replies on “Smash Those Boxes (And Maybe Pee On Them A Little)”

Unfortunately, a single difference in opinion between student and instructor can lead to a non-A grade. And that singular event can cost as much as $120,000 loss in scholarship funding.

Sorry it’s taken a few days to respond – all interest has probably already cooled.

Part of what I meant to get at, though, was that compliance shouldn’t *be* enough for an A+.

If it is, then education is training children to be compliant little drones, not creative people… and that is a recipe for disaster.

So I would hope that a lecturer would require a higher standard than simply checking the boxes.

(The extremely high stakes associated with assessment is another rant for another day… as is the notion of free tertiary education so as to avoid the necessity for these huge loans/scholarships)

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