The Old Farts: Some Notes

by Jeff Oaks

Grades submitted.

And immediately I felt worried about the number of A’s I’d given. Within a few minutes of my posting that I was done, a friend of mine texted me saying she also felt nervous about the number of A’s she’s giving.

Do you feel they’re deserved? I texted.

She wrote back:They worked really hard and all of them improved, even the seemingly hopeless ones. Plus attendance was almost spotless for the class overall. Then she added:

I feel haunted by the old farts in the department.

*

The Old Farts in the department are not many but in a couple of meetings lately have been ardent in their belief that the number of A’s is inversely related to the quality of teaching. The Old Farts, I will also say, are all in the Literature part of the English department. They are all, at least right now, white, straight men over sixty.  They are in many ways very good colleagues, are often themselves terrific teachers of their particular subjects, and always show up for committee meetings without complaining about it. There are many things about the Old Farts that we might all imitate. They take pride in what they do.

What makes them Old Farts is where their thinking has calcified.  The one idea they keep repeating is that grade inflation is everywhere and must be stamped out. The Old Farts rely on some science, in fact one study usually, that they say shows that there’s a clear connection between students evaluations of teachers and grades received. The easy formulation is this: bad teachers give high grades to mediocre students to avoid being evaluated badly by the students.  Bad can mean “insecure” or “lazy” or “ill-prepared,” depending on which Fart is talking about it.

At a meeting to renew some Nontenurestream faculty this term, a couple of the Old Farts held forth at length about the Overall Evaluation Scores of nearly everyone who was discussed. They didn’t say anything, that I remembered, about the syllabi submitted, the fact that some of the faculty being discussed taught across programs (in composition and writing, or writing and literature and composition), whether they were teaching required or elective courses, to non-majors or majors. They were, in the middle of an English Department, arguing solely by the numbers. If they had been the sole voices for renewal or non-renewal, not one of the folks up for renewal, folks who had, by and large, put a phenomenal amount of work into designing syllabi, working closely with students, inventing classes, forging collaborations between programs, and doing as much if not more committee work than many tenure-stream faculty, not one of the folks would have been renewed.

No one interrupted them because no one wanted to say, Um, you sound crazy. Because a) they weren’t crazy ordinarily, and because b) we don’t like generally to confront bad thinking directly (much better to let it exhaust itself like a child with a temper tantrum). And I suppose I can’t use the word “crazy” anymore, one of the signs of my own Old Farthood. I probably shouldn’t use it here when what I really mean is “fixated” or “narrowly obsessed”. This, despite the fact that none of the Old Farts has ever talked to any of the people up for renewal.  Neither do they teach in any of the programs the candidates taught in, so they had no idea of the pedagogies involved.

Eventually, the rest of us who knew the colleagues involved, who had seen them teach, had read their materials, had taught similar classes, managed to talk one of the Old Farts into a kind of submission: he admitted that he didn’t know these people and that he was convinced by his colleagues that he couldn’t judge based solely on their evaluation numbers.  I’m still not sure how they voted in the end.

____

I don’t want to give the impression that the Old Farts form a majority of my colleagues. My department is in many ways like a big family, in which you know and like most of the people, know very well and trust a dozen, and try to avoid a handful. It’s an astonishingly diverse group. I don’t even know how to talk to some of my colleagues who have very specialized knowledge. I’m not sure who reads their writing/research, why that scholarship is important. I trust that it is. Like poets, my guess is that literary scholars feel lucky to have jobs reading and writing, and teaching both to young people at a major university that gives us many, many benefits. If there isn’t an editorial every other month about the death of literary scholarship, as there is about poetry’s death, I suspect it’s because literary scholarship has fallen so far below the radar of cultural importance that no one has noticed its disappearance. We go on together, believing in the power of words as best we can. Every so often, when I have a question about Anglo Saxon prosody, I remind myself that I have an actual colleague who can speak it, who turns out to be an expert on the very thing I wondered about. We have a brilliant happy moment when our lives intersect. She, in turn, asks me if poets are still writing in Anglo Saxon measures, and I make copies of the contemporary examples I know of.  I hand her poems. Happiness!

All of that said, I would never assume that I could make an informed decision, based on her student responses only, whether my colleague should be renewed or promoted.

*

I went looking on the internet for WH Auden’s School for Poets plan. I know it’s in a book of his essays, maybe the The Dyer’s Hand, which I don’t have at hand right now. I remember his main idea was to teach technical stuff on one hand, and the weirder work of being responsible to Life on the other, culminating in the rule that every student would be expected to raise a domestic animal and/or a garden, an idea I’ve always loved.

What I found was this, from Michael Newman’s Interview with Auden in the Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever taught writing?

AUDEN

No, I never have. If I had to “teach poetry,” which, thank God, I don’t, I would concentrate on prosody, rhetoric, philology, and learning poems by heart. I may be quite wrong, but I don’t see what can be learned except purely technical things—what a sonnet is, something about prosody. If you did have a poetic academy, the subjects should be quite different—natural history, history, theology, all kinds of other things. When I’ve been at colleges, I’ve always insisted on giving ordinary academic courses—on the eighteenth century, or Romanticism. True, it’s wonderful what the colleges have done as patrons of the artists. But the artists should agree not to have anything to do with contemporary literature. If they take academic positions, they should do academic work, and the further they get away from the kind of thing that directly affects what they’re writing, the better. They should teach the eighteenth century or something that won’t interfere with their work and yet earn them a living. To teach creative writing—I think that’s dangerous. The only possibility I can conceive of is an apprentice system like those they had in the Renaissance—where a poet who was very busy got students to finish his poems for him. Then you’d really be teaching, and you’d be responsible, of course, since the results would go out under the poet’s name.

____

I think a lot of Old Farts would agree with Auden’s nervous anxiety here. Writing, nevermind the Creative kind, still seems dangerous to believe in as a discipline. The grades are an easy place to point to as proof. It’s unfair to the students, I’ve heard people say, to get them to believe that they’re geniuses or better than they are. The idea is that the world will crush them, and that we should spare them that embarrassment and recommend they train in something useful. It always makes me too sad for the speaker to respond. (Nevermind that in our current situation, turning away the writing students would capsize the department; the only programs with positive or non-negative enrollments are in Creative and Professional Writing.) According to at least one university planning meeting I went to recently (called an “environmental scan” to give you a sense of how far into abstraction the marketing/planning world has disappeared into its own (rabbit)hole…) the generation we’ll be dealing with, a generation the marketers are calling Generation Z, are all about “making” things, jumping in, inventing, as opposed to Generation Y, who were apparently about “Reading” first, being cautious. They might be more motivated, in other words, in classes that give them room to make and invent. How are we preparing for that?

I don’t know. There is a lot of confusing research around grade inflation. I wish I could say that it’s simply a silly idea, but treating that one idea as if it’s the only correct indicator of whether a colleague is a good or bad teacher can lead to some not silly results–the loss of one’s job, with all the attendant benefits. For the record, I don’t have any problem at all with refusing to renew someone who is in fact not doing a good job, but I wouldn’t do it based on one indicator, and certainly not a simple set of numbers. I’d read the materials. I’d look at the student responses. I’d look at his or her service record. I’d look at the expectations of the job, which don’t spell out a percentage of A’s because that would be ridiculous, even robotic.  If we’re turning inhuman in the Humanities, we’ve already lost the very thing we can offer.

At that marketing meeting we were told Generation Z is used to working on screens, and so seem to be ripe for those who’d like to move all of us faculty online, EXCEPT that in survey after survey, the vast majority said they wanted to come work face-to-face with teachers.  When I suggested that we market ourselves as a place where students can do the really radical thing–work with actual human beings–the marketing team laughed. I think it was the laughter of people who’d just realized they were running too hard, too desperately to keep up with the future someone else had imagined for them. It was the laugh, I wanted to think anyway, of air escaping a very frightened bubble. I don’t remember if any of them wrote it down, by which I mean, typed it into their computers.

Auden tells the interviewer another thing that I found interesting, a thing I hadn’t known about him:

“I came to America in ’39. I lived first in Brooklyn Heights, then taught for a while in Ann Arbor, then at Swarthmore. I did a stint in the army, with the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. The army didn’t like our report at all because we proved that, in spite of all of our bombing of Germany, their weapons production didn’t go down until after they had lost the war. It’s the same in North Vietnam—the bombing does no good. But you know how army people are. They don’t like to hear things that run contrary to what they’ve thought”.

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