Today we held one of our department’s most cherished and loathed rituals: the “May Marks Meeting.” It’s called that because one of its key elements is the annual review of students’ marks in aid of awarding our departmental scholarships and prizes, and also because we go over the standing of all of our current graduate students. Other fun features include receiving year-end reports from all the department committees.
In the old days, this meeting used to run all day and leave everyone bitter and exhausted. One reason was that before so much of the university’s business was computerized, things like calculating credit hours and grades often had to be done manually, while many other questions could be settled only by phone calls to the Registrar’s Office. Many of the awards we administer also have very particular terms set by well-intentioned but ill-advised donors that leave too much open to interpretation (word to the wise: if you want to leave a bequest to set up an academic award, please confer with some academics about wording): does “woman student who leads her class in English” mean “woman student majoring in English who has the highest grades”? or, our long-time favorite, what exactly is “an inquiring and original mind”? Oh, the hours, quite literally, that sometimes went into impassioned debate, or frantic recalculations, or reassignment of prize money on the discovery that for some reason the chosen candidate was ineligible!
Over the years we have refined our processes, and not just because we can now call up student records instantly online: wherever possible, we have clarified or set precedents for vague award terms, and we have essentially banned nominations from the floor and shifted the burden of decision making from the department as a whole to our undergraduate committee. Today, only about half an hour was spent on this business. In so many ways, this is a huge improvement — not just because it’s more efficient but because the results are less arbitrary. I would not want any of my colleagues who happened to read this post to imagine that I am in any way nostalgic for the old days! (Well, OK, sometimes I miss the old department lounge, which was a friendlier place to spend a day.)
What I have been thinking since today’s meeting ended, though, is that the half hour we spent talking about the nominees and recipients of our prizes and scholarships was by far the best half hour of the meeting (which, today, actually ran less than 5 hours, including our lunch break). Almost everything else on the table, you see, was bad news: budget woes, declining enrollments, graduate recruiting challenges, disappointing graduate fellowship results. So much of this seems beyond our control (as one colleague finally exclaimed, “Look, I don’t know how to change the Zeitgeist!”), and so much of it seems to reflect not just a broad cultural disengagement from the humanities but the failure of our more immediate leaders to stand up and fight for us — even though, as another colleague pointed out, we teach a lot of students and we do it, on the whole, very cheaply compared to other faculties. When you go to a VP’s office seeking support for something of national significance and get turned down coldly even as all around you are the signs of administrative expansion (not to mention office renovations) … when you’re aware that there is always money for something but that we are constantly told we need to cut and cut … well, over time it’s pretty demoralizing, and as I’ve written about here before, our work turns nearly as much on our energy and creativity as it does on our expertise and professional training.
Despite the atmosphere of generalized gloom in which we have all been working for some time, though, most of us still find ourselves excited about and renewed by our classroom time and our students. And finally, during that last half hour, that’s what we got to focus on. Listening to people speak with such obvious delight about their students’ merits and successes — from admission to Oxford to clever revisions of 18th-century poems — did a lot to counterbalance the cynicism and pessimism brought on by the earlier items on our agenda. Our collective appreciation of our students as interesting, promising individuals also confirmed (as if I needed it) how much more our teaching is about than “content delivery.” It’s not, ultimately, the marks the students earn that matter the most, after all: it’s the mark they will make in the world. Our role in making that future possible may be difficult to measure, but it’s still important to remember, and to value.