News from the Front: Some Thoughts After Grading Finals

There is an intractable degree of futility in the grading of final exams by a Teaching Assistant; having neither designed the syllabus nor the exam, the inevitable frustration with the coercive evaluation of students on a third party’s terms is linked to the ability to displace that frustration onto the professor in the form of explanatory blame (“Well, it’s not my fault that this was a question they had to [and could not] answer!”).  Nevertheless, grading final exams, whether because of the strange effects of the repetition of reading answers to the same questions over and over, or else the intensification in the pace of a forty-eight hour grading marathon before fleeing town for a holiday, has provoked some reflections and concerns in me on pedagogy, the teachability of paranoid analytics from the 1990s, and narratives of race and power in the humanities.

I was a Teaching Assistant in an English department for the first time this semester.  The course I was assigned to, broadly speaking, was a survey of race, nation and borderlands in American literature.  The syllabus was organized along the now well-worn protocols for troubling the canon of American literature through a representative diversity of authors: African American, Asian American, Native American and Arab American literary traditions composed the reading list in varying quantities.  In another intelligible investment in the kind of pedagogy born of the 1990s, the syllabus began with “theory”: Kimberly Crenshaw’s intersectionality, to be more precise.  From there, the course unfolded as a chronological-thematic hybrid from the colonial period to the post-9/11 period.

As a cumulative, but not an open book final exam, the essay questions I was given the task of grading tended to ask incredibly broad questions about some of the key analytic terms that populated the semester: (i.e. the aforementioned race, border, intersectionality, cross-racial desire, social constructivism).  Setting aside the fact that I had no input in the creation of the questions, I nevertheless began to uncomfortably register during the grading process a set of repeated statements that quite literally were the only data available to me on what the students had “learned” over the course of the semester.  I’d like to regroup these statements in a less than serious list and then think somewhat more expansively about the ease of teaching a certain kind of analytics today at a public university.

Some Data: Here’s what Students Learned this Semester.

1. America is an empire.
2. Throughout all of its history, the United States has practiced racism/racial exclusion.

(So far, so good, if very broad.)

3. Racism is basically the same in all time periods; hence, the “discrimination” faced by Arab Americans in the post-9/11 era is “just like” the racial order of things under Jim Crow for African Americans from the late nineteenth to mid twentieth centuries.
4. America presents itself as the land of freedom and opportunity.  However, America is in reality besieged by inequalities; this casts doubt on American exceptionalism (suspicion of the project of humanism).  Nevertheless, the solution to this contradiction is the embrace of currently disavowed diversity; specifically, immigration and cross-racial affinities through friendship or love will unfold into a better future (reinscription of the humanist narrative).

(Things are deteriorating.)

5. Literature is “interesting” because it represents the challenges of race in America and therefore can be judged as either “realistic” (which is “good”) or not realistic (which is probably because it is too critical).

(It was a shock to me that this was the resounding consensus about the value of literature in an English course.)

This data isn’t exactly empirical, of course, and so I can’t pretend to draw any actual conclusions from it.  However, if the students only partially succeeded in regurgitating the paranoid analytic work of “theory” in their readings of the literature, then what is the utility of teaching a hermeneutics of suspicion around race at all?

I have heard faculty members in various departments on campus rehearse the line that it is a challenge to teach what we might call the bare bones essentials of poststructural thought from the 1990s at our university.  That is to say, it is a struggle just to achieve consensus that race is an ideology, or gender is performative, or that sexuality is not actually divided into a binary of homo- and hetero-.  My rejoinder to that narrative is that I don’t really see why we have to obsess over teaching these ideas in the first place if they are not succeeding.  At the very least, it makes for schizophrenic Teaching Assistants: on the one hand, I am trying to bludgeon students with intersectionality in the undergraduate classroom; on the other hand, I am honing my own skills at critiquing intersectionality as profoundly unhelpful in my graduate seminars.  If intersectionality, as what Jasbir Puar helpfully reads a “hermeneutics of positionality,” is not up to the task of theory anymore for scholars, then why is it still apparently good enough for undergraduate students? The effect of this kind of compartmentalization is that it locks students like the ones in my course into a frankly condescending time warp wherein they appear to be still learning in the mid-1990s while I work in the 2010s.  There is something incredibly uncomfortable and unacceptable about that situation for me as a professor-in-training.

It is an understatement to say I was nonplussed about the answers I read from students in their exams.  Yet, I also lack enthusiasm for the ostensible “correct” answers to those questions too.  The larger problem then is why it is that these are the only two options at a public university and not at private institutions where the “subjects” of a course’s syllabus like this one are not nearly as reflected in the student body (not that that is a very good measure of anything, either).

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One Response to News from the Front: Some Thoughts After Grading Finals

  1. Annie says:

    Good reflections Julian. 🙂
    If you watch the Sh*t Girls Say series and its spinoffs, you will gain even more perspective on some American cultural norms that might be interesting alongside your future Pinterest paper.

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