Mixed Memories of a Professor: Do the Ends Justify the Means?

Credit: iStock.com/apilarinos
Credit: iStock.com/apilarinos

Vivid memories of a writing professor persist. I credit him with teaching me to write, and by that, I mean he got me seeing the unseen in my writing and recognizing rewriting as more important than writing. I also learned to take and deliver criticism. When I write, I often hear his voice: “The first time is for getting it down, not getting it right.” “Show, don’t tell it.”

It’s a bittersweet set of memories. I took a course on nonfiction writing early in my graduate career. I’d written all sorts of papers by that time, but I hadn’t worked as hard on any of them as I did for those assigned in his course. He returned my first paper covered with critical comments and a D. I stared at the grade horrified, devastated, aghast, and angry. I made the case for a better grade in his office the next day. My voice shook. He listened. When I was finished, he took the paper and put a + next to the D.

Some students dropped the course; I decided not to. Once I scraped off his scathing tone, the objections to my first paper made sense. I started to write differently and could see the improvement. As a maturing adult, I recognized that what I was learning mattered more than the grades. I do remember wondering whether that first low grade was justified or just a ploy to motivate more effort.

Now I wonder about the legitimacy of giving undeserved grades to accomplish motivational goals. Does getting a student to work harder legitimize the misuse of grades? Does rewarding effort despite quality keep a student working hard? Students who deeply care about grades (and most of them do) are vulnerable: grades change how they think and behave. Does the power of grades justify falsifying what they measure?

My writing professor used other questionable tactics. Every day in class was the same. He arrived late, disheveled, breathless with an old leather folio out of which he dumped our papers. He rifled through the pile, picked one, paged through it, and selected a paragraph that he proceeded to dissect. It was a brutal process that often left authors feeling dissected. If he deemed anything salvageable, he had us start with that and reconstruct the rest of the paragraph. The approach effectively motivated us to put the paragraph and the author back together. Collectively, we crafted amazing paragraphs and learned rich lessons about collegial support and collaboration.

But it was such a risky technique. Authors sometimes cried or walked out in a rage, and more dropped the class. Does achieving learning goals justify taking risks? What kind of risks, and how much risk? I’d love to talk to him now about his techniques, but he’s passed and wasn’t a teacher who shared much with students.

The semester before my comps I took an independent study with him. We agreed that nothing I wrote would be graded or considered finished. He expected me to rewrite everything as many times as I could manage. At the end of the semester, he called (late at night) to say he was giving me an incomplete because the work I’d done so far didn’t deserve an A. “Well, what grade does it merit?” “B minus.” “Fine, give me a B minus. I have to study for comps.” We argued. I ended the conversation, and he gave me an A anyway. Was he interested in continuing to develop me as a writer, or was it something else?

I didn’t like or respect him and still question his techniques. But in his courses I learned to write. It was learning on a sharp edge—provocative and painful, yes, but also memorable. As such, it’s an example that merits consideration and reminds me that ethics lurk around many teaching techniques. Where are the lines we mustn’t cross, and how close can we get to them without taking risks? The answers are neither easy or absolute, but the questions deserve asking—by individual teachers and groups of them.

The paper that earned a D+? I found it when I was cleaning out my graduate school materials. I read it, typed a clean copy, sent it off to a prestigious higher education magazine, and had my first publication. When it came out, I sent him a copy and noted, “You may remember this paper.” He sent it back: “And you will remember I routinely pointed out that you can get anything published nowadays.”

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