As you all know, I teach four courses a semester, and I teach the whole range: composition, gen ed literature, service courses in the major (the intro to the discipline, the survey in my general 200-years and national tradition specialization, as well as the theory course), upper-level courses in literature in the undergraduate major, and graduate courses for our MA program (theory). That’s a lot of different levels of students, and a wide range of students even within the various levels. Probably my least favorite thing to teach is comp, though I think I do a good job at it, and probably my most favorite is teaching upper-level undergrad lit courses. That said, I have a special place in my heart for the students whom I teach in gen ed lit courses, and I actually have the most fun in my gen ed lit courses, in terms of course design. There is something that’s truly energizing about introducing students who are not into “English” to literature that they will dig.
Now, it is the case that a fair few students who enter the university as English majors choose to fulfill their gen ed humanities requirements with my gen ed courses, but usually they are very early on in their undergraduate careers, and a lot of them actually switch to another major after they realize what “English” is really like at the college level. Alternatively, a lot of the ones who enter the university declared in other majors switch to English or declare a minor in English after a course with me, once they realize it’s not like high school English, so it all evens out. But the point is, I suppose, that I do teach gen ed lit courses “differently” than I teach courses aimed at majors, which I think is appropriate, since even the ones who think they are English majors might not be, and the ones who are already declared as other majors might ultimately find their way to English. The point of a gen ed course, I really do believe, is different from a course that is *for* majors. A gen ed lit course is about getting students excited, or teaching them that what they thought was exciting is just a sideline to their true interests. That’s different from preaching (or teaching) to the converted.
Except, this semester, I’ve got this student in my gen ed lit course. He’s a first-semester freshman, and he’s a declared English major. And he is *so* an English major. And he’s a challenge for me, in the context of a gen ed course, precisely because of that fact.
Here’s the problem: he’s brilliant and excited and ambitious and very, very serious. About literary criticism. Why is that a problem, you ask? It’s because I find myself relating to him and grading him as if he were in a course for majors – an upper level course for majors – and it’s not really fair. I’ve crossed the line from trying to excite and intrigue him with the course material and to pushing him really freaking hard, even though he’s a baby first-semester freshman. And he’s asking for it.
Dude, one day he walked into class with a big freaking Wittgenstein book. And that shit does NOT confer any kind of social capital at my institution. No, he just was reading it. Because, you know, it was interesting. And he (who is very shy and doesn’t talk much) stopped me after class to ask me whether there were “any journals that talk about reading literature through philosophy.” And he has been really pushing himself on all of his papers – his ideas are AMAZING and CREATIVE and WELL BEYOND the ideas of your typical first-semester freshman.
I knew I had crossed a line when I loaned him Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory. You know, to read in his copious amounts of spare time. (And he’s actually reading it. He just sent me an email about it.) After that he asked me to be his adviser in the major.
But so the tough part is that he’s been sort of lame in his papers. And because it’s not a course for majors I can’t teach him what I want to teach him about writing in the major, and yet I am judging him by that standard on the basis of his ideas. Because I want to push him and he wants to be pushed.
Basically, I feel like he’s earning an A+ but his grade looks more like a B. But then I’m worried that if I adjust it then that, too, is potentially fucked up.
Honestly, I have never had this problem before. Students may like me or dislike me, but they never have an issue with the fairness of my grading. I am really good at the whole “fairness” thing, under normal circumstances. In this situation, though, I feel like there is no way for me to be fair. Because based on how I grade a gen ed course, this student is way above the bar with ideas, but below the bar with execution. Frankly, he’d be better off if his ideas were bland and the writing were strong. If he were more interested in “doing well” than in stretching and pushing himself. Dammit.
But WOW I want him to take every freaking class I teach! I haven’t been so excited about a student in years and the last one I felt this way about this early on is now earning his PhD at the state flagship.
I’ll figure out what to do about the grade (probably I’ll split the difference and participation and extra credit on the final are going to help him, so he’ll probably end up somewhere around an A-), and it will all be ok. I just wish in some ways that I hadn’t encountered him in a gen ed course. Because I can’t do for him what I want to do in that context. Though, of course, I’m glad I’m the one who snatched him up with a gen ed requirement, because I feel like if he’d ended up with somebody less challenging he’d defect and be a philosophy major🙂