Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Inconsequential Teacher



by Don Schaeffer



Over sixty is about apology,” said Ferdy. “Well, apology and memory. If you have literary pretensions, it's about apology and narrative.” Ferdy's class sat dumfounded. This was a little different from the usual lecture. “The only question left is how much apology is needed? When can one let up?”

They had never heard a lecturer behave in such an intimate way toward a class. The essence of professorial duty was standard distance. It was derived from the model of aristocracy, innate superiority or parenthood. The students generally believed that cracks or kinks in the demeanor of the teacher meant that knowledge, power, the power of knowledge was going to leak like warm gas and that the teacher would deflate hissing onto the classroom floor.

Ferdy's brief teaching career was in fact collapsing. It was his lack of distance that broke him.

Ferdy lived in the interstices between the rough and tumble of commercial life and the high fortress of academia. He stood on the road that led up the hill to the opening in the palace wall. He waited until one of the princes went on sabbatical and the voices of the cold high office accepted his standing in for a year.

The student's name was Norman. He was better groomed than most of his classmates, the kind of student who studied under duress, headed toward a future he never aimed for, chosen for him. The pressures could drive a student like Norman into fraud or robbery.

Ferdy will, to his last day, recall the what happened when Norman approached him after his lecture. He was pleased with the lecture he gave that day. It was a zinger from the heart. He wondered how his colleagues would have enjoyed it though. Ferdy had the suspicions that he often went too far into his heart when he spoke. There was not the sufficient air of impartial disinterest that he was supposed to show when he spoke about affairs of the human mind.

Professor Naismith,” Norman began as he stood over Ferdy. “I can't get a C on that assignment. I just can't.”

Ferdy heard the pull in Norman's voice. He was too naive to feel the danger. Urgency almost always spells danger, especially in learning. Norman's assignment was pure incompetence, if the professor examined it in the light of his so-called knowledge. But when he fell down, in the classroom, in the heat of inappropriate and innocent candor, the knowledge really did seep out of him like gas, deflating him. The evaluation of poor assumptions was the first thing to go. Ferdy suddenly had doubts about everything. He was tempted to apologize for his judgment

When would the certainty return? It was like a forgotten word in an aging brain.

Thinking maybe he was wrong, not wanting to make any assumptions that he was right, Ferdy said to Norman as the student stood so near, like a partner confronting an office intern, “OK, Norman, I'll think of another essay assignment for you. If you do well, I'll change your grade. See me after class on Thursday.” And they parted.

Ferdy didn't go to faculty meetings, feeling himself not quite on the faculty. He didn't use the assigned office for the minor echelons of hired academic staff. The office was a shared space high in the rafters of the building, largely un-locateable. Ferdy returned to his little rented office down the street and around the block from the campus. The landlord had cleaned out a large closet which had a light but no window. Ferdy had put a sign on the door:

Ferdinand Naismith, Ph. D.

He waited there for clients who never came.

It was clear two weeks later that Norman had absorbed nothing of the lectures, the textbook, the subject in general. According to Ferdy's educated judgment which flopped like the fin of a caged Orca, the student should receive the grade he deserved. It was Ferdy's duty to hold himself erect. The fears wrestled each other in his mind, but duty, this time prevailed. According to his weakness-based compassion, no harsh judgments, no ranking gradations that broke people's hearts should ever be rendered.

Ferdy changed the grade to a B.

The university staged a mass trial two weeks later. Ferdy faced Norman in open university fact-finding. The whole class heard the case. There were two major wrong-doings at issue:

      1. Ferdy had graded the exams using statistical standard scores. He justified this on the grounds that this was true “curved” grading and that it would make the students aware of statistical methods in hopes of getting them to research the subject. The students did not understand the grading system. They liked their grades to be simple. They liked everything to be simple. Ferdy was no longer in a mental condition to be simple.
      2. Ferdy had treated Norman unjustly.

Ferdy's academic career tilted on the rocks until one day his salary stopped coming and the department could no longer find a course for him. So much for that.

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