Saturday, January 14

Upside Down Professors

We've all had them. Classes in which you hand in papers that you've spent hours on, writing and rewriting, only to get a C+, and then when you phone in the next paper, it comes back with an A. The professors of these classes are not especially eccentric or erratic, but their marking schemes are unfathomable. Upside Down Professors. The term comes from a friend of mine who used it in an amusing anecdote during one of our many fascinating conversations. It's very appropriate, and I can identify several in my recollections of university and high school.

But this is not a light-hearted or affectionate term. In fact, I think it alludes to a very serious problem in our education system. I was never more frustrated at university, as was my friend, as are many others, as when a paper comes back with a bad grade, despite our efforts to discern and cohere to the professor's standards, or to incorporate any comments and suggestions from previous assignments. While writing papers I was constantly aware of the fact that I was writing for someone else who would (presumably) read and then evaluate my creative efforts. When dealing with an Upside Down Professor, I really had to shift my choice of words and my style of writing, and even my patterns of reason and logic, in an attempt to adapt to what I understood, from lectures and from comments on previous papers, were the professor's expectations. And still the mark I received would not reflect my own attitude toward the end result of my work.

Consider the many students who change their modes of writing in order to get top marks from these Upside Down Professors. They have to break from their comfortable style and grow into a new one. They have to use different words and arrange them in unusual ways. And why? Because the professor has an idea of what the "best" paper is, and are comparing every student's paper with that. Since the student does not know what the professor's ideal is, they must guess, and guesswork is the antithesis of the creative process and has no place in academic exploration. The influence of the Upside Down Professor is nothing short of academic fascism.

What is ideal, in my opinion, is a paper that is unexpected, that goes beyond any preconceived ideas of what a certain paper is, and can do. Without limitations, in other words. But how can a paper, a creative work of thought and language that approaches art, be evaluated if it is unlimited? The possibility that a student's paper might be so ground breaking as to be beyond the professor's capability to comprehend is simply not considered. What sort of mark would you give to a paper that you couldn't quite get your head around? A+ for being fascinating but opaque, or C+ for going beyond the original scope of the topic?

In the educational systems I am aware of, all papers are to be marked according to standards that students may or may not have a good grasp of, immediately confining these papers to the realm of the "expected". It doesn't work. The powers of the students to create new ideas and ways of thinking and writing, powers which, if I understand correctly, are what professors are motivated to encourage, are being hijacked to conform to dubious ideals by these same professors.

If I think of any way to avoid these problems, I'll post it here.


At 7:11 PM, Blogger Zosja said...

so when you are an educator yourself, will you be a Downside Up or will you be an Any Side Is a Good Side?

At 1:11 PM, Blogger Sam said...

Any Side is Good, as long as the student believes what they are writing, and communicate it effectively. There are a few points I made in there that might be slightly illogical or over the top, but I think it's a good rant. The point is, marks do probably as much bad as they do good.


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