Today, a student told me he was worried to submit a paper I would not agree with.
We had just wrapped up a successful conference on his third paper. He had an outline, some good research points, and I thought I’d answered all his questions.
Then he asked what I thought of his ideas.
I hedged. He was writing on a topic I have strong feelings about, feelings I’ve worked hard to keep to myself this year, since last year expressing those feelings soured my relationships with students.
His topic, he said, he originally chose to annoy me.
I laughed at that.
Then he said, he stayed with his topic to learn more about it.
Good idea, I said.
He said a friend of his (a former student of mine) told him I’d wildly disagree with his topic.
I stopped him.
I told him I appreciated how balanced his paper was, that it saw both sides of the issue. What students believe is often not as important to me as whether they’re able to see good points on both sides.
And I tried to reassure him that I do not grade people based on their ideas, only on how well they express those ideas. I use a rubric to keep my grading fair. I would consider it unethical to grade someone based on their ideas.
My student nodded, but told me that he’d take my assurances with a grain of salt.
Apparently a fellow student of his had received an F from me, taken it to someone else, and heard from them that it was an A-quality paper. Clearly, the student concluded, the paper was graded down because the ideas were unacceptable.
I heard the student in my office out, assured him one more time that content plays no part in my grading, and invited him to come talk with me if he had concerns. I think (though I’ve been a poor judge of such things in the past) that we ended the conference on good terms, joking around and wishing each other well over the holidays.
But I was heartbroken.
I realize that what I heard was hearsay, gossip, and carries (or should carry) very little weight.
But it does carry some weight.
I’m heartbroken because if it’s true, there’s a student out there who assumes the worst about me and is mad at me and has not spoken up with their concerns. No disagreement can be solved if the people who disagree don’t talk; I’m not going to have a chance to win back this student’s trust.
I’m heartbroken because in my book, if I were to grade someone based on whether I agreed or disagreed with their ideas, that would be one of the most unethical things I could do. I’m hurt that someone actually believes I’m vindictive and untrustworthy enough to do just that.
I’m heartbroken because apparently some (very gently) progressive-leaning viewpoints of mine are still flattening me into a stereotype. I’ve spent all fall trying to shake off a negative reputation I built up last semester as a closet liberal at a Bible college, but the reputation is not to be shaken off.
I’ve had my cry (yes, really!). I’ve said my piece. I’ll be okay. After all, teaching is a great profession. There are few things as delightful as reading a well-written student paper or getting to know the bright, curious, and kind students that sit in my class.
But tonight, I’m tired of it.