Saturday, March 26, 2011

Feminization and the Adjunct

I've adjuncted for several different classes, mostly freshman-level composition. It's been a wonderful experience that fully affirms my desire to work with students. I love being in the classroom, and I get downright giddy designing syllabi. I constantly keep an eye out for new material to incorporate into my lectures, and I have folders full of potential articles I might use in as-yet-uncreated future classes.

But that doesn't mean it's always easy.

I share a lot of the views that Professor X (the pseduonym of a writer who adjuncts at a private school and a community college) expresses in this article about grade inflation.

He points out the difficulty inherent in maintaining a completely fair grading system. He takes a particularly hard look at the way the culture has shifted to be more forgiving:
We don’t like to admit that one student may be smarter, sharper, harder working, better prepared, more energetic, more painstaking -- simply a better student -- than another. So we level the playing field. Slow readers get extra time on tests. Safe harbor laws protect substance abusers. Students who miss class for religious reasons, as it says in the boilerplate language the community college suggests that I place in my course syllabus, may be absent without incurring a penalty.
And then he blames women for it:
There are more women teaching in college than ever, and it is quite possible that their presence, coupled with our discovery of the postmodern narrative, has had a feminizing effect on the collective unconscious of faculty thought. Strong winds of compassion blow across campus quads. Women are more empathetic than men, more giving, simply more bothered by anyone’s underdog status. Many of the female adjuncts I have spoken to seem blessed and cursed by feelings of maternity toward the students. Women think about their actions, and the consequences of their actions, in a deeper way than do men. Women may not be quite as inclined to sigh and, with a murmured "fuck it," half-angry and half-miserable, possessed by the fatalism of someone throwing the first punch in a bar fight, mark an F in the grade book.
I hate giving F's, and I don't give that many, but I also don't think I'm inflating grades, and I certainly don't think that I'm mothering my students into incompetence. I do "think about [my] actions, and the consequences of [my] actions," and I use that forethought to teach my students. I expect that my male colleagues do the same, and if they don't, I'd venture to say they're doing a disservice to their students.

I think that Professor X is on the right track in pointing out that the presence of women is connected to grade inflation. See, there are more women on college campuses than ever before because college campuses used to be very closed to a lot of people: women, minorities, anyone from an economically disadvantaged background, those too geographically isolated, and many more.

Professor X talks about A students and F students and everything in between as if these are facts of life. A student has a certain ability level innately present, the student translates that ability onto a page, and Professor X reads it the way that a price scanner reads a bar code, translating the end result into his grade book.

But if that's the case, that students have an innate level of ability and we're merely the scanners that translate it, what's the point in teaching? No, I think that grades--as much as we'd like to pretend they're objective--are much more complex than that. I grade my students in remedial English differently than I grade an honors course, so obviously there are different shades of A.

Perhaps what's changing the culture of the college campus isn't those overly-sensitive women mothering up the place, but the fact that college campuses are more diverse than they've ever been. Diverse in every sense of the word--in a single classroom I might have a 21-year-old freshman who just got his GED and is trying to get on track after a rough adolesence,  someone who was valedictorian of her suburban college prep high school, a 40-year-old mother of two who has come back part-time after she lost her job, and someone from the country who is the first in his family to go to college. Some are studying abroad, their first semester in the US; some are the children of immigrants who don't speak English at home; some are white; some are black. Some have been preparing for college since they were toddlers. Some had to fight their parents to let them come.

Plus, college used to be a luxury--something only those who truly wanted to delve into the intellectual life chose to pursue. Now it's a necessity--something almost every job requires for promotion and success.

Professor X notes that "[t]he whole system of grades may be too nineteenth century for our modern taste." Perhaps it's not the "whole system of grades" but the idea of grades that have grown out of a system mired in singularity, one not designed for this diverse student body.

In no way am I saying that academic standards don't matter, and I know that part of my job as an instructor is to maintain those standards. But I also think that part of my job as an instructor is to think about those standards holistically, analyzing how they should fit into the larger purpose of the classroom, and that primary purpose is always (for me) to provide an environment in which students (of all backgrounds) can learn.


  1. Well, I have many male colleagues who are equally as compassionate with students. Grades are totally the worst part of teaching, I can't communicate much with a letter.

    On a lighter note, you should totally follow this guy on twitter:!/AdjunctHulk

  2. I agree and disagree with him. One woman I've worked with in the past comes to mind when he talks about the maternal instinct affecting grades. She would grade students on how well she thought they were trying. So, I've seen that maternal grading happen but only rarely. More often I find that female adjuncts, while we think about the circumstances of a grade and may agonize over wanting to give grades based on effort and not final product, grade based on the product and are resented and called foul names because of it. I think because we are women students assume that we will mother them when that is simply not our job. It is our job to guide, share, rejoice, and correct but it is not our job to give a grade based on feeling. Also, I think one of the reasons for grade inflation is simply that departments have to show that their courses are effective. I have sat through many meetings about how we as teachers need to "do something different" so that our students grades will be higher to prove to the university that our programs are meaningful and, therefore, should be funded.

  3. Also, please excuse my lack of grammar. It's been a very long day.

  4. You're right that some views from the outside see poor student grades as an indication that the course isn't effective. It's funny, though, because a classroom full of A's on every paper is probably the biggest indicator of a failing course. If the students know enough to get an A on every paper, I'm obviously not teaching them anything new.