If You Prick Us, Do We Not Bleed?

My sister is home for a precious few days before going away for much longer than I like to think about, so we're looking for excuses to spend time together.  Tonight after a family dinner, she stayed to have a drink with Rob and me and catch up a bit.  Somehow, the conversation turned to embarrassing moments at school, and hers was one of the worst I'd ever heard.

As a Philosophy major, her hardest class was one on the philosophy of language.  She didn't speak much ("most of it was way over my head") but was very interested in the subject matter, so sat in the front and center and took carefully color-coded notes.  As much as she labored to pay attention, however, one thing continued to distract her, and the more she noticed, the harder it was to ignore: the professor had a habit of using the words "sort of" the way most people say "um."  As in, "these two constructs are -- sort of -- the foundation of the concept of Derrida's -- sort of -- ideas about deconstruction."  She began to privately keep a tally in the margins of her notebook: discreet rows of unlabeled hash marks.

The professor, she said, was one of the best teachers she'd ever had: very laid-back, the type who would accept your paper as-is and give you a B, but also give you the option to make changes and get an A if you wanted to.  He ran his class as a very open-ended discussion; nothing was off-limits, and students were presumed to be his intellectual equals.  He prided himself on being very egalitarian, but he was often not organized and couldn't remember where he had left off, so he would ask to borrow a student's notes in order to recollect his thoughts.  Usually, this ended up being a student in the front row who happened to have taken especially good notes during the class before.

Oh, no.  Oh, yes.  He asked to borrow my sister's notes one day, and when he returned them to her, asked: "Just out of curiosity, what are those little tick marks?  Were you keeping track of something?"

My poor sister.  She blushes easily, and once that happened, she knew it was no use inventing a story.  She came clean, placing the blame fully on herself: "I have difficulty concentrating . . . I keep obsessive track of the most mindless things . . . it doesn't affect your teaching one bit, and I love this class."  Still, she said, his reaction couldn't have been worse: his face just fell, he looked stunned and a little embarrassed, and finally he said quietly, "Oh. I didn't realize I did that."  She was so ashamed that she apologized a second time the following week (and my sister is so non-confrontational that she was in her second decade before she was able to ask a waitress for a side of barbeque sauce, so that was quite a step for her) adding that she was sure no one else had even noticed and it was just her obsessive personality.  But she felt bad for the rest of the semester.

My thoughts:First, I made a mental note to never, ever ask my students what the hash marks in their notes represent.  If I have a characteristic phrase, please, don't tell me!  I can't imagine how nervous I would be, trying not to say it and (I'm sure) failing miserably.

Second, this just underscores the necessity for both parties -- teachers and students -- to remember that we are all human.  I don't mark down the number of times my students say "like" (partly because the world doesn't contain enough paper for such a task) but I will confess to taking secret joy in keeping track of the inane questions I get every time I pass out a carefully-structured quiz.  If the quiz says, "Write an equation for the following problem, but do not solve it," I will bet you five dollars right now that at least three students will ask, "Are we supposed to solve it, too?"  And if there's a matching section with more (or fewer) choices than blanks, all hands will shoot up.  "Mrs. Lowe?  There are six answers, and only five questions?  Does that mean we won't use them all?"  I've flirted with the idea of responding, "Yes, you should absolutely use them all.  Didn't you get the memo? Five and six are now equal."  Or simply refusing to open my mouth at all, just out of principle.

But that attitude is not kind.  Students are so stressed about quizzes, even my quizzes, which are lifted directly from the text that I reminded them three or four times to study.  They're petrified that they won't remember what they heard in class, or that they've misunderstood the directions.  They are so afraid of failing.

And so are teachers, afraid of failing.  We want to be good at our jobs.  We want the students to like us.  More than anything, we want them to learn.  And to hear that one of our foibles has dimmed the possibility of success on all fronts?  It's -- sort of -- discouraging.

"If you prick us, do we not bleed?"  So says Shylock (portrayed most compellingly by Al Pacino, of course.)  It's a good reminder to all: yes, we do.