It’s that time of the year again, when red pens run freely and the coffee mugs get bigger. Surely the end of the semester is the grading salt mines for everyone. It’s my first time grading papers and long-form exams instead of multiple-choice scantron tests, and the amount of work that goes into them is vastly different. The challenge of multiple-choice exams is all front loaded: you put in an immense amount of work writing clear, concise questions that are challenging but not impossible, and that don’t play “gotcha” with students. (Or at least, they shouldn’t.) When the tests come back, you’ve got an answer key, grading flies by, and there you are. The challenge of long-form exams is back loaded: you put some terms and questions out, and then spend your time deciphering student handwriting along with student answers, trying to pan for gold in the form of recognisable answers that address the topic at hand. It’s a different kind of labour. Papers are another kind — for me, the challenge of papers has been seeing how few students understand how English grammar works, for one, and for two, seeing how few students understand how to structure and present a coherent, strong argument. My university is no slouch in the humanities and is a competitive school. I’m dismayed by some of the papers I’ve received grading for an upper level class, frankly. I’ve had students completely incapable of reading the paper assignment in the syllabus, hearing the discussion of the paper assignment in class on multiple occasions, and consequently, hand in something completely unrelated to the task assigned to them — and poorly executed at that! It’s so incredibly frustrating. And some of the examinations make me wonder just what classroom students have been in for the past semester, because based on their answers, it certainly wasn’t mine!
But the thing that’s bothered me today is the question of language. Specifically, how do you grade a student who uses derogatory language in their examinations and papers? I haven’t had a slew of these, but one was enough, frankly. In a classroom headed up by a professor who is visually impaired and assisted by a TA with visible mobility aids (fabulously floral print mobility aids, may I add), the student repeatedly used “cripples/crippled” to refer to people with disabilities in their exam. It’s pretty elementary that you don’t call us folks with sticks or chairs cripples to our faces, or at least, I hope it is. But apparently, referring to people that way in an exam is okey-dokey. I’m flabbergasted. And frankly, it was hard to grade the rest of her exam fairly. Maybe I’m too sensitive, considering it’s a derogatory term people use for me. But if she had been writing about Jews and called us kikes, I’d have my hackles just as far up. Or called African-Americans negros. (Perhaps more for that one.) It’s wildly inappropriate, and it stuns me that a student thinks it’s a good way to refer to someone who can’t climb stairs unassisted (like yours truly) in a formal writing situation like a final exam. Doubly so when said cripple is going to be grading it!
I recognise that students are often young adults, frequently very young. I teach at a private Catholic university. Some of these students are incredibly sheltered young people. Their exposure to the world beyond their hometowns and home parishes can be limited. And I also recognise that part of our job as educators is to bring them into greater awareness of that wider world, not just through the materials we teach but in the way we teach. It seems to me that language needs to be a teachable moment every time it wanders off into poisonous pastures. You wouldn’t let a horse graze in a field of nightshade if you knew that was what it was eating. You’d get it out of that field and put it in a safe pasture. But you’d also inform the horse’s owner that the field they’d put their horse in was dangerous! The tendency to shut down language usage or to ignore the matter until it arises — and by then, it has done its damage in your classroom — is the same as just leading the horse away and dropping the lead once the belladonna was no longer underfoot. It’s not enough to just shut this stuff down. We have to be proactive about it so that classroom discussions and written assignments are spaces in which students wrestle with difficult ideas and concepts in the clearest, most accurate way possible. Classrooms are already challenging environments. They need to be spaces where doing hard thinking and asking hard questions are as safe and supported as possible. One of those ways is by dealing with language before it crops up and puts vulnerable people at a disadvantage.
This is another one of those moments where I’m a bleeding heart liberal pinko commie whatever. I recognise this. But having felt the punch of being called ethnic slurs in a classroom and the double indignity of having a professor do nothing about it, I know what this minefield is like. Seeing “cripples” in the exam today brought me right back to it, being 20 years old and getting called a Christ Killer in the middle of a presentation on Jews in the Civil War, and feeling utterly powerless and silenced in the face of this big, imposing fraternity brother who had just shouted it at me. How much worse would it have been if this student had used “cripples” in a classroom discussion with students with disabilities present? How marginalised and silenced would they have felt? How can students feel able to contribute when the language their classmates use tell them their voices are worthless and they themselves are unequal participants in the classroom, unwanted and unheard?
I’m in charge of discussion sections next term. I think one of the first things that I will be doing is talking about language in the classroom. I’m a big believer in setting standards, communicating them clearly, and letting students rise to them or face clearly articulated consequences. A zero-tolerance policy on derogatory language is one of those standards for me — after that discussion, if you use language like that and it’s not a direct quote from materials we’re handling, you’re out the door and you get a big old zero for that day’s participation. Consequences escalate from there. And if this means it’s the first time that a student learns that “cripple” or “gypsy” or “jap” or “tranny” is a slur, then it’s high time they learned. Everyone needs to be on an equitable playing field in a classroom, doubly so in a discussion section. And that means making sure no-one is told by virtue of their immutable characteristics alone that they’re unwelcome on that field. I’ve been there. If I can prevent it, none of my students are going to stand in my same place of 10 years ago while they’re in my classroom. The lesson that privileged folks have the right and ability to call you derogatory names and will face no consequences for it is not a lesson that should be happening in the academy today. Period. And privileged students need to learn that their words, choices, and actions have consequences. Those consequences aren’t unforgivable, more than likely, and I’m hard-pressed to say if I’d fail a student for language. Perhaps I would, if it was egregious enough. But I believe in teachable moments, and that education is more than a grade — it’s about learning how to move through and interpret the world with grace, wisdom, and understanding. Those are things that can’t be graded, but must be taught.
However, I’m still marking down for improper comma usage and inability to cite correctly. Some things are just untenable, after all.