How to Turn to the Dark Side: A Scholar’s Guide

This is a brief response to Matt Thompson’s blog entry about grading.

First, one must realize that Thompson is a Jedi Knight who successfully completed a Jedi training regimen that most could only dream of:

In small classes I was nurtured to be an independent and self-motivated student. Everything was graded pass/fail with written evaluations.

Lest the reader assume I’m being sarcastic, let me be clear: what Thompson describes is the very essence of a healthy intellectual environment.  So, at a relatively early age Thompson was privy to profound truths that elude many for most of their lives– that grades are an illusion; that there is an ever-present force running through the entire universe called Knowledge; and that the acquisition of Knowledge happens by freely spreading Ideas, which, as Master Jedi Thomas Jefferson told us, possess an extraordinary quality:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

Thus, I do not think it is by any means an exaggeration to say Thompson clearly had the equivalent of Jedi training here in the universe of Education.  And armed with the red hot, glowing blade of Knowledge, the student Thompson set out to become the teacher.  Fate is not without a sense of irony, however, and the galaxy in which Thompson now found himself required the use of the dull, rusty blade which would have debased his own training: grades.

To a certain degree I have had to unlearn this culture of gradeless scholarship in order to teach traditional college students.

This a Jedi could handle– they are nothing if not resourceful– but the insidious conniving of the Dark Sith Lords trapped our hero and appealed to his baser instincts, eventually leading him to the Dark Side.

How did they do it?  They made an insidious plan, then they hid and waited.  That is all it took.  And the plan– though I don’t know the specific details of the galaxy in question– was certainly ingenious:

  1. Have high standards.
  2. Flood classroom with too many students.
  3. Sit back and watch the Jedi slowly turn.
  4. Profit!

This is compounded by all the other duties and responsibilities in the daily life of a Jedi.  In addition to teaching, they must protect the Republic by disseminating Knowledge.  Disseminating Knowledge requires the help of publishers, and publishers have deadlines.  The most heinous of the Sith casually remind the Jedi of this– their central role as protectors of the Universe– as they slowly but surely attack the Jedi’s resolve with more students, who themselves are attacked with growing debt, shrinking time, and unfathomably absurd expectations about their own skills as Jedi (none of which they actually possess).

It is only a matter of time before our hero falls, and this is the most insidious part of the Sith plan.  For they do not beat the Jedi with superior skills, nor deeper Knowledge– they triumph by turning the Jedi’s own powers against him.  Master Thompson remains vigilant as long as he can, but sooner or later the impossibility of the learning environment takes its toll.  Maybe it’s a student literally throwing away their graded/commented assignment, maybe it’s the growing number of classes he’s taught since a student took a deep and abiding interest in the subject matter.  Whatever the case, his own training eventually gets caught in the snare laid for it, and his own resourcefulness twists into a kind of mendacity that– had one not witnessed the Jedi’s blog– one would have assumed only existed in the mind of the darkest Sith Lord: The Jedi decides to let the students choose whether they want him to participate in the free exchange of ideas on their assignments:

If you want me to mark up your paper and critique your writing then turn in a hard copy at the start of class. If you just want the grade then you can send it to me as an attachment in an email. The form has no bearing on the grade. The only difference is that one gets comments and a grade, while the other just gets the grade. I’ve been running this system for the past 3 years and it is an effective compromise.

Again, I’m not intimately familiar with this galaxy, but I would bet that one of the standards for a writing class there (explicit or otherwise) is that students must get feedback on the quality of their writing, if not also a chance to do a revision based on that feedback.  In a galaxy where the one shared truism is that everybody has come to this galaxy for the free exchange of ideas those with the least training, and who our Master Jedi has actually witnessed making the worst decisions, are given exclusive power to decide whether their teacher actually participates meaningfully in a central part of their training!  Thus the hero has fallen; worst of all, however, he has become an apologist for the Dark Side.

The majority of the class just wants the grade. I’m happy to oblige because I can grade the emailed assignments at rate of 10 per hour.

Grades, which are an illusion (and didn’t even exist in Thompson’s training) are no longer the dubious-yet-necessary aspect of the environment in which our Jedi finds himself– they are a viable alternative to an intellectual exchange!  Either that, or our hero has fallen so far as to explicitly accept a role in this instance as bookkeeper for the Empire.  Either way, by relying on the Jedi’s resourcefulness while getting that same Jedi to deny his own power to find a way to retain at least some semblance of an intellectual environment within his own classroom, the Sith Lords win.

Tragically, this process plays itself out again and again, and the conflict might be a fair fight if the Jedi weren’t so easily turned.  Unfortunately they are, and as a result we, too, must put the responsibility on those with the least power and training as our only hope: the students.

Yet I do remain hopeful, if only for the irony that students who have the nerve to throw away a graded assignment in front of their teacher potentially have the fearlessness it would take to defeat the Sith and rebuild the academy as a place where the free spread of ideas is once again paramount.

Here’s to hoping they figure that out on their own, without any feedback.  Preferably before their student loan-bubble bursts.

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