Exams to grade. Image by olga.
I will never forget the fear I felt the day my most beloved undergrad professor raged about an exam my Latin American Poetry class had taken. Among the errors that provoked his outburst were someone who had repeatedly used the masculine article with the word for woman: “¡El mujer! ¿¡El mujer!?” My cheeks burned, and though I was fairly sure I was not the offender, I still prayed and crossed my fingers that I hadn’t, in some test-induced delirium, forgotten one of the most basic aspects of the language I’d been studying for three years.
He moved on to the word for image, imagen, which made frequent appearances in the literary analysis class. From this berating I did not, unfortunately, escape unscathed. The word is feminine. I had modified it with feminine adjectives in the essay I wrote for the exam; in fact, I got one of the few A’s in the class on the exam. But the trauma of the tongue-lashing has left its mark. I am now in the midst of a PhD program studying Latin American literature, and I avoid using the word imagen in spoken language at all costs. What if I get it wrong? I look it up in the dictionary every time I write it down to reassure myself of its feminine nature. I even checked wordreference.com before typing this paragraph.
I know my professor meant well, and the amount of liberating and inspiring learning my classmates and I did in his classes overwhelms this limiting slip. But the incident exemplifies an important part of the instructor’s work. Balancing constructive criticism, encouragement, praise, and downright disappointment is hard work.
This semester I graded one of the worst exam sets I had ever seen. I went back through looking for ways I might have miscounted, places I might give back points lost, and just couldn’t justify it. In fact, el mujer made several appearances. The grades were low. I tried lecturing my students when I gave back their exams, and gave them a lot of writing homework, hoping the practice would help them improve before the next exam. The class average did improve, but the range was wide, and the low grades were very low.
Further on in the semester I began to worry that I was traumatizing my students when their first compositions came in. Some of them were marvelous, even moving. Others were just unacceptable. After some tears shed in office hours, and mid-semester evaluations complaining that I “grade really hard,” I began to question whether I was holding my students to an impossible standard. However, there are as many As as Ds on the compositions and exams I grade, so I know it’s not impossible. And thankfully, as the semester has progressed, more and more of those straggling students have dragged themselves into my office hours, written several more drafts before turning in final essays, and generally improved not only their grades, but their Spanish and writing skills as well.
What it boils down to is that the same fear instilled in me as a student that day worrying about gender agreement remains with me as an instructor. What if it’s somehow my fault that they didn’t learn the material, didn’t understand the instructions, didn’t realize they needed to study? Do I teach poorly? Do I grade too strictly? The student has become the teacher, but I’m still frightened by the specter of imagen.