Dispatches from Graduate School – Part 29

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University. For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF

I’ve spent the past five or six days with a stack of exams. Now many of you have been grading exams for along time, but for me it’s a bit of a novelty. Don’t get me wrong, the task is time consuming, and you can only read about Mother Ann Lee and the “Shaking Quackers” so many times before you stop correcting the typo. In order to make the process the most enjoyable, I try to imagine that I’m learning some valuable skills.

First, I am now a trained BS spotter. For example, a student attempted in her matter-of-fact prose to tell me that the American Revolution “didn’t transfer new ideas, and didn’t really adopt any completely new ideals.” I suppose one might be able to argue this, but then she went on to suggest that because American Revolutionaries didn’t “churn out” new literature the event wasn’t revolutionary. (Common Sense? “The Declaration ofIndependence”?) “In fact,” she insisted, “much of the American Revolutionary ideals were based on the French Revolution literature.” The American Republic was certainly influenced by French literature—Rousseau and Montesquieu inspired some of our founding documents–but a 1789 French Revolution and its literature for the 1776 American Revolution? Her timeline is off. Abbé Sieyès didn’t pen “What is the Third Estate?” until 12 years after the American Revolution began. Scholars continue to debate the relationship between the two revolutions, but this student tried to convince me of a causal connection (I was on exam number 100 at this point, you have to empathize with my exhaustion and exposure to BS). But her argument, although well written and exhaustively argued, was misguided.

Secondly, my spelling has improved. I’ve turned into a one-woman dictionary (and thesaurus for the inappropriate or awkward use of words). Many lament text messaging, instant messages, and e-mail for the declining spelling and grammar of students. Agreed. I routinely notice extra consonants—”basiccally,” they have trouble with some of the most commonly used words.

Third, I can decipher just about any handwriting. I pride myself in this, and actually credit the time I spent in the Presbyterian archives for Dr. Fea with my ability to crack the code of college scribble and scrawl. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century penmanship from diaries and meeting minutes prepared me well for college co-eds more accustomed to Blackberry thumbs than pencil indents on their fingers.

Lastly, I’ve learned to be kind. There is great vulnerability in writing and I’m weary to be too critical of students’ responses. I point out the fallacy and I suggest further questions that they might consider, but I rarely, if ever, completely disregard an answer (the BSers do receive my red-pen wrath). I want my comments to be useful, not a reason for a student to resent history or the classroom in general.

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