on grading, purgatory, and what the space-time continuum needs

I dreamt I was dying, knew it, and was being sent to some special purgatory for grading. No matter how hard I try to turn this part of my job into something meaningful for both the students and me, no matter how many tactics I use to enliven the practice and fill it with compassion and my own thirst for non-hierarchical learning (which means students have significant control over their work and evaluations), no matter how determinedly I try to turn these fleeting opportunities to kindle curiosity and compassion toward the past present into moments of shared wonder at and openness to what little we can know of all that has come before us? I still find grading the equivalent of driving industrial-grade steel railroad ties through the eye sockets of my soul.


Perhaps it is how we use grades in my disciplines and too many others, as shields between the knowers and those who know not, deflecting wisdom and carrying right on anyhow? Perhaps it is the evanescent and glittering truth that what is most valuable about learning history or anthropology can never be captured in any test or essay. Perhaps it is that, in the humanities at least, we have the opportunity to be genuine companions on the many diverging roads to human knowledge, but then expertise and the power to wield grades—months of another person’s efforts distilled into one blissfully idiotic number or letter—rear their head and mock all that we do, all that we say we value, all that we could be if only we could find wiser ways to arrange ourselves around knowledge and learning.

I should quickly add: I’ve no problem whatsoever with grades in disciplines whose graduates eventually build things like bridges or cars or tractors or cut open live beings and sew them back up again to be let loose on our streets, but the humanities and social sciences transcend all that (or could, if we could only summon the courage to let them) and traipse willfully undeterred through the nightmarish and unbelievably lovely, ineffable spaces of the human animal and our terrifying capacities for great evil and great good alike, and for these fields—so necessary now, so nurturing of soul and broken societal spirits—grades are wholly unsuited for the fray. Grades in such fields are about managing the industry, running people through the intellectual abattoirs that pass for education in this world and sending them out to conquer the rest of it thus. And so I wrestle with the ethics of the practice and my conscience when I grade, and it is a mighty battle every time. But this is the first time I’ve dreamt—or even considered the possibility—of such an activity awaiting me in the afterlife.

I talk straight out to the universe when anything bestirs me deeply, just stare into the maw and speak up. It is a way of telling myself, of course, since I’ve no evidence that anything out there is listening. So this is what I have to say about this morning’s dream: if there is existence beyond this one, y’all need to let me skip grading purgatory. By many light years. I should be planted in a far, far corner from such doings and not allowed even a visit. It would be best not to let me remain conscious of such practices being made so normative that most people don’t even question them, too. If memory excision on this matter is available, I should probably have that procedure performed the very second I exit this planet as well. For if I wind up there after this one little life is over with any lingering consciousness and memories of grading purgatories here? I will circle my every last cell into a fury so great that the explosion rips the space-time continuum apart. Everywhere. On that side of being and this one and any others ever to come. And that is a promise. Y’all will be picking up pieces of soul dust from here to forever.

The idea of ultimate resistance, so improbable, so nutty, so utterly “Swing-something-at-all-the-windmills, y’all” cheers me up now as I turn to my last set of tasks on this year’s evaluations of student work. My heart is made lighter just to think of a world in which grading no longer exists as a cultural practice because somebody broke the space-time continuum in two on its account. That—like every other notion that ever comes to me when I am stuck in some societal pattern that’s long since served its unholy purpose—I will put straight into the service of leaching compassion and love for learning out of everything I do for these students as they leave. It’ll likely all still get lost in that one idiotic number and letter that comes on the heels of everything else that came before, yes, but it’s still going to be there.

Resistance to the machines of our societies is not futile. It only appears that way until somebody comes up with a better idea for how not to be so backward and mean and call it normal. I feel in my bones that, if humanity manages to survive itself over the next few decades, somebody’s going to have figured out how to restructure learning in the humanities so we don’t wind up with a single number or letter as the period on the whole endeavor. I feel it, I yearn to still be alive when it happens, I pray for it even (since this would be a much better use of my cells than splitting a continuum I know nought of!): and now I trundle off to finish my grading. Lighter of heart, for writing of anything (even one’s own complicities with long-broken systems) makes it easier to bear.


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