Letter to a Young Professor

You Are Being Paid to Make Judgements

Loretta Graziano Breuning

Being “non-judgmental” was the highest virtue when I became a professor in the 1980s. How can you be non-judgmental while grading hundreds of papers? Easy. You find the good in each paper and overlook the bad. I didn’t invent this mindset. I absorbed it from my peers. It took me a decade to see how disastrously misguided this was, and another decade to recalibrate. You can do better.

My colleagues justified their non-judgment by pointing fingers at high schools. They’d say, “it’s not our fault that the high schools haven’t prepared our students.” But one day I met a high school teacher who said, “We can’t uphold standards because the students know they can get into some college even if they have low grades.” High schools can also point fingers at elementary schools, where social promotion guarantees skill deficits in a large chunk of students. I got an extra dose of finger-pointing from my brother, who was a professor at a school with many affluent students. He and his colleagues blamed affluence for their students’ performance gaps, while my colleagues were forever blaming poverty. I started to see how the finger-pointing paradigm was being used to shun responsibility.

But I didn’t really get it until my own child joined the ranks of the academically avoidant. Then, I resented her teacher’s smiling assurances because it was clear that my child wasn’t progressing. It hadn’t occurred to me that this was a possibility because I was always told that academic deficits are caused by growing up in a home without books. Professors had plenty of books, but I could see that their children refused to take their schoolwork seriously in many cases. Our explanatory apparatus was clearly flawed. I even wondered if causality ran in the opposite direction: could we be doing something wrong?

I loved to read when I was young, so I couldn’t imagine forcing a child to read. Yet a child must build reading skill to participate in the adult world. I expected the teacher to make that happen. Suddenly, I saw the contradiction: if I wanted her teachers to take responsibility, don’t I owe the same responsibility to my students?

You are probably thinking that my child had a “disorder.” You may presume that a “diagnosis” would fix everything. That mindset was just getting traction at the time. People kept telling me to “have her tested.” So I did, over and over. The diagnosis was always “she’s a lovely girl,” and “they all learn in their own time.” But do they learn when teachers refuse to give realistic feedback? Do they learn when bad work gets the same reward as good work? Do they benefit from the theory that “learning is fun” and anyone who doesn’t see it that way can be fixed with pills? I decided to focus on what I could control instead of dwelling on theoretical abstractions. So, I stopped giving everyone a good grade. My students were not pleased, of course. An administrator advised me to “tell them what you expect of them.” I didn’t understand this at first because the syllabus already laid out the expectations.

Slowly, I came to understand the expectations they brought with them. Students told me that other professors put everything you need to know on one sheet, and memorizing it gets you an A in any class. I refused to do that, but I failed to explain why because I thought it was obvious. I should have explained that extracting information from the written word is an essential life skill. It takes effort to build that skill, and the brain invests effort when it sees a reward. If you get the reward without the effort, you don’t build the skill. You can help students build skill by withholding rewards when the skill is not demonstrated. It may seem judgmental, but you’re being paid to make those judgments.

In an acrimonious world, we feel compelled to reward everyone. But you can do more good by letting go of the “non-judgmental” fantasy.

Photo by ekim on Adobe Stock

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