Friday, October 4, 2013

The Enemy of the Good

I suspect that in this profession we're all plagued by perfectionist tendencies. I know I am. It's what makes for good philology and for a reputation of being the sort of person with total, detailed command of a variety of archival sources. I'm good at what I do because I can put on the blinders and completely immerse myself in one thing until it's completed to my satisfaction.

And so even though my main focus is research rather than teaching, my basic personality is having a hard time letting go and just doing a good enough job on my teaching rather than shooting to do the ideal job. There's that old saying, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." That's my goal for grading this set of essays.

At Cornell, there is a really well-developed, well-thought-out freshman writing program with an intensive six-week course and hands-on practicum for the graduate students who teach in the program and a very detailed set of guidelines for how to grade and comment upon essays that includes making minimal annotations in the margins and a long narrative comment on separate paper that engages with the student's work in the same way (if not at the same level) one would engage with a colleague: discussion rather than prescription, guidance rather than correction, response rather than reaction. That's where I learned how to write really thoughtful assignments and how to comment effectively on the responses to those assignments. It's good and it works and it's super time intensive and I'm having a hard time letting it go.

But you know what? I'm giving two talks this week, including one on Monday between teaching my two classes. I have four — count 'em — articles all with deadlines before the end of the term. They would be totally manageable if I didn't also have to have a draft of the book finished by January in order to stay on schedule to get the book out in time for my tenure review. And if I try to write a page of comments on each of sixteen freshmen's papers, I'm not going to have a second left to write the talks for next week let alone even look at the book manuscript.

So this time, even though I know it's not as pedagogically sound as it could be, my students are going to get comments in the margins of their papers. They'll be thoughtful, but they'll also be mainly corrective. I'll aim for full-page narrative engagement next time. If I try for perfect, the grading isn't going to happen until after the next assignment is out, and that's a real failure. Good is what I can swing right now; perfect is going to have to wait.

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