“Borther is in the hospital” is the title of an email sent by one of my Freshman Composition students. His name is Tim. He’s a lanky kid who is always taller than I expect him to be when he stands up – that is, when I do see him. It’s been a while. Today’s email is either the fourth or fifth installment of “borther is in the hospital,” all written over the span of the five consecutive classes he’s missed. It floats atop my Unread Folder, just above emails from two other students, each of whom sends their regrets for class today. One has a weekend softball tournament with the varsity team, the other deploys the bullet-proof Family Emergency excuse. I spend a little less than two seconds trying to remember if I’ve heard the same excuse from the same student before. Then, I delete his, too.
If they are all to be believed, my students suffer a gross profusion of Family Emergencies, all troubling enough to keep them from class, and most too personal or otherwise unseemly to detail to their sympathetic instructors. My students’ lives it seems are entirely similar to traumatic teenage reality shows, and the best that I and the other freshman instructors might hope for is to create a successful triage, to use our class-space as a haven where for at least 150 minutes per week nothing psychologically, emotionally, or physically damaging can happen to them.
But, of course I am complicit in my students’ pain. I bear some corporate responsibility for their hardship. My requirement, which is really the English Department’s requirement; that they produce at least 20 pages of polished, academic writing is probably damaging to many of them on all three levels. I am a khaki-panted essay-jockey, scolding them toward the Kingdom of Academic Discourse, demanding they enter whether they want to or not. And so, is it any wonder they retreat to their dorms where they funnel beers and suffer hangovers, console roommates going through tawdry breakups, cut their hands on broken bottles, sprain their ankles on hallway steps, and receive 2am phone calls from far flung relatives informing them of persistent Family Emergencies?
As I stare at Tim’s latest volley in the ongoing saga of “borther is in the hospital,” it’s crushing to think of myself mired in the chaos of my 75 students’ lives. They have long ago thwarted my attempts to make standardized procedures for missing class and handing in work late. Their problems are all one of a kind, but their numbers are too great to handle individually. They are like water and my teacher’s policies a shoddy retaining wall. Which has given rise to my ultimate, magnanimous fallback strategy, the one I hope will see me through this difficulty with Tim, a two word mantra: Be Accommodating. If I could print those words on a bumper sticker, or buy one pre-fab from the local Speedway gas station, I’d stick it to the back of my Corolla. If my position were permanent and not probationary I’d shout it at the next department meeting, my little grain of wisdom, my teacher aphorism. Put it under my headshot on my faculty webpage: Be Accommodating!
Tim must know this. The dejected stare he’s displayed through the classes he did attend must belie a keen intuitive sense that has led him to concoct and embellish “borther is in the hospital.” His emails are, after all, a brilliant riff on the Family Emergency model. Already, he’s created a situation in which it’s taking far longer than I’d like to Be Accommodating. And so, on this third to last Friday before exams, I open his email and am informed that Tim will not be keeping the meeting we’d agreed upon earlier this week. Which is a double shame. It’s firstly a shame because I’d forgotten about the meeting, and would’ve missed Tim while mucking it up over veggie enchiladas with Instructor Young in the Campus Cantina, meaning that Tim lost the chance to make me more culpable than I already am for his research failure – something that to him might have been more valuable than actually meeting with me.
Secondly, it’s a shame because Tim’s email contains no new updates about his borther. While I hope to Be Accommodating by any means necessary, I am also beginning to feel decidedly out of the loop. If Tim intends to include me in the ongoing situation of his borther in the hospital, I wish at least he’d apprise me of his borther’s progress. I mean, is his borther still there? Tim isn’t quite fully considering the potential questions of his audience. He hasn’t done what his textbook calls “planting a naysayer” in his serial essay. I want him to tell me: “Borther gets stiches out tomorrow,” or “Borther eating yogurt to counteract side-effects of antibiotics.” I want him to know this is an essential element in his ethical appeal.
Nevertheless, Tim’s is an artful ploy. Repeated exposure to “Borther is in the hospital” causes me to sort of believe Tim, at least to the extent that someone (his borther) is somewhere (the hospital) and this happenstance has interfered to some degree with his ability to keep up with his research paper. The only real question is one of scale. For instance, what would be the amount of weekly homework a student might miss if his brother had, say, an emergency appendectomy? And, even this “for instance,” assumes Tim’s situation stems from real facts and not the embellishment of real facts. On the one hand, his brother could be near death, or dying. On the other, I have to consider that “borther is in the hospital” may be a fib grown out of a sibling having indigestion or a cousin somewhere with a skinned knee.
All along my intuition has told me “borther is in the hospital” is mostly codex for “student punting on research essay,” which actually increases my sympathy for Tim. The brilliance of his potential punt is that I can’t really ask to see a doctor’s note. Likewise, I can only go so far in questioning Tim’s loyalty to his brother. Which is why Tim’s got me. We trade on the knowledge that I’ll never know for certain and to what calamity his brother is/was in the hospital. With “Borther is in the hospital” Tim so effectively exploits my desire to Be Accommodating that I wait, riveted, to learn the accommodations I’ll make. His email lists no reason for missing our meeting. It contains only one line: “Hey Prof, can’t make it today.” I hesitate before responding, realizing this might be an opportunity to let Tim’s borther excuse die a natural death. But, when that seems inhumane, I write him back: “Try for Monday? Best, Jack.”
I’m always signing my emails “Best.” It seems always appropriate. I’m doing my best to Be Accommodating. Tim is doing his best to manage his borther and our composition class. The real efficacy of “Borther is in the Hospital” is that I’ll have to pause before mentally noting an annihilating grade in the space meant for Tim’s research essay.
What I can’t admit even to Instructor Young, much less any other faculty, is that I arrive at grades in part by virtue of some chicken scratch beside students’ names in my grade book, but mostly by imagining a grade above each students’ head where a light bulb would be. Up until recently Tim has been borderline “C/B.” He’s floated between yellow and orange. Even with 75 students this is easier than one might expect. Most students are solid B’s. A few are red A’s. Especially in my Bad Class I have several green Ds that may slip in these last three weeks into brown Fs.
To defend this practice only slightly, I would say that while I may risk making some students subject to the soft tyranny of low expectations, I actually do read and comment on their papers. I whack away at My Mountain of Grading with Sisyphean discipline. As I come through the home-stretch of the semester, rarely does a day pass when I don’t – even Saturdays and Sundays. Considering this, I wouldn’t mind if a like-mind deemed my evaluation process to be, mystically, Post-Grades – although I’d refrain from claiming that distinction for myself.
What I discovered back in the calculator days was that all the number crunching led to a situation where nearly every student earned a B. Semester after semester, 85 percent earned 85’s. This means that in each class of 20, there are three or four papers that aren’t Bs. As a grader my one job is to find them. The A’s are easy to spot, even to celebrate. I celebrate them with highlighter, stars, smiley faces, lengthy missives on their Works Cited pages, and exclamation points. D’s and F’s occur only when work is woefully incomplete, leaving only the C. The C is hardest to see. (“Seeing the ‘C’: Holistic Evaluation in the Age of the Student-Consumer” is a potential conference paper). I don’t see them frequently. When I do, most often I take the opportunity to make it a C+, to sweeten it as with a drop of honey. The + is sometimes the most salient carrot I can offer a student broken down on the road to the Kingdom of Academic Discourse. In my dank office cube, in the shadow of my Mountain of Grading, the + is one of few ways I can remind myself that despite somewhat ineffectual classroom leadership I am still a good person.
What is clear to me as my office hour ends and I make my leave-taking preparations, is no matter what Tim does or doesn’t accomplish this semester, and whatever letter grade I eventually assign him in my mind, I will give it a +. In fact, Tim, on this 18th day of April, I deem you have learned enough. If instead of a grade I could provide you a written evaluation, I would write: Bravo, Tim! You have done wonders with context and audience in our short time together. This is evidenced by perhaps your best creation: “Borther is in the hospital”! In future semesters you might build upon this success by concocting still grander schemes for shirking work you find tedious, difficult, and/or anxiety-producing. As you do so, please keep in mind that continuing to add precise detail to the ongoing Family Emergencies you experience is a key factor in ratcheting-up faculty uncertainty and sympathy. That said, since Spring Break you have proven adroit in your ability to keep me wondering about you and your borther, and, while I send my best wishes to your borther for a speedy recovery, and to you as you deal with any lingering trauma, I must say that working through this situation with you has been, truly, an unexpected challenge, but also a pleasure. I am confident you will handle future writing occasions with similar aplomb.