A last blast of summer heat floats in through the open windows, ruffling the multi-colored papers scattered across the narrow conference table. Outside, fire-red leaves rustle. One floats downward. Farther away, students amble past, their chatter slow and quiet because for them the workday is over. Professor New Hire leans forward and pulls their papers closer in, taking another look at the essay printed on green, Essay #3. They’ve already read the piece at least five times, but the grade calibration discussion has stalled so another look is warranted.
Directly across the table, Professor X sets an unbitten chocolate cookie on a napkin, taps the table, and glances around. “Would you pass it? Or not?”
His question is for everyone. There are seven people around the table. No one replies.
Outside a car horn blasts, distant yells and laughter follow. Inside, there are no smiles or laughter, just the click of keyboards and the whisper of pages turning.
At the end of the table, Prof Y reaches for one of the grading rubrics, printed on white paper and featuring orderly rows of boxes beneath the title Freshman Comp Semester 1. The neat grid promises to answer all grading questions, no matter how complicated or heart-breaking. Professor New Hire focuses on their own copy of the rubric, positioned beside a mug of still warm mint tea, and wishes the rubric could actually fulfill that promise. With only five weeks on the job, making a good impression on colleagues and knowing the right things to say mattered. To Professor New Hire, those things mattered a lot. The tightening in their throat was a constant reminder of the stakes.
Prof Y lowers the screen of her laptop and shrugs. “The research is pretty solid. The source use includes the Journal of Organizational Behavior and American Journal of Health Behavior.”
“Yep.” Professor X drums the tabletop now, the constant rhythm of his fingers matching the thrumming of Professor New Hire’s heart. “Good sources,” he says, still drumming. “The writer did some digging. I can tell the student had something to say. But beyond those quotes, do you see much evidence of reading the entire articles? Have they engaged with the conversation beyond these sources?”
“Do we teach reading or writing?” Professor Z asks. “I’d pass it. This student made a good effort. You can see they didn’t just write about the safe and easy topic, like the social impacts of COVID, the way everyone else did last year. They took a chance and tried to tackle a tough issue .”
“I know. I hear what you’re saying. They took a chance and that’s great. I encourage my students to read and write outside their comfort zones too, but…” Professor X picks up the still unbitten cookie, and continues, “But the paragraphing. It’s a mess. How can we blame them for choosing to stay safe, when…?” He gestures to the packet of green pages, now dotted with cookie crumbs. “Look what happens?”
Professor New Hire nods. The organization is, well, disorganized. Also true is that the student took a risk with the topic. Some of the analysis is intriguing and complex, but there are spots where the key points fall apart and thus the, for lack of a better word, lumpy approach.
“Yeah, the paragraphing is not good.” Professor Z’s attention is drawn to the window. A blue jay has perched on the ledge and appears to be admiring itself in the reflection. It spins and flies off. “But would you rather read another one of those perfect, tidy—boring—essays…”
“Okay.” Professor Z turns his full attention to the group. “The student took a risk. Tried. Did some good stuff with the research. Supported their thesis, sort of. Maybe the question we need to think about, before deciding whether or not its a pass is, are they ready? Are they prepared?”
Prof Y sets her tidy rubric over her closed laptop, searching it as she asks, “Ready for what? Prepared for what?”
Thick silence returns to the table. The sidewalk is so empty now, the early evening chatter of the birds has replaced the quiet laughter of students. Professor New Hire eyes the stack of napkins in the center of the table. Just one of those patted in the right spot would get rid of the dampness on the back of their neck. Instead of grabbing a napkin, they flip over the white sheet of paper. On the back side is the rubric for Freshman Comp Semester 2. They wave their hand over it. “We’re preparing the students for the next class.”
All gazes converge and Professor New Hire feels the weight of all 12 eyes. They’d meant the comment as a joke, sort of. A darkly humorous way to bring up a point well-accepted but never spoken. But now, with the very people they’d wanted to impress staring silently, the point wasn’t seeming so funny and the goal of making a good impression was now very far off.
Then, a wry smile softened Professor Z’s face. Others chuckle. Professor X bites into his cookie. “Point well made,” Prof Y says as she opens her laptop. “So, we’re moving on to Essay #4.”