Let’s begin with a story. Last week, a friend posted his relief at having received a perfect grade for a grad-school paper. My problem, upon hearing this? His paper depicted the U.S.-Mexico border crisis–something I knew deeply affected him and his communities, and as such had consequences far beyond the page. Here he’d been, worrying about his ability to perform for a theory class, because of its impact on his ability to improve the world later… when the paper in question involved the need for greater action now. So when I saw his tweet, a floodgate of memories opened from my last term as a post-secondary instructor in Canada. I remembered, in general, the struggle to improve the relevancy of course material to student needs. I remembered, in particular, a moment when standardization pressures came in direct conflict with my humanist practice.
For fairness’s sake, though, I should first mention that I was already pretty burned out when this incident happened. After realizing in Fall 2016 that I’d have to leave my PhD program two dissertation drafts into the process, I had intended to slip out of academia after teaching one last course at another university. However, an opportunity arose to teach at a technical college in May, and even though I was reluctant to continue in post-secondary, I had yet to envision how I would pay for whatever came next. So how could I say “no” to one more month of income?
…Except that, during the intake process, the institution found me to be an adequately experienced instructor, and encouraged me to take on a fall term contract, too. At the time, still also working at a local bookstore to make rent, I didn’t have enough financial security to say “no” in favour of the void of other job prospects, so I locked myself into another term, rationalizing that I could always withdraw if I found something else.
Nonetheless, if I had started to consider leaving Canada after leaving the PhD… Colombia definitely became my plan in the summer of 2017. So when fall rolled around, I knew it was my last hurdle before the freedom to start over somewhere new.
But even then, what a hurdle! I was already on a diet of beans, rice, lentils, peanut-butter, and eggs to save for the move… and then six weeks into term, the teaching staff ended up on strike. The longest college strike in Ontario history! And when we got back, we were working to finish the term right up until Christmas. I spent New Year’s Eve uploading final marks. Technically, post-strike, the term rolled into the new year, too. I was supposed to be teaching into time I had carefully blocked off, late summer, for an immersion test in Colombia. Since I couldn’t afford the delay and cancellation fees, I was in tears at the thought that, right to the bitter end, my Canadian life would not let me go.
Suffice it to say, it wasn’t a fun time.
But in the middle of all that?
After finding a workaround to complete the term before year’s end, I received a final essay from one student that wasn’t an essay at all. This student had been struggling all term to maintain interest in the course: a basic communications course, standardized for consumption by 160 sections of students from every program in the college. When I opened her assignment, though, I realized why she had struggled so much more than even the other second-language students. As it turned out, she hadn’t sent me an essay because her greater concern was completing a letter of appeal. A document requested by her family’s lawyer, to help her overseas father with his own refugee-claim process.
This is what she needed.
This was the sort of praxis a communications course supposedly prepares students for.
And yet, her inability to follow the course rubric should have guaranteed her a “fail”.
When Standardization Helps, and When It Hinders
Now, obviously standardization is supposed to help level the playing field and protect against nepotism. We want to make sure everyone is equal, so we’re creating exactly the same hurdle for everyone to pass!
Except… standardization often yields new forms of preferential treatment. My teaching friends and other workers for government institutions know this well. In the Ontario education system, for instance, job postings need to be public to ensure fairness. However, every administrator knows how to craft a job posting for which only a single internal candidate would actually be viable. And, sure, formalized proceedings with strict, standardized terminology prove useful for running “non-biased” interviews. Except that very same, highly bureaucratic nature of these interview processes often ensures that only candidates familiar with (i.e. coached in) the jargon can pass.
As a friend of mine recently put it, while awaiting a non-probative government interview: the idea is good. Let’s avoid giving certain candidates a “leg up” from the receipt of more personalized questions than other candidates! But the actual bias is not removed. If an interviewer really wants or doesn’t want a candidate, they still have their ways of ensuring the right box does or doesn’t get ticked in the process.
What this process does remove, though, is human value, because this appeal to standardization is itself a profound manifestation of distrust in individual contributions. If you have an administrator who’s been working in a given field for a few years, surely they have institutional knowledge that would make them better judges of who would and would not be a good fit for the organization. But no. Last week, I discussed litigiousness as a major cultural problem, because fixating on worst-case scenarios limits our ability to act humanely. This week, likewise, my argument is simply this:When we assume that all partiality is intrinsically racist, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic, ableist, ageist… we neither protect against the institutional prejudices that emerge in even the most standardized of systems, nor make space for more positive partialities–towards excellence, towards good character, towards good team players–to emerge instead.
The Loss to Humanist Practice
Our union culture in North America is not much different. Certainly, there are other, possibly healthier employee/employee-rep/employer relationships in the world. (Germany being a particularly striking example of union integration into industry discourse and government policy.) However, North Americans generally operate combatively, with everyone assuming everyone else is not operating with anyone else’s best interests at heart. And how can we not? Who wants to be the first chump to assume good intentions on the part of one’s employer in a financially precarious world?
But when this combative model also arises in standardization practice, it devalues the role of empathy in the formation of communities. In our assumption that anything not standardized risks a lawsuit, we lose the individual distinctions we’re trying to protect.
Empathy is not easy, either, because it involves the acceptance of failure without exiling those who have failed. A system that cannot make mistakes without being condemned in its entirety is one in which individuals are not permitted their share of error, either. Cruelly, such a system rarely even serves those who (rightly) cry out for greater equality and justice. Rather, in its effort to treat every situation as evenhandedly as possible, it operates outside the realm of actual happenstance. It ceases to represent the chaos of the human condition, and so especially fails those enduring the most chaos firsthand.
So What Does One Do?
Technically, I should have made my student resubmit her essay. That was the only form of “kindness” permitted in our standard model–and sure, I understand why. As the rhetoric goes, to pass her without her demonstrating an ability to comply with class instructions would have only ill-prepared her for the next, and the next. Worse yet, I’d be devaluing all the work from students who did comply with instructions. It didn’t matter that the strike had robbed her of half a term’s tutelage. It didn’t matter that the struggles she faced at home literally involved life-and-death scenarios. Everyone has some personal issue impeding progress, right? You can’t make exceptions for them all… can you?
But I didn’t make her resubmit. Instead I sat down with her, and we talked together about measures of good communicative practice as they related to her submission: Who was the audience? What was the message? What rhetorical devices suit the delivery of this message to this audience? And what sources are you drawing upon to support this argument? What kind of sources are they? Are they the right sources for this sort of argument? Have you cited them? And we checked off rubric items together as she demonstrated, verbally and with reference to her submission, an understanding of these core course concepts.
Granted, she didn’t score highly on grammar and spelling–those, I fixed for her after, to help prepare her submission to her lawyer–but she passed. She got through a difficult term with no greater guarantees–not for terms ahead, nor for the outcome of her father’s case. But she survived the battle, and the day, and that was achievement enough.
What Can We All Do?
The problem is, these solutions aren’t scalable. By their very nature, such one-on-one humanistic responses are antithetical to blueprints and official guidelines, and we can’t expect every overworked employee to have the time to reach for them. Indeed, every attempt to impose top-down responses to individual crises invariably leaves new pathways to abuse (by some) and neglect (of others)–because we are not perfect people, and we operate in frequently calcified systems. In post-secondary education in particular, a profound veering from praxis to theory leaves us doing busy-work while the world burns. And none of this will be amended overnight.
As such, I find myself leaning on a quote from The Nice and the Good, by Iris Murdoch. Murdoch emphatically regarded her work as fiction, not philosophy, yet wrote such pointed appeals about human nature as this claim that, after all…
“Human frailty forms a system, Jessica, and faults in the past have their endlessly spreading network of results. We are not good people, Jessica, and we shall always be involved in that great network, you and I. All we can do is constantly to notice when we begin to act badly, to check ourselves, to go back, to coax our weakness and inspire our strength, to call upon the names of virtues of which we know perhaps only the names. We are not good people, and the best we can hope for is to be gentle, to forgive each other and to forgive the past, to be forgiven ourselves and to accept this forgiveness, and to return again to the beautiful unexpected strangeness of the world.”
A difficult task, to be sure, when we are called up daily to work within institutions that change more in response to litigiousness than to genuine calls for humanistic justice.
But whatever else are we to do? We must aspire to act individually with that same empathy we long to see more of in the world. We must meet with caution any claim that an increase in standardization will necessarily yield our desired ends.
But most of all, we must expect that, sometimes, amid the slings and arrows of human happenstance, we will fail to meet external rubrics of success.
And then we must take the biggest risk of all–the risk my student took, ever so much greater than my own:
We must risk asking others in the system to see the human in us when we do.