NO ONE came at me with a gun, tried to run me over in the parking lot or burst into my office and emptied a jar of rattlesnakes over my head. No, I got off lightly with only threatening phone messages left on my answer machine.
Teaching at an American community college can be dangerous when it comes to the end of a semester and you publish grades. Some students go plain crazy if they end up with the wrong mark.
Teaching English composition classes during an exchange year at a quiet, popular college in the Midwest, I encountered nothing but respect, awe and admiration for simply being British and having the most seductive accent in the whole wide world. I'm sure one female student told me this in my office one day. And of course, now I think about it, I was going through her assignment and was about to award a grade. She looked like Jennifer Aniston and smiled longingly at me. I knew she didn't have a concealed weapon - unless you include flattery. I nearly succumbed, but called on British reserve and warded off a potential moment of weakness. She went out unhappy.
At home in England, teaching English at A-level at a sixth-form college, I mark using the familiar A to E system. In the States I graded papers on a four-point scale, with 4 being excellent and 2.5 being good. It soon became apparent after handing back the first assignment that "good" simply wasn't good enough. In fact, anything less than a 2 was a disgrace. They didn't actually say "this is the pits man!" but their facial expressions said as much.
I am glad that I stood my ground, but they had scored a psychological blow. I became more lenient after that and merely used the top half of the grading scale.Where was the departmental standardisation that could have helped me through this challenge? I talked the matter over with my fellow instructors. They were sympathetic, but said that staff valued their own autonomy.
I told them about the way things are in England, about how we are always agreeing standards, about meetings where we question colleagues' grades and about how we feel students get a better deal this way. They could see what I was getting at and applauded our rigorous methods.
It didn't take me long to realise that students go shopping for instructors. When the schedules for the next semester are published you can eavesdrop on student conversation about how tough or soft on marking are one's colleagues. I could imagine students whispering as I crossed the campus, "there he goes, the hard-nosed Brit who would have failed Hemingway for not using enough adjectivesI" Having my grades challenged did bring about one positive effect. I began to write more detailed comments on papers, sometimes writing nearly two sides in justifying my grade. For some students I prepared a very strong argument. They were technically competent but not what I call writers with flair. But how can you tell someone that their writing is dull and boring without upsetting them?
Quite a few of my students had breezed out of high school on the Honor Roll. They had their expectations and would settle for nothing less than excellent. I don't want to criticise a system in which students mug up for tests and then move onto the next quantifiable measure of success, but there was a discrepancy between their view of excellence and mine.
The angry message on my answer machine was more laughable than threatening. The guy said I had screwed up his chances and poured out his frustrations on the tape. The funny bit was when he called me a "Limey bastard". If I hadn't been about to return home to England I might have been concerned.
In fact, thinking about it, there was another guy who had written extensively about bear hunting. And the student with a crossbow. And the woman who had written a vivid account of what she had done with a dead deer and a large knife. Yes, if I had been staying around longer they might have received the grades they wanted.
Donald Hiscock is a teacher at an FE college