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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

Choosing Humanity Over Compliance

I caught a break a long time ago. I've tried not to forget it.

May 16, 2019
 
 

One semester, junior year of college, I had only three finals, all scheduled in the same day early cycle. If that was the case, we were allowed to reschedule one to a different date at the professor’s convenience. I approached all three professors, and each gave me a time on the last day of finals, a full four days after I would’ve been done otherwise.

I decided to take all three finals on the same day.

It was almost a huge mistake, but some unknown person decided to give me a break. 

This was not a problem of not having enough time to study. I wasn’t a big studier to begin with and would’ve wasted the intervening days anyway, so I figured I might as well dispatch with the finals all at once and enjoy the sweet freedom of release after finishing all academic responsibilities.

All three were essay-based finals because I habitually dropped any class that had other forms of assessment. The formats involved multiple prompts from which we would have to respond to some smaller number, i.e, “Choose three of the following eight prompts and respond in essay form demonstrating your mastery of the material and concepts discussed in the class.”

One was a literature course, one I can’t remember, and the final one was history. The first two were back-to-back morning and noon. The third was the evening slot, probably starting around 7pm, though the specifics escape me. 

As per usual, I had a safe B grade in all three courses with a decent chance at an A in the literature course and an outside shot at an A in the history course if I really pulled something good out on the final. I say “per usual” because I was a dedicated practitioner of the minimax theory, getting the maximum grade while doing the minimal amount of work. 

For me, this was a B. Doing better than B meant that I was genuinely engaged with the course content for its own sake, which meant a good three-quarters of my college grades were B’s. 

I nailed the literature final. Sometimes the gods of fortune shine down with the prompts and while I don’t recall the specifics, I remember a distinct feeling of confidence as I finished that exam with an hour (out of three) to spare before the next final. 

The middle exam is a void. I’m sure that I’d done the math ahead of time and recognized that anything above a D- meant I’d get a B in the course and so my facility with producing convincing B.S. to fill the pages of the Blue Book was going to be more than enough, and it must’ve been because I only ever got one C in my entire college career, and that’s a story I remember well.

After the second final I went home and took a nap, got up, ate dinner, and headed to the history final, hoping the prompt gods would shine on me with similar fortune to the literature exam.

They didn’t. Worse, I realized that the earlier two finals had emptied my stores of thinking-related energy. As it turns out five-hours of essay exam writing will make one’s brain a little mushy. 

I was in trouble from the get-go, struggling to get anything coherent out in my first of three required answers. It was a course on the history of the Russian Revolution and my engagement had been higher than average because there were so many great characters, so I knew I had some stuff to trot out to prove that engagement, but it wasn’t happening. 

I began to worry about the B I thought was so secure. Semi-answering one out of three prompts was F territory, well short of even the low bar of D that I’d need to keep that B.

It was a good-sized lecture class, maybe 200-250 students and I knew all the exams would be graded by one of the two TA’s. I’d never interacted with either of them. They’d been introduced at the first class, sat in the front row during lectures and held review sessions I never attended. The quality or even overall sense of the essays was largely immaterial to the assessment. They’d merely be looking for evidence of grappling at least somewhat with the course material, but my blank Blue Book wasn’t going to give them anything to consider. 

Since nothing related to the prompt was going to come, in desperation, I wrote directly to the TA on the inside flap of the front cover of the Blue Book. I explained my poor choice to try to write three exams in the same day and how my brain was running out of my ears. I cited my previous above average performance in the course as evidence that I’d engaged with the material previously and that I’d hoped to nail the final to earn the A, but this clearly wasn’t going to happen. I apologized for my failure to bring anything coherent to this moment. I closed with a recognition that their task of grading was likely a little rote and boring, pouring through all of these Blue Books and I said that they could just skip that little formality with my exam because I assured them there was nothing worth reading. 

I suggested my overall performance deserved a B, despite this obvious shortcoming, but that I also recognized I’d quite possibly wind up with a lower grade and was prepared to accept my fate I put my head on the desk and slept for 30 minutes before turning in the booklet and walking out with more than 90 minutes to go in the final period and the room still filled.

Reader, I got the B. I don’t know why. My argument could’ve been convincing, or the TA’s could’ve done the same math I did and not bothered reading any essays from people who were basically locked into a grade. By the letter of the law, I deserved an F on the final and a C in the class, but I like to think though, that in the moment, I convinced the authority figure to choose humanity over compliance. 

For some reason, the story above came to mind the other day when I saw this widely circulated tweet on a footnote in a scholarly publication. 

 

 

 

Personally, I find the footnote charming and human and I strongly identify with it. The preparation of the references and note for Why They Can’t Writewas painful, perhaps more for the copyeditor than me since he had to patiently point out all of my formatting mistakes. 

Perhaps I link it to the above incident because I see evidence of someone doing their best, but also who has reached a kind of limit that they cannot bring themselves to cross. Similar to my abandonment of the final this is a person who is asking for the benefit of the doubt, to be released from a system that values compliance. 

The comments on the original tweet are interesting. Many are also charmed as I was, or intrigued to know the full story, while others are disconcerted that this sort of thing was allowed to slide through to publication. To them, the letter of those rules matter and allowing such an obvious flaunting is a bad thing.

In some ways, it seems like a Rorschach Test for how one situates their values in these spaces, what we decide matters, when. 

Did I deserve whatever mercy those TA’s showed me? I suppose it depends. I would’ve survived either way, but I’m grateful they let me be human.

 

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