So far, I’ve held two class meetings for the Public Speaking & Debate course I’m teaching at a nearby prison. Last class period (we meet weekly), my students gave their first graded speech. Which means, since this is the first class I’ve ever taught, this week I graded assignments for the first time. As a note, because I’m not qualified to teach at a real college, the class I’m teaching is part of the program’s “certificate course,” meaning that students can’t get college credit for it. Nonetheless, public speaking is a valuable skill, and practice for more official college classes is something I think most, if not all, students could benefit from.
It was a harrowing experience.
The first hurdle I ran into was a deep and anxiety-inducing feeling of being an impostor. I’m not a real college professor, after all. I’m not even done with my first Masters degree, which means I can’t teach even introductory or community college classes. I haven’t graded assignments for an instructor since I was a little kid correcting spelling tests from my grandmother’s first-graders. So as I sat down with the preliminary notes I had taken during each student’s speech, I started wondering, Who am I to give grades? I can do feedback, but who am I to assign numerical values to these peoples’ work? This was something like how I felt during my first few weeks of graduate school, when I had to force myself not to hunch over in hopes of going unnoticed because I was irrationally convinced that someone would demand to know what I was doing, since I was clearly not A Real Grad Student.
Also, I found myself beset by a whole set of other concerns. How do I make sure grades are fair? I’m used to having to rank speeches as a judge in collegiate forensics competitions, but grades are a different story. I can’t give everyone a perfect score, because there was definitely a range in skill and effectiveness, but I was definitely impressed by the quality of speeches I heard. Some of my students have experience either in their pre-incarceration professional lives or through the prison chapter of Toastmasters, but I was very pleased that everyone spoke for at least the minimum time allotted, no one went over the maximum upper end of time, and everyone had interesting and thoughtful things to say even though they only had 60 seconds to prepare to speak for two to three minutes on a quotation they had probably never seen before. I appreciate that, especially after having seen college public speaking classes and new competitors in forensics events, many of whom struggled more to meet similar requirements than the students I have in my current class. (And I’m positive this isn’t a result of my stellar instruction!)
A liberal college education has left me very sensitive to questions of prejudice, including racism, sexism, and classism. On the plus side, all of my students are male, so I didn’t have to worry that I was skewing grades based on gender. But I have a diverse class – half or more of my students are non-White – and being White myself, I had to go through all of the preliminary grades I assigned and reassure myself that I probably wasn’t skewing based on race. I’d like to say that I am for sure not allowing race to be a factor, but let’s be honest and admit that complete certainty isn’t possible. The best I can do is force myself to be open and honest about the grading and why each person received the grade they did.
What I wound up doing was going through my preliminary notes, taken during the speeches themselves, and giving each person detailed feedback including both praise and suggestions. I never had to think very hard to come up with something positive to say. I really mean it that I was impressed by their first speeches. If they’d been any better, I might have had an attack of insecurity as I pounded my brain to try and figure out what I had left to teach! But focusing on feedback does two things – it gives reasoning for grading, thereby preventing the arbitrary system from being completely arbitrary, but it also means that students get back something that recognizes the specific strengths and weaknesses of their work.
In my last post, I talked about how important it is to remember that the classroom exists for the students. Grading should be an extension of that, because assignments, in my opinion, function as a check-in point. They let me see what my students are good at and what they still need to work on, which helps me put together feedback, lesson plans, and activities that actually address their needs. For the student, grades and assignment feedback are a recognition of their strengths and support for improving their weaknesses. You don’t take a class on something you’re already perfect at, but judicious and honest praise, praise that you’ve earned, helps build confidence in developing skills. And having someone tell you, not what most people have to work on, but what you need to work on and suggest ways to do that, demonstrates that the instructor is interested in your progress.
I think that last is especially important in this situation, because many prisoners are where they are in part because of inadequate social resources and positive reinforcement when they were growing up. This is not true of every person convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison, but it’s a common enough story that it’s worth trying to intervene. Additionally, the prison environment itself is demeaning, demoralizing, and dehumanizing. I struggle with it sometimes, and I’m only there for a few hours a week. I think honest, earnest praise that openly acknowledges areas that need work is good for everyone…but it’s especially important in an institutionalized setting, and even more so in the lives of people who are making an effort toward rehabilitation, even if they may never be released. A desire and dedication to self-improvement should be respected and encouraged everywhere it appears, and a classroom is in some ways uniquely suited to that goal.
And that’s the story of how I made grading 2-3 minute speeches an act of resistance to the carceral state, at least in my own mind.