Giving an “F” with Flair

You already impress me; you don’t have to earn my approval.

I believe this when I look at my students. It’s my theology of teaching (and life). Just as favor is bestowed on me, I bestow it on my students. This means students amaze me regardless of the paper they turn in. This makes grading hard. When you believe the best about people, when you see their inherent dignity, you find it nearly impossible to even give a B- without suffering internally. The “F’s” nearly hospitalize me.

“This hurts me more than it hurts you,” I told a student once.

“I believe you,” she said.

On my evaluations that year, she wrote that I was more traumatized by her C in the class than she was. And it does traumatize me. I think it has something to do with living with flair.

I like to find what’s right, not just what’s wrong. It’s a different way of looking at a paper (and a life). It’s easy to criticize; it’s easy to complain. Anybody can do it. What’s not so easy is finding the hidden gem of what’s right.

Flair means subtext. I have to look beneath the surface of something and glean the good. When it comes to student writing, I try to see what they would have said if they could have. I want to honor that, even if I have to fail a student.

Living with flair means I see beneath the error: the sloppy sentence construction, the incorrect comma, the feeble verb. It means I practice reversing the culture of criticism and complaint. I find the good, name it, and then evaluate what could improve.

There’s some beauty there, some perfectly crafted essay (or life!) buried beneath the mess.

I love what the poet Carl Sandburg’s wife wrote to him on a postcard at the lowest point in his writing life. She said, “You are great and great! I know the poems are in you, Carl. We just have to get them out of you.”

Living with flair means I draw out what’s often hidden beneath the sloppy, the incorrect, and the feeble. I find what’s right. As I’m grading this stack of papers today, I do it with flair. It means celebrating and not just criticizing.

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