It is highly likely that anyone reading this newsletter has participated in educational programs through at least secondary school. I would venture to say that most readers have also engaged in some form of higher education and/or professional development programs in order to qualify as teachers, administrators, language teacher educators, researchers, curriculum designers, test developers, or language teacher supervisors.
If my assumptions are correct, everyone who is reading this Chair’s Report has received grades—possibly hundreds or even thousands of grades–over the course of being evaluated in educational contexts.
It is not my purpose here to argue for or against grading as a function of educational programs. Instead, I want to think about what each of us—as a person being evaluated—does with the grades we receive.
What motivated this perspective? During the month of January 2020, I was struggling with my administrative responsibilities at school, teaching an online course, editing the first drafts of chapters for the next volume in the TIRF-Routledge series, and trying to meet the deadline for the draft of a chapter I’d promised to write. (My Australian TIRF colleagues, David Nunan and Joe Lo Bianco, will recognize that I am obviously engaging in the speech act of “whinging” here. Dictionary.com explains that this Australian term comes from an early Scots word, quhynge, or the Old English word, hwinsian which is related to the German world winseln–the basis of the modern English word, whine.)
Given my workload, you can imagine that an official U.S. national holiday that created a three-day weekend in January came as a great blessing to me. The event I’m referring to was established in 1983 to honor the memory of slain U.S. civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was assassinated by James Earl Ray in 1968.
I am not an African American. I did not march in Washington or in Selma. But I was a college student at that time and was deeply aware that my country was being ripped apart by injustice, war, and abuses of civil liberties. These days, while watching the evening news on television, I wonder whether we have made much progress.
What does any of this highly personal and subjective retrospection have to do with the readers of TIRF Today having been graded during their own educational journeys?
While I was reflecting on the importance of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday, I came across a claim that Dr. King had gotten a grade of “C” in a public speaking course. I was stunned by this claim because—at least in the US—Dr. King’s reputation as an orator is unsurpassed. In fact, Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is sometimes compared with U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and with U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, in which he urged his listeners, “Ask not what your country can do for your…”.
On a biographical website about Dr. King, Bernice King is quoted as having said, “’This is one thing I tell young people. Dr. King was a C-student at Morehouse. He got a C in public speaking, he got a C in preaching. That grows you. It tells you that you don’t allow grades and people’s judgments ever to define who you are and what you’re going to contribute to this world and he just continued to push forward and did not let it discourage him.” Another website states that he received the “C” grade in a public speaking course at seminary school. While I cannot confirm these assertions through publicly available records, I did not find any stories refuting the idea that Dr. King received these low grades.
What do we do when we get an unsatisfactory grade? I believe we have at least three options:
- Reject the grade. (The teacher didn’t like me, didn’t understand my culture, didn’t appreciate my perspective, didn’t get my sense of humor, etc.).
- Realize the grade is low, but rationalize it. (I was overwhelmed by other responsibilities; my respondents didn’t provide sufficient data; I applied the analytic framework, but it didn’t work well with my data.)
- Accept the grade as justified and accept responsibility. (I didn’t meet the expectations for the project and I agree that there is much room for improvement. I will work hard to do better.)
I admit that these three perspectives are overly simplistic. How we respond to evaluations of our work is a complex issue. A grade of our work may feel like a grade of ourselves.
What did Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. do when he got a grade of “C” in public speaking?
The online records I have perused do not provide an answer, so I cannot comment on Dr. King’s reaction. What we can say is that someone who had been judged to be a mediocre student of public speaking became one of the most widely recognized orators of his age.
To conclude, I would say that whether or not a low grade of our work is accurate and justified, we can reject it, we can rationalize it, and/or we can learn from it and improve upon it. Grades are one source of information. But what can we learn from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s low grade and what does the theme of this Chair’s Report have to do with TIRF?
In my work with TIRF, I give myself an “A” as a committed volunteer, and a solid “B” as a leader. But I must face the fact that as a fundraiser, I deserve a “C.” Fortunately, 2019 was a relatively good year for TIRF, financially speaking, and I hope that TIRF’s donor base and revenue streams will continue to grow.
I aspire to follow Dr. King’s example: I hope to learn from my low grades and offer something of long-lasting value to the language teaching profession and to the multifaceted field of international research in applied linguistics research.
I believe that “C” stands for challenge. Won’t you help me meet the fundraising challenge?