Socratic Assessment

A primer on the lost art of drinking while grading

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

March 21, 2016

A s class sizes rise in academe — unlike adjunct pay rates — it is important for faculty, especially the contingent ones, to utilize every tool in our instructional toolbox. We should particularly revisit those methods tried and tested over millennia of tertiary education but often disregarded in this age of Blackboard, MOOCs, and the Flipped Classroom.

By which I mean: The time seems ripe for a reappraisal of the lost art of drinking while grading.

Just how often are faculty committing AUI (assessing under the influence)? With more and more first-year composition essays bearing titles like "Anorexia and the Media," "Social Media: Good or Bad?" and "Xbox vs. PlayStation," if the answer isn’t "daily" or "as much and as often as possible," one might need to seriously reconsider one’s teaching paradigm.

Historically, alcohol’s association with higher learning is nothing new. Wine and teaching are linked as far back as Socrates’ lectures in the fifth century B.C. The founding of the academy by Plato in 385 B.C. virtually assured that the two would forever be associated.

In the 20th century the focus of alcohol consumption migrated from faculty to the students themselves — ironically linked to the rise of the very Greek fraternal culture inspired by Socrates in the first place. Professorial drinking bloomed instead as perhaps the worst-kept secret in academia. But in recent years, lurid tales of poor professorial conduct under the influence have created a climate of fear.

Historically, alcohol's association with higher learning is nothing new. Wine and teaching are linked as far back as Socrates' lectures in the fifth century B.C.
 Today, graded papers are more likely to sport the brown stains of java than the purple of a full-bodied claret.

But those who consume alcohol to cope with academia, with fellow academics, and with whatever emotional problems led them to think — despite all evidence to the contrary — that entering the faculty ranks was a good idea in the first place, are missing the most important application of this tool: the completion of one’s professorial duties themselves.

Preparation. Proper booze selection cannot be overemphasized. While the architectural models of an upper-level seminar on the landscape of suburbia might call for a nice port, freshman composition and other gen-ed requirements call for juice with a bit more firepower.

One might be tempted to pair alcohol with subject matter — Jameson and Joyce, say; or champers and Fitzgerald — but don’t get cute. The generally accepted formula is: P/D = 1. The "P" refers to proof (of the alcohol). The "D" is your specific dislike of this particular group of students on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being total unmitigated rage. For groups exceeding 100, a Bacardi 151 floater is acceptable.

Methodology. The order of grading is also of utmost importance. In this though you are lucky, for your students have already placed themselves into three grading groups: (A) Those who try so hard, but, for whatever reason, (institutional, financial, cultural) aren’t quite there; (B) those who are going to do just fine regardless; and (C) those who come in late (if ever) and then put their phones on their knees to text throughout class and raise their hands to answer even though they haven’t done the reading and are gonna lay some nonsensical comment on you that you will have to awkwardly try to integrate into the discussion so as not to get a complaint that you violated their rights and created an "unsafe learning environment."

Don’t fight those groupings: Use them. Start your grading with Group B. The first sips of the giggle juice will infuse you with the bonhomie to give the evenhanded praise and specific critique that will serve these students best.

If you're too drunk to spend a minute more grading the assignment than was spent creating it by Group C, you'll waste nobody's time. Give them the D and move on.
A few more drinks will have you in high "spirits" indeed, and that will make you your most generous self, which is exactly the self needed by those in Group A. Like slipping on a pair of beer goggles late at night at a crowded dive, you’ll see not simply what your students have written, but what they would have written, if they could be their own best selves. There is no encouragement without courage, you’ll remind yourself. You’ll see their potential, and you will grade that potential as if it were wrapped in a marshmallow fluff sandwich.

At this point you’ll face the classic dilemma: Stop drinking now and Group C will suffer the slow emergence of the physical and emotional hangover-to-be. But continue and risk a massive stress+alcohol-induced throwdown with every aggrieved student who couldn’t be bothered to hand in the work on time (overly harsh grading); or, in the other direction, becoming that most odious of specimens, the adjunct with family to support, grateful for every crumb of work and, therefore, too scared to fail anybody (overly generous grading).

Either way, have faith. If you’re too drunk to spend a minute more grading the assignment than was spent creating it by Group C, you’ll waste nobody (who cares)’s time. Give them the D and move on.

Pedagogy. The only time any thought should be given to pedagogy during a drinking/grading session is when the word "pedagogy" itself is used in the work being assessed, and only then by advanced performers using the Waits Variation of the Carmichael Defense (cf. Wilson, 2006: "Surviving Departmental ‘Bonding’," Journal of Advanced Education, pp. 52-107. As you may recall, in this variation, the secret "shot" of tequila is taken — not, as in the standard, when a colleague uses the word "pedagogy" in an after-work setting — but when a student writes it in a paper or uses any of a long string of words, including but not limited to: deconstruction, patriarchy, Manichean, Foucauldian, Lacanian, Gramscian, or, hell, even Marxism, depending on your level of bitterness.)

Results. One can’t overstate alcohol’s improvement of the grading process, a benefit shared (mostly) by grader and gradee alike. Although the occasional high-striver will be disappointed when they ask about a particular point and you answer with a vague wave of the hand, most students, quite frankly, couldn’t care less: They’ll be much happier with your increased classroom energy and diminished bitterness.

And if there is any concern about administrative consequences, worry not: Colleges and universities are parting ways with so many seniority-bearing profs these days, they’ll probably give you a raise.

David Andrew Stoler is a freelance writer and an adjunct lecturer at the City College of New York, and was recently named "Adjunct of the Year" at Berkeley College in Manhattan.