Ow, My Heart
As you can imagine, when someone skipped any deference to feelings or, you know, human decency and civility, I felt like I had been punched in the gut.
Fortunately, once junior year arrived I was feeling more confident as a student. Having completed all my required credits in disciplines I am not talented in (Calculus, Physics, Philosophy), I was able to concentrate on History and Russian, where it was much easier for me to achieve higher grades.
Until - HER.
Everyone will have this instructor at least once in their academic lives. The professor who you think has some kind of personal vendetta against you and reserves a red pen just for your work.
In my case, it was a Japanese history course and Professor T. ate students like me for breakfast. Actually, she had an appetite for crushing pretty much any student.
In class she would ask pointed questions about the 800 pages of reading we had two days to complete. Things like, "And what did the author say about how the Emperor was dressed for his meeting?"
We'd all be quiet. Nobody had thought to take notes on the Emperor's clothes.
She'd scan the room, looking for the most skittish-looking student. Sometimes it was me. Other times, it would be someone else. The rest of us would look on, horrified at what was unfolding, but also incredibly relieved she was picking on someone else at that moment.
The worst was when she would ask someone a question, let them ramble an answer, offer no indication if the student was correct, and then - then! - sometimes ask a follow-up question to intentionally have the student dig himself in a deeper hole of WRONG.
And then she pounced: "Hmm. Is that what happened?"
(The rest of us sat there thinking, um...you're the professor. You tell us.)
Then, to finish off her exercise in humiliation she would pick another student to answer, to underscore how very WRONG the first student was.
I found two things comforting. First, she didn't dislike me in particular. Just stupid students. And since none of us were as intelligent as she was (because, hello, we were a bunch of 20-year-olds!), she found each of us equally worthy of her disdain.
Second, she was kind of...special. I remember sitting in class, waiting for Professor T. to arrive. Someone observed hopefully, "We were supposed to start five minutes ago. Do you think class is cancelled?!"
Another student, who had just walked in, saying, "No, I just saw her on my way inside. She was talking to a squirrel."
So this is who we were dealing with, people.
Oh, good. You decided to rewrite you paper. I'm so glad; the other one was just getting worse and worse. Spiraling downward. I was reading it and thinking, "Oh. dear." I look forward to reading your next draft.
She had a rule that any paper you wrote during the semester could be rewritten and resubmitted as many times as you wanted. Sounds great, but it's actually the worst.
First, professors seem to grade harder when they are congratulating themselves on being so magnanimous in letting you raise your C to a B- with a rewrite. Second, your paper is Never. Done. You're in the middle of rewriting your first, but now a second one is due.
The worst criticism I ever received was on a paper about Emperor Hirohito. That's all I remember about it; I've blacked out anything more about the assignment. But I recall working on this paper through three drafts, which Professor T. would take, dump a bucket a red ink on, and send it back. The comments in the margins were mainly, "What are you referring to?", "What does 'it' mean here?", "Who are you talking about?", and above all, "Be more specific!"
Finally, I scrapped the whole paper, and wrote on an entirely different subject. When I handed it in, she gave me the "spiraling downward" line in front of the ENTIRE CLASS, and I went back to my room to cry and worry and doubt my ability to write another paper or do well in her class or even graduate, because clearly I had just been discovered to be a complete moron devoid of any real skill or talent.
I know this sounds dramatic. Part of it was my own Impostor Syndrome kicking in, and part of it was a professor who didn't recognize and take steps to bridge the gap between her 30-some years as a scholar and our three as undergraduates.
I'm Glad It Happened
However, her criticism of my paper continued to ring in my head. I started reviewing my papers for clarity by pretending she was reading it. What do I mean by "it" here? I'd replace a vague pronoun with a specific person or idea. I stopped using passive voice when possible, became meticulous about footnoting information, and above all, was as specific as possible while skipping the fluff and filler.
My writing dramatically improved after her class.
Today, when I edit a student's paper, my most frequent comments are Avoid vague language - what do you mean here? and Be more specific. I just skip her preferred method of using humiliation as a pedagogical tool.
I didn't escape her, by the way. I was selected for the Honors program, which came with a required research class. Guess who was the teacher?
Except this time I was prepared for Professor T. My grades were decent, now that I understood what she looked for in a paper. Meanwhile, I reassured my classmates who were experiencing her for the first time to hang in there.
In the end, her criticism stuck with me as the worst I have ever received because of her delivery. But her points were valid.
For me, it was almost necessary to have someone do that to me early on in my academic career. I learned how to separate the critique from the criticizer, and more importantly, my self-worth from my work.
I'm not quite ready to thank Professor T. But I am grateful that she helped me improve my writing, while showing me how NOT to treat students.