Grades, Shame, and Salvation

The title of this post sounds strange, indeed. I suppose that one could imagine a hundred different heresies emanating from the idea of connecting grades to salvation. Let me see if I can expand on just one of those possible heresies…

Several of my colleagues and I have been working on a proposal for a conference where we focus upon providing feedback to doctoral students’ writing. Since the conference is comprised of doctoral programs at Christian universities, it seemed appropriate to explore whether and how providing feedback can be linked to faith integration.

One colleague wondered how we might convince our students to worry less about grades and more about learning. That is a perennial concern in education, but especially apropos to the context of doctoral programs. Students who are in doc programs tend to have a long track-record of academic success; they’ve learned to play the game we set up for them throughout the P-16 experience. They know how to find the expectation, and generally know how to meet the expectation. And so it is a shock to doc students – at least to a number of them – when they earn a C on a paper, or get feedback that suggests that they need to improve their writing.

As we kicked around questions about how to bring about a growth mindset in our students, and rehearsed our thoughts about Dweck, Fink, and Weimer, I was also working on a sermon about shame. I began to wonder: is there a way to connect the goals we intend to reach on mindset in academic development with mindset in spiritual development? I’m going to write three seemingly disconnected vignettes, and then try to connect these at the end.

  1. Just this week I was giving feedback to a student about using the passive voice. I wrote, “passive voices are often made more informative by adding a prepositional phrase.” I read the sentence, and realized that it is perfect irony – I used the passive voice in the sentence, and made it more informative with a prepositional phrase! But so much of my feedback is in the passive voice. I think this is because I just want to avoid the accusative tone that the active voice might imply. “This needs revision” sounds so much nicer than “You need to revise this.” I think I use the passive voice because I don’t want for students to experience shame. I don’t want for my feedback to influence the students’ feelings about themselves.
  2. Several years ago I was in a seminar course focused upon access and equity in higher education. I enjoyed being in the seminar with my colleagues, as they were all extremely intelligent, knowledgeable, and creative. I sometimes got lost in the discourse and forgot my manners. One of my fellow students stopped me in the hall during break one evening. She said, “I don’t know whether you are aware of this, but you tend to interrupt women when they are speaking. You don’t interrupt the men, just the women.” I felt terrible about this. In any other context, I would have likely either defended myself or crumpled in shame. But this was a class where we were discussing issues of power, implicit bias, and privilege. And since we were already exploring our own challenges (both as oppressor and the oppressed), the context was perfect for me to say, “Hey everyone, I just discovered I interrupt people, and I am gonna try to do better.” The context created a place where it was easy to avoid shame, or the need to defend myself against shame.
  3. In John 4, when Jesus encounters the Samaratin woman at the well, he asks her for a drink of water. For all intents and purposes, he is asking to drink after her; he has nothing to draw with. She is surprised, and asks, “How is it that you, a Jewish man, ask for a drink from me, a woman from Samaria?” She is surprised that he does not treat her with misogyny or racial animas. As the conversation transpires, however, she learns that he also knows that she is treated as a whore by her community: and he still wants to drink after her. She emerges from the scene telling the villagers, “Come meet a man who told me everything I ever did. He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Her reaction is informed not only by the conversation with Jesus at the well, but also by one of the most important prophesies of the coming Messiah: Isaiah 53-55 (if you’re interested, see the passage in Isaiah 54: 4-6). In short, she has not merely met a man who knows everything she ever did, but also refuses to shame her; in the words of the townspeople, Jesus is “The Savior of the World.

I am eager to explore the intersection of these three vignettes. As one who provides honest feedback, I am sensitive to the ways in which the context is one that has frequently resulted in shame; but I don’t want for my students to feel shame. I want for them to experience the growth that comes from the feedback. I want to point out places where students can improve; but is it possible to do this in ways that communicate full love and acceptance, compassion and understanding? And what would be the spiritual consequences of discovering the places where we are free to be works in progress? What does it mean for a student to experience a taste of Christ’s salvation in a moment of feedback about passive voice?

I’m starting to believe that my work starts when I’ve finished grading. I don’t think that this is about using the passive voice. I don’t think that this is about using video feedback so that they can hear me describe their work with encouraging facial expressions and suprasegmentals. I don’t think it’s about being encouraging. Those things are imperative; but when the grading is done, I still have another thing to do. That’s what I’m looking for.

3 thoughts on “Grades, Shame, and Salvation”

  1. I think it’s VERY important to ruminate on these things you have written, and I agree heartily. The best teachers can discuss a student’s work in ways that are careful and full of agape. May God help us arrive at that place.

    We have to watch the pendulum very carefully, however; it tends to swing quickly toward condescension, patronization, and/or pandering attitudes that result in an unwillingness to discuss the quality of student work under any circumstance. I don’t believe that’s good pedagogy, and I don’t think it’s what students want.


    1. Cole, I couldn’t agree more. As you’ve aptly described, this is not about lowering standards or refusing to have difficult conversations. An unwillingness to discuss the quality of students’ work is nothing short of choosing not to engage.


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