Saturday, June 26, 2010

Chapter 3

Cindy McMann was outraged! Prof. Barnes had only given her a B+ on the IR Theory midterm! This was obviously unfair!

She had come to his office to demand that he raise her grade, but, as she could hear through his partly open door, he was talking on the phone. The bastard had not even put a chair outside his office, so she had to sit on the floor. She was glad she had decided to wear shorts and a spaghetti-strap top that day instead of that short sun dress she'd been thinking of--she would have had to wait standing up then.

This was the first semester of Cindy's junior year. She had been an honors student at Annandale High where she finished with a 3.81 GPA. Unfortunately, she hadn't done well on the SAT's, and so had not gotten in to either UVA or William and Mary as she and her parents had hoped. That, she knew, was unfair: those schools, it was widely rumored, strictly limited the number of students they admitted from Northern Virginia, giving preference to less qualified "downstate dummies," as everyone in the honors program at her high school referred to them, from other parts of Virginia.

NDU had been her last choice for college, as it was for everyone else she knew. That being the case, she had assumed that NDU would be easy to get through, and so had not worked all that hard her first two years. As a result, her GPA was only 3.3--not good enough, she knew, to get into the kind of law school from which she could actually get a good job. It wasn't even good enough to get into the NDU Law School!

The problem with B+'s was that while professors game them out on exams and on papers, NDU was one of those schools that didn't allow pluses or minuses on transcripts. A B+ average on course assignments, then, would result in a B for the final grade--and that would serve to lower her overall GPA. By contrast, an A- average on course assignments would result in an A for the final grade--which would raise her GPA.

Why this was the case wasn't quite clear to Cindy. One professor had told the class that pluses and minuses had been done away with at the insistence of a previous generation of student activists who had thought that they created a too competitive environment. Cindy couldn't imagine that there had ever been activists at NDU where over 90% of the students were commuters, few of whom ever got involved in any campus activities. She suspected that the faculty was just too lazy to assign pluses or minuses (though why so many did on course assignments was puzzling). Or maybe the decision had been made--like so much else at NDU--just arbitrarily. But whatever the reason, what this practice meant was that all those B+'s she should have gotten appeared as B's on her transcript and had, she was sure, lowered her GPA unnecessarily. Even if she didn't quite deserve A's, she thought she was due a few A-'s which would result in A's on her transcript to counterbalance the B's she surely didn't deserve.

But if there were real justice in this world, thought Cindy, she already deserved an A+ for Barnes's IR Theory class. God, was it boring! So far, all they had been studying was a bunch of dead white men--Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau and some other jerks like that. Cindy had looked through the syllabus. Barnes wasn't even going to get to the post-Cold War era until around Thanksgiving! She was angry that almost all November before that was devoted to IR theory during the Cold War. How irrelevant! Didn't Barnes know it was over? And after Thanksgiving, he devoted only one lecture to "Feminist IR Theory." Fifteen whole weeks in the semester, and he planned on devoting only one lecture to the feminist viewpoint! That really sucked! For such a young professor, Barnes sure was behind the times.

"Getting tenure at a place like NDU is a lot easier," she heard Barnes say through the door. "Once I get it, I figure that I'll be in a good position to move on to somewhere else with tenure."

So NDU wasn't good enough for him, was it? Well, it wasn't good enough for Cindy either! But there she was: stuck.

"It's a terrific place, Johnny! Don't get me wrong. But you know how it is--greener pastures and all that," he continued. "Seriously, though, there is one thing lacking in my department: the opportunity to work with graduate students. And it looks like I will have to go elsewhere in order to get that opportunity."

So he didn't like the undergraduates here? Well, they didn't like him either. He was a pompous, arrogant bastard who was always complaining about the lack of class discussion but then telling students why they were wrong whenever they did say anything in class. But some of the more talkative men in the class, she had to admit, were air heads who deserved to be put down.

"Their writing leaves much to be desired, but we've got some good ones," she heard him say.

Cindy knew what the remark about writing referred to. When he handed back the midterms the other day, he had made a little speech about how poorly NDU students wrote, and how they had better improve if they wanted to get ahead in graduate school or any sort of professional career. But it wasn't Cindy's fault if she was out of practice with her writing: there had been no essay exams in any of the lower division classes (except English comp--which had been a joke) that she had taken during her first two years at NDU. When someone in her Intro to IR class last year asked the professor why this was, he had stated quite openly that it would take him two full days to grade essay exams for the hundred students in the class whereas it took him less than two full minutes to grade the hundred machine scannable forms on which the students marked answers to multiple choice exams.

"I've had some success," Barnes continued. "I got one of my undergrads into Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs."

Only one of his students got into that graduate school? Well, if he gave out higher grades, maybe more would! Even she could figure that out. Why couldn't he? But, she realized, he was probably only mentioning the one student who got into some snooty school like he had gone to. She also thought that most students were too smart to give an asshole like him the opportunity to trash them on a recommendation form. Anyone dumb enough to ask him for a recommendation deserved to be rejected. When she thought about it, she was surprised that even one of his students had been accepted anywhere--or at least, anywhere that Barnes would mention to whoever he was talking to.

"Why, thank you, Johnny. This comes as quite a surprise."

This she couldn't follow. Was this Johnny propositioning Barnes? Was Barnes gay? A lot of bright but pompous men were, it seemed to her.

"Listen, Johnny, I appreciate the offer. But when it comes down to it, NDU is too good a place to leave right now, even without graduate students. Besides, I've already started the tenure process rolling and I want to see it through."

Oh, so it was a job he was being offered! Why the hell didn't he take it? Maybe the university would find someone decent to take over his IR Theory class--someone who believed in equal opportunity who would devote half the class sessions to feminist theory. Now that would be interesting!

Cindy didn't believe for one second that crap about NDU being "too good a place to leave right now" after what Barnes had said earlier. He probably just wanted tenure to increase his chances to get an even better job than this Johnny was offering. And wasn't he oh-so-confident that he was going to get tenure? Wouldn't it be fun, she thought, if he tripped up somehow?

"It's a deal, Johnny!"

Now what was that about? All Cindy knew was that Barnes's mood seemed to be improving. She hoped the conversation would end soon so she could hit him up for a grade change while it lasted.

"Okay, Johnny. Thanks for calling." She heard him hang up the phone.

At last! Cindy quickly got to her feet and knocked on the door before, she feared, Barnes could get involved in another phone conversation.

"Come in," she heard him respond.

Cindy opened the door and then closed it completely behind her. She didn't want anyone overhearing her conversation with him like she had overheard his phone conversation.

"Hi, Professor Barnes, I'm Cindy McMann from your IR Theory class?" her voice rising, implicitly asking if he recognized her.

"Oh yes," he replied. "Have a seat."

His good mood seemed to be holding, she thought as she sat down and crossed her legs. But what man wouldn't be in a good mood seeing her in those shorts she was wearing? Of course, she had not--she assured herself--deliberately worn them to influence Barnes. Still, coming here to his office in them would have been a waste if it turned out he really was gay.

Okay, she thought, let's get down to business. "Professor Barnes, I'm sorry to say that I was not completely satisfied with the B+ you gave me on the midterm..."

"And I was not completely satisfied with the essay you wrote. That's why I gave you a B+."

She looked at him in what she hoped he understood was a reproving manner. She had not expected him to interrupt her. "When I read it over after you handed it back, I didn't see anything wrong with it..."

"Well, I must have."

"And neither did my roommate," she continued, interrupting him in return. "My Mom and Dad both read it too, and they thought it was fine." Considering that they didn't agree on much and had gotten divorced just after she graduated from high school, this was really saying something, thought Cindy.

But instead of being impressed by what she said, Professor Barnes had laughed. "Who’s the professor in this class? Is it your roommate, your Mom or Dad, or me?"

Cindy didn't like his attitude. It was time to take control of this conversation. "Professor Barnes," she said quietly but sternly, "you don't seem to be taking me very seriously, and I wish you would. I think you made a mistake when you graded my midterm, and I think you should change my grade now."

This at least got him to stop laughing. "And what makes you think that the B+ I gave you was a mistake and not what you actually earned?" he asked.

Cindy was ready for that. "Because I checked the textbook afterward," she answered confidently. "What I wrote in my exam was very similar to what was in the book. I didn't get it wrong."

Cindy was quite proud of herself for having done this. In fact, she thought that she should be given extra credit just for having read the unbelievably boring chapters Barnes had assigned in it in the first place. And there was still a lot more in it to be read. The book had been written, she remembered, by some dull dude from Norway.

"Now I think," responded Professor Barnes, "that we are getting to the nub of the problem. I have a copy of the exam itself here. Which question did you address?"

"Number three," answered Cindy. "The one on Hobbes."

"And would you kindly read to me what number three says?" he asked, handing her the piece of paper.

She took it from him and began reading: "`To what extent does Thomas Hobbes's theory of international relations accurately describe world politics in the post-Cold War era?'"

"And what was it that I wrote at the end of your exam?" asked Barnes.

Cindy fished it out of her book bag and turned the pages in it until she found what Barnes had written. "`While you describe Hobbes's theory well, you really did not address the question--too much description and not enough analysis.'"

"I wasn't interested," said Barnes, "in whether or not you memorized how the textbook, or my lecture, described Hobbes's theory. What I wanted was to see was your analysis of the relevance of his theory for today."

Cindy considered this for a moment. "You mean, you wanted my opinion?"

"Backed up by persuasive argumentation, yes."

Cindy shook her head. "But that would be a value judgment. You can't make value judgments." What was wrong with Barnes? Didn't he know that?

"And why not?" he asked.

Jeez, this guy was really out of it! "You just can't!" she said impatiently. "Everyone knows that. No one should be able to say that his opinion is better than hers!"

Cindy had a flash of inspiration. "That's why most professors here give multiple choice exams! They want to find out what you know, not what you think! You should do the same!" Barnes should thank me, she thought, for teaching him how to do his job.

Barnes, however, did not thank her. Instead, he sat back in his chair, holding his right hand to his head, as if he were in pain. "There are several things here which you don't seem to understand," he said at last. "Let me start with multiple choice exams. They're often given in large, lower division classes, but they're not usually given in smaller, upper division classes--at least not in this department. We give essay exams instead.

"There are two main reasons for this," he continued. "Multiple choice exams pose a question and then ask you to pick the right answer out of four or five possibilities. Life, however, does not offer such neat choices. There can be more than one correct answer to some questions. There may be no correct answer to others.

"In addition," he continued, "multiple choice exams only measure passive knowledge. It is one thing to address a question when you are given five choices and you know one of them has to be right. It is quite another to address a question when nobody tells you what the range of possible answers is and you have to figure it out by yourself. It is another thing still to formulate questions that you think should be addressed and then try to do so. That's what scholars do.

"Now let's turn to writing," Barnes continued. "I presume you want to go on to grad school?"

"Law school," said Cindy.

"Well, a large part of your success in the law or any other professional career will depend on your ability to write persuasively. Even though they're true, just writing down facts by themselves isn't going to persuade anybody of anything. You have to be able to marshal facts into an argument to persuade others why your viewpoint is right and why your opponent's is wrong. And the true test is not whether you can convince yourself that you are right. We can all do that. The true test is whether you can convince others.

"And finally: values. I sincerely doubt," he continued, "that you really believe this nonsense about the impossibility of making value judgments. Value judgments underlie how we approach virtually all aspects of life."

"What do you mean?" asked Cindy.

"Let me give you an example," said Barnes. "Do you believe that women are equal or inferior to men?"

We're superior, she thought, but said, "Equal, of course."

"But what if I say that they are inferior?"

"You would simply be wrong!" she said confidently.

"But that's a value judgment on your part!" he shot back. "If you really don't believe that value judgments can be made, then you cannot maintain that the view that women are equal to men is any less valid than the view that women are inferior to them."

Was he trying to confuse her? "That's something different," responded Cindy. "You have to assert your values when they are right."

Again Barnes laughed. "Oh, so you do believe you can make value judgments? Well, if you can make a value judgment about whether or not women are equal to men, you can also make one about the validity of Hobbes's theory of international relations for the post-Cold War era!"

"This is beside the point..."

"Oh, no it isn't," Barnes again interrupted her. "Whenever anyone makes the argument that `you can't make value judgments,' they either mean one of two things: they don't like the values being expressed by someone else, or, as in your case on this exam, they don't want to make a value judgment and want to provide a justification for not doing so."

Now Cindy was really annoyed. If she wanted a fucking lecture from him, she'd go to his class. She had lost the initiative in this conversation, and she was determined to get it back. "Look! I think that if I described Hobbes's lousy theory of international relations without making any mistakes in it, then I should have at least gotten an A-."

"And I say that anyone who thinks Hobbes's theory is lousy but didn't tell me why probably didn't even deserve a B+."

"But how am I supposed to know what you think about Hobbes? If I said his theory sucks, you might grade me down because you happen to like it."

"I don't care what you think about his theory."

"But you said..."

"The point is this," he said, interrupting her once more. "I really don't care whether you think Hobbes's theory is either completely valid, invalid, or somewhere in between. What I want you to do is tell me what you think about his theory in an essay that persuades me that you have at least thought seriously about the question."

Cindy felt defeated. "I've never had to do anything like this before," she said weakly. "I don't know how to write the way you want me to. I just don't know what you want." She began to cry softly. She turned her head away from him, putting her hand up to her eyes so he wouldn't see her tears.

"Look," he said in a much softer tone of voice, "I know writing analytically is something that can be very difficult if you're not used to it. But it's a skill that you can develop through practice." He reached over and put his hand on her shoulder. "Are you okay?"

She shook her shoulder backward, away from him. Professor Barnes stood up. "I have to go to lunch now," he said. "If you would like to get some advice on how to construct an analytical essay, you can come back and talk to me some time during my office hours--though preferably not at the very end of them like today."

He opened the door to his office. She gathered her things and left quickly without saying anything or even looking at Barnes.

"Asshole!" she said under her breath as she marched down the hall. "Asshole! Asshole! Asshole!"