Grading The Ungradable

Above: Harmonic Convergence,
one of this month’s newsletter offerings

Wow! Wotta month! Only three blog entries have gotten posted since issue #3 of my Cruse Art Newsletter came out, and now here I am this morning telling my subscribers about #4.

There’s been all of the Lit Graphic activity I’ve described recently plus drawing my long-delayed contribution to the next Boy Trouble anthology plus three very welcome commercial illustration assignments plus planning for my classes at MCLA. And to cap it off, having dug out from one snowstorm two days ago and thereby having the final exam process for my cartooning course at the college thrown into disarray by abruptly cancelled classes, I’m looking forward to an even bigger snowfall that’s predicted for tomorrow. Whee!

And you know what happens to professors who give exams? They’ve gotta grade those exams! Even if they’re trying to maintain their secret identities as professional cartoonists whose teaching is a sideline and who have personal work they’d really really like to get down to. Or blogs they’d like to post entries to more than three times a month.

Grading takes time, and it has to happen fast, too, or the college Registrar’s Office will get nervous — as will the professor’s students, who after all are understandably eager to learn how their overall grade point average (and hence their ENTIRE FUTURE) is gonna be impacted by a professor’s arguably capricious application of rigid alphabetics to what is inherently a non-hierarchical process: one individual’s expression of creativity.

I fret over this because I’ve both been a student and I’ve spent many years struggling through the aftermath of studenthood. In other words, I’ve got at least a little perspective on these matters. Based on my own experience as well as any number of artists’ biographies, I’m painfully aware that whatever letter grade I give to a student will affect that student’s relationship with his or her parents (or whoever elser is footing the bill for the student’s college tuition) without much affecting the course of that student’s post-collegiate life, should that student actually see the creation or art as his or her long-term calling. A letter grade certainly won’t be predictive of anyone’s future "success" as an artist, since the word "success" has no true meaning in the context of a culture that largely thinks of creating art as a frivolous activity unless somebody is making bunches of money as a result.

But grade I must. It’s in my contract.

Still, I fret. It’s no big deal; I’m a born fretter. And I do enjoy being around young people who think there’s value in engaging in temporary collaboration with me. I like to see hope happening. I enjoy watching people discover that work can be fulfilling rather than a mere imposition on their time.

But there’s something inherently fraudulent going on when you tell art students that they’re doing "A work" or "C work." Sometimes the insights you may derive from an art class don’t hit you until long after you’ve tossed your commencement cap into the air and letter grades have become silly artifacts of youth.

Serious artists seek mastery of processes whose values are entirely subjective. They probe for insights about their personal strengths and weaknesses in a realm where the line between bad execution and interesting idiosyncrasy will in the end lie in the eye of the beholder. Wondering how they compare to some others who by chance happened once to be competing with them for grades in a classroom will have long been supplanted by concern over whether that one detail in a work of art that’s been plaguing them for an hour can somehow be re-shaped so as to strengthen the whole.

Myself, I loved being in college. It expanded my horizons and changed the course of my life. From being around some great artists who were also teahers and mentors, I learned how bracing making art can be if we put the quest for fame aside and set about wrestling with the dark angels that stand between the human race and enlightenment.

I did reasonably well as an undergrad, I think, but I remember very few letter grades that I was given. Memories of breakthroughs during play rehearsals, though, are indelible.

To be alive, I guess, is to make peace with fraudulent activity to some degree — or at least with the possibility of it. Here we are, after all, stuck in the middle of a human race that’s ridiculously imperfect. Can we look with cold eyes at our own failings, or do we struggle to believe that we’re a little better than we really are so we don’t lose hope?

Can we ever be sure that whatever grade we subconsciously give to ourselves about our own "success" at trudging through adulthood has any basis in reality?

Let’s face it: most of us fudge our marks here and there so we can sleep with ourselves at night.

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About Howard

I'm a cartoonist and writer, best known for my graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, and my comic strip from the 1980s, Wendel.
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