Friday, July 21, 2017


For quite a long time I've taught my interpersonal communication students that language is a scalpel: speakers and writers can use it for benign purposes, to promote healing, to end suffering, but it always does violence to reality. It always pushes in abstraction and slices away immediacy.

This morning, it crossed my mind that a failing grade is a bullet.

The thought of being shot, or of receiving a failing grade, is frightening. The experience is painful. People commonly change their behavior, under duress, to avoid either of them. Authority figures are issued the machinery to deliver them, and need to exercise great caution when using it. But it's also a bad mistake to be so gun/F-shy that they refrain from using it when it's called for. A pacifist police officer who won't fire a gun leaves other innocent parties at risk; a pushover educator who won't record an F places both students and their future colleagues at risk.

Some shots are warning shots, and some failing grades on individual assignments are timely warnings that enable students to redirect their efforts. Some people's gunshot wounds heal, leaving little loss in function, and some students rebound from failing a class, having changed their habits and their attitude. Some gunshot wounds are fatal, and some failing grades result in academic dismissal, or in such concentrated discouragement that the student drops out. And there are accidental gunshots and failing grades based in misunderstandings or recording errors; I hope the accidental failing grades are a lot less common than the gun accidents. Can't quite make the analogy work for suicide by gunshot, but I can live with a single mismatch.

It then struck me that guns, and bullets, also have a lot to do with people's relationship with animals, and that might be where the analogy breaks down. But no, we grade animals in a lot of settings, and often those grades make the difference between life and death. Livestock gets graded, and some livestock goes to the slaughterhouse and the dinner table, while other livestock lives on as breeding stock. Apparently in that class, the learning objective is to be unappetizing, and students get an F if they're delicious.

Then there's also the example of working animals, like disability service and bomb- or drug-sniffers, all of whom get extensive training, and are very much at risk of flunking out of the program. It could be argued that those who flunk are relegated to a cushy life as adoptable pets, but it's been my growing conviction for years that working animals have the truly healthy living arrangement, and that the overwhelming majority of human-pet relationships actually unfold as the piecemeal papering over of the animal's misery. But that thought wanders off in another direction, way off the path from the F and the bullet.

No comments: