Redirecting Approval

When I was in college, I truly had the most incredible English professors. Just because someone teaches doesn’t necessarily mean they possess the gift of teaching. But these professors did own the gift. Not only did they “know their stuff”, but they communicated with passion and enthusiasm.  They remembered each student by name, nodded and smiled even if our discussion”contributions” were meager, and would even cry or shout out with delight over the books we read. They knew how to convey the message of the text and graded our essays specifically, bleeding red ink all over my papers–not to discourage me, but to make me a better writer.

Save for one. This professor’s instruction style teetered on the subjective and unpredictable. Although we were reading American literature, our filter–according to his teaching method–was reader’s intent. And his intent involved finding a savior metaphor in every story or book we read, whether the author meant it or not. One day a student raised his hand and asked if the Jesus Christ metaphor could apply, considering the fact that the author was Jewish. Our professor would give a condescending smirk and dismiss our concerns, proceeding with his interpretation.

Our first essay came due and I spent days analyzing works from Flannery O’Connor, piecing together her themes and message. Anticipating the return of my paper and where I’d stand in the class, I sat in my desk and reached for it as he handed my essay to me. I flipped the pages over, one to another, and sat in shock: 64%. I started turning the pages again, looking for the red ink marking my errors, but there weren’t any. At the end of the essay a few lines were scrolled at the bottom. He didn’t agree with my position. That was it. No major plagiarism issues, no syntax or formatting errors. No grammatical marks.

Here I was, a senior working at the Center for Writing & Thinking, getting A’s and B’s in all my other English classes; I didn’t know what to do with a D. Although the grade discouraged me, I could have accepted it if I saw legitimate reasons for the deductions. I wrestled with what to do. Should I confront him? Despite my passion and desire for truth to prevail, I detested confrontation with professors and felt guilty, trying to avoid the contradicting conversations. Still, I knew that if I was going to improve in his class, I had to know how to please him and he wasn’t giving me any specific guidelines on expectations.

Our meeting went about how I’d feared, but he did give me an opportunity to rewrite the paper. I think I ended up with a B in his class, which I remained exceedingly grateful for. Ironically, he didn’t last very long at our college, but I hoped for the sake of his students, he learned how to challenge them in a productive and constructive way.

Now as an English professor myself, I meticulously comb through essays so my students know exactly why I deducted points (e.g. 1/2 point for run-on sentences and misspelled words, 10 points for failure to post citation, 1 point for missing headers, etc.). My goal isn’t to hold my thumb over them in a power struggle; my goal is walk alongside them, challenging them to become the best version of themselves (and as writers) as I am capable.

Once a year I’ll get a student who will argue about their grade, and I try to hear them out, validating their concerns and motivations. Are they entitled? “I’ve always gotten A’s. I can’t let my GPA dip below that. I am trying to get into grad. school.” OR Are they seeking to improve and just don’t know how to get there? “You said this and marked this error, but I just can’t seem to get it. Could you give me some more examples or give me some further reading on how to get past this issue?”

Student 1 seeks only the grade and the diploma. Student 2 seeks to learn and grow–a beautiful thing.

That’s not to say I merely dismiss student 1. But I also try to encourage them in the process of getting their grades up, “the goal here isn’t the grade.”

As a student myself, I found way too much identity in being the teacher’s pet, so to speak. I loved being the diligent student who came fully prepared and finished papers a week in advance (yes, I was that person). I wanted to be the favorite. Consequently, I often worried more about being liked more than being character-driven, doing all my work unto the Lord. I longed for the praise of men.

When I got to graduate school, I realized my Christian worldview wasn’t going to mesh with the secular institution I chose. Because my MFA was in creative writing, some of the readings were too graphic and impure for me to read. I took a screenwriting class that required us to watch several R-rated movies. In the process of these courses, I had to ask God, “Do I read this book or watch this film even though it goes against my convictions or do I just pretend like it doesn’t matter and go for the grade?” Honestly, I didn’t always have peace in my decision and didn’t handle some things as well as I should have. However, often I chose to get the C over the A because I knew I was going for God’s approval, not man’s.  My final thesis work involved some pieces filtered through my Christian worldview. My thesis adviser didn’t appreciate or approve much of my work, because in her mind, “It wasn’t realistic and didn’t touch on human pain.” At 23, I didn’t have a lot of experience with suffering, but I still knew that pain in this life is temporary compared to the peace and satisfaction we’ll one day experience. Again, my work was dismissed as irrelevant.

What we know God has called us to gets attacked my those who don’t understand. We’re running a race those of the world can’t comprehend. To them, we’re on the wrong track. “Get over here. You’re going the wrong way.” But our finish line looks differently. When we cross the tape, we aren’t reaching for money, prestige, status, or achievement. We are reaching for Christ. He is our reward and He’s the Only One we should be seeking a “good job” pat on the back from.

Gal. 1:10, “Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.”

Disregard the disapproval of others and seek to fully devote yourself to what Christ has called you to.

“Only when we crave Christ and the approval of the God-man will our bondage for the craving of mere human approval be broken. The Spirit helps us in our weakness and enables us to do the impossible: to say no to ungodliness and to open our eyes to see the glory of God in the face of Christ. But being satisfied with all we are in Christ doesn’t mean we should be embarrassed or even shy about being influential. Rather, just the opposite. We should seek to increase our influence, as long as it is focused on showing the worth of God in Christ, not self. Jesus put it this way: “Let your light shine before men so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16)” Joseph Scheumann



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