Of Popcorn, Beer, and Final Grades
Does anyone like grades? Students… teachers… anybody? In my 24 years as an educator, I have never come across anyone who more than tolerates them. They are, however, a reality for many at this time of year. This semester, after weeks of grading papers and exams, I had an experience that shifted my perspective. The adage “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” came into focus for me at the unlikely juncture of final grades, craft beer, and flavored popcorn.
For students, the relief at the end of the semester comes the minute they hand in their final essays or final exams. On the other end of the process, however, the relief for the professor or teacher comes much later. The educator’s task of reading and evaluating dozens of iterations of that same assignment will last days or weeks beyond the students’ due date. When all is said and done, however, the end of the term’s work is cause for celebration for students and educators alike.
I have often overlooked the importance of celebrating completion. Instead of taking time to savor a triumph or a milestone, I quickly move on to the next task. This year, I decided to mark the end of the term properly with something special to recognize the hard work.
My husband and I had been meaning to visit a place in our neighborhood that specializes in gourmet popcorn. It is an eatery with small plates, a full bar, and an array of signature and seasonal popcorns. We decided that this would be our special treat to celebrate the fact that we had both turned in our final grades.
We walked the few blocks to the bright and cheery popcorn emporium. To begin our celebration, we ordered a pairing flight. Samples of three of their traditional flavored popcorns each came paired with a small glass of a different local beer. The combinations intrigued me… except for one.
The Questioned Combination
I arrived late to beer appreciation. I was in my thirties before I learned to like beer at all. I prefer malty flavors over hoppy ones and therefor am not a fan of India Pale Ales (IPAs). [For those who don’t drink beer, malty brews tend to have a nutty or even slightly sweet flavor, while beers heavy in hops, like IPAs, have more herby or even pungent notes.]
On the beer and popcorn flight that night, the IPA was pared with a chocolate popcorn. When it comes to desserts, I want just a little bit of sweetness. Very sugary treats are simply too much for me.
Needless to say, I was not looking forward to the very sweet, chocolaty popcorn paired with a very hoppy beer.
Creative Sum of Ordinary Parts
You may have guessed that the flavor combination of hops and chocolate, which I had anticipated to be awful, was actually the most delicious and interesting of the three pairings. Something magical happened when the sweet and salty mix of the popcorn mingled with the herby IPA. Individually, the flavors did not appeal to me, but the combination was greater than its parts.
The best definition of creativity that I know is the ability to make new connections for a useful outcome. To me, the flavor combination of the popped chocolatiness and the hoppy beer was new (at least I had never encountered it before) and it was useful in that it was delicious. The concept of creative combinations did not stay, however, in the realm of flavors that night.
A Lesson in Grades
The motivation for the night’s celebration was the end of the grading season. But over the creative combination of gourmet popcorn and craft beer, I began to think about why I dislike final grades so much. Sure, they’re a lot of work, but I’m not afraid of hard work (nor are most educators I know). So why are final grades so universally despised?
I concluded that the dread and loathing come from the tendency to think of grades as the sum total of the semester. Going back to the adage attributed to Aristotle, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” I think it is wiser to put grades in their place as one small aspect of the term. The experiences of the semester –– the learning, the struggling, the bonds made –– all of these are greater than the sum of the grades. A course contains grades; a course is not equal to its grades. If we are experienced educators, we know this to be true, but it is easy to lose sight of it at the end of the semester.
Perhaps we can try thinking of grades, not as the sum total, but as a component part of the course whose flavor we may not usually enjoy. Approached this way, we can perhaps think of other tastes that might pair well with the flavor of grades. Next term while grading, I’ll try to balance the bitterness by surrounding myself with reminders of the things I love about the semester: cards from students, reminders of creative activities, etc. Maybe those combinations might even make the experience of grading enjoyable.
And even if it doesn’t, I can always enjoy a bowl of chocolate popcorn and an IPA when it’s all over.
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