- ‘A’ is for Acronym:Teaching Hawthorne in a Performance-Based World
Gracie booked the flight. A twenty-eight-year old senior, she had never been on a plane. She had traveled outside Florida once. Before college, Gracie worked fifty hours a week at a Clearwater Barnes and Noble. When she returned to school, she vowed not be overlooked, so she dyed her hair blue. Not that she needed the attention; her papers are flawless. Nor did she, or the other students, need the extra credit I half-jokingly promised my Hawthorne class if they journeyed to snowbound Massachusetts for Spring Break. Gracie and three fellow English majors—Matthew, Lyndsey, and Lyndsey’s husband—reversed the usual student route and planned a Boston-Salem-Concord pilgrimage. In lieu of a final essay, they joined forces with Chloe (a twenty-one-year old freshman with spiky pink hair and double-pierced lower lip) to make a video of the trip. Chloe and Grace closed out the semester with a scarlet “A” tattooed near their hearts.
I have not seen the tattoos. I would never ask to see them. But as their professor and a new department head, my heart beats in sympathy with their ink. I have yet to grow my bureaucratic scarfskin, and I take personally the pressures that come with working in a STEM-driven state. Every Monday at two o’clock, during my “Scarlet A” class last Spring, I could shut the door and silence the buzzing administrivia, conversations about vaporized faculty lines, and the ugly acronyms—SCH’s and KPI’s, ALC’s and SLO’s.
The worst of these, the Gates Foundation’s performance-based funding, throws a rude thumb at the liberal arts.1 Florida measures university success on a strict cost-benefit analysis: student retention, years to graduation, and the financial return on a degree, determined by average alumni [End Page 116] salary one year after diploma. Much of this record-keeping makes sense. With students entering pre-med, Biology needs the bucks. But the English major in me also smells some rotten arithmetic. Even though we graduate the Gracies of the world, there is no spreadsheet column that can tabulate our achievement. Performance-based funding favors students who choose Accounting over English because the former earn more right out of college; yet over the course of a career, we know, the humanities degree will often outperform more technical training. My older brother, an English major and Classics minor who lived hand-to-mouth through his twenties, now makes far more than my two other siblings, an architect and former mechanical engineer. The sages of Tallahassee work from a short-sighted model. And why do we define success materially, my students cry.
Here’s the kicker: my department will grow only if our graduates accept the kinds of dead-end jobs Gracie fled. In his preface to The Scarlet Letter, “The Custom House,” Nathaniel Hawthorne describes the cost of soul-sapping work; among the relics in the narrator’s Salem office is a moth-eaten embroidered “A.” When we discuss this section in class, I tell the students a story from my own transitional years as a wage-earning adult. I was in graduate school, temping for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals in midtown Manhattan. As long as I was typing, Pfizer execs did not care what I was doing, so one somnolent summer afternoon I punched Hawthorne’s description of the letter into the computer and ran it through Microsoft’s primitive Gramatik program: “It had been wrought, as was easy to perceive, with wonderful skill of needlework, and the stitch (as I am assured by ladies conversant with such mysteries) gives evidence of a new forgotten art, not be recovered, even by picking out the threads.”2
Gramatik flagged the passive voice, the sinuous syntax and the parentheses as “unclear.” Which was, of course, Hawthorne’s point exactly. Careful readers of The Scarlet [End Page 117] Letter never discover the precise meaning of “A.” As the story nears its end, we should learn what the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, father of Hester’s child, hides on his chest. The moment we expect the secret...