Contingency and Conscience

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is one of the great books of literature. Growing up in a literate household I had heard of it as a young boy. I didn’t read it until college when it was required reading in one of my classes. Essentially, the story is about conscience, what it can do within an individual, how it works on a person. The main character, Raskolnikov, justifies to himself a plan to murder an old woman in order to get her money and use those proceeds to make things better for friends and family members while ridding the world of an evil person. He follows through with it, killing another woman in the process, but cannot shake the sensation that he has done wrong, and spends most of his time afterwards trying to figure out how to give himself up for the crimes.

I was swept up in the world Dostoyevsky elaborated, and I especially identified with Raskolnikov’s struggle with a guilty conscience. I had lesser things about which to feel guilty, but the way these feelings pressed on me made carrying on normally difficult if I knew I’d misbehaved. Gaining perspective on how badly to feel about what can be said to be a lifelong learning process. Minimizing things to feel badly about should be a goal, as well.

I sometimes wonder about the conscience of the professor to whom I turned in my paper on Crime and Punishment in the fall of my junior year. I poured all my effort into the project, as the book touched me, I felt inspired, and I wanted to show what I could do when I applied myself to an assignment. I was sure my paper was of high quality upon finishing it.

Near the conclusion of classes one day at the end of the semester the professor (I don’t remember his name) called me into the hallway. He unpacked my paper. He began grilling me about the provenance of my writing. He said, “You use ‘erstwhile’ on the first page. Nobody uses that word anymore. Where did you get it?” “I saw it in the sports page this morning,” I replied. (It’s true. I thought it incredible at that moment.) He kind of rocked on his feet and said, “This is a publishable paper. It’s the best paper I’ve ever seen. I gave you a B+.”

I can’t recall saying anything to him in response. I just remember clutching the paper and turning and seething all the way back home.  “Best paper I’ve ever seen. B+.” What? That’s cognitive dissonance and one tough curve, I should think.

It bothers me that I didn’t do anything about it at the time. A guilty conscience influenced my actions–or inaction–as it turned out. I had something on my mind that prevented me from pursuing the matter further. Perhaps I didn’t care enough. The words before the grade announcement he could not take back. I’d heard them; they registered; I would always privilege them above the B+. They reflected well on me. The grade was because of other stuff.

Fred Fiedler’s contingency model as explicated here on Wikipedia is highly pertinent to this situation. Fiedler’s model states that there are three dimensions that determine the “situational favorableness” of any organization’s setup. In descending order, they are the leader-member relationship; degree of task structure; and leader’s position power. If the leader-member relationship is good, the task is highly structured, and others accept the authority formally attributed to him or her the favorableness of the situation is high. The first is the most important aspect.

I’ve always had an intuition as to why things broke down between the professor and me, but after grafting this model onto this particular situation it can be more clearly seen that both sides contributed to the problem through inattention or fear of hurting feelings. First, the relationship was strained from the beginning. It was a very small class, like nine students, and, oddly, students weren’t allowed to say much in that setting. I liked to participate, but often felt I wasn’t allowed to elaborate my ideas. The professor liked to talk as well.

Second, there was very little structure to the assignments. We were pretty much free to define our approaches to the material outside the classroom. This is good, if one is mature and motivated. I was motivated regarding Crime and Punishment, but I was not mature.

Last, despite a reputation–and a self-image–as a challenger of authority I accepted the primacy of the teacher in the classroom, but I believe it was tied into the knowledge that I might not have a good foot to stand on if we were formally to oppose each other. You see, I didn’t go to his class that much.

The first thing they tell you in college is that attendance is not required, but it is highly recommended. In this case I decided to test the tolerance of the professor. I kept up with the reading, I knew what was going on, and I participated as much as I was allowed to do when in class. But the guy gave me a funny look every time I showed up.

What’s the lesson he taught me, what’s the takeaway? Was the grade punishment for poor attendance? Was it a warning about plagiarism, of which he had no proof? I could not know. Part of the compact is if you want an “A” you need to do the things you can to secure it, and that may include attendance.  So why not just say it? I would have preferred he rail at me at length about how he didn’t like me and didn’t like that I wasn’t always in class, and then given me my “A”. I’m telling you, it would have been much more effective.

Over the years I chose to look at it like this: he’s a small man and this is the kind of thing that happens to me. This post came to me today when I reflected on the story once more and gave myself the opportunity to play it out to a different ending, to be more objective about the situation than before.  I still believe the professor was more in the wrong.

What if I protested the grade on this paper? How would the professor justify the grade to the chairman of the department? Which is worse: marking a student down on a specific work because of spotty attendance but not explaining that to the student, or telling someone the best work he’s ever seen isn’t worthy of the highest grade? Who does it reflect more poorly upon: the kid who didn’t know how to play the game, or the professor who used his authority to make a point?

I felt guilty about missing classes. My conscience affected my judgment. I should have challenged the guy on this grade. I feared the fallout.

Two matters left: My conscience would not allow me to utter the words he did to me that day. I’d feel like a fool. And the delicious irony is that I must have been very convincing about my identification with Raskolnikov and his guilty conscience. The professor laid a bet on my conscience that I wouldn’t protest his grade and won. How did he know he would?

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