In my feminist theology class last year, I had occasion to explain the notion of performative speech acts to them. I used the standard examples: an oath exists simply by virtue of someone swearing an oath, the act of getting married consists of saying “I do” (under the appropriate circumstaces), etc.
And then it occurred to me — their grades are performative speech acts as well. They get the grades they get by virtue of me, the recognized instructor of the course, saying that’s what they get. I reassured them that obviously I would give them the grades based on the standards I’d laid out in the syllabus, not just arbitrarily, but at bottom, my say-so as a professor is what generates their official grade. As a friend pointed out yesterday when I mentioned this, that means that we teachers actually create “A students” (in much the same way that Butler says it is the state that “creates hate speech”) — whatever their underlying skills, however hard they work on academic matters, they only become “A students” when we declare them to be such.
To add a further wrinkle to it, at Shimer College we have an online grade entry form, but we still have to print out the form and sign it in order for the grades to become “official.” On a practical level, this seems to be unnecessary (Kalamazoo College had a purely online system, for example), but I like how it highlights the performative aspect of the act of grading. If not for the grade sheet, my most powerful signatures would be on credit card receipts: “Let this be your tip — I hereby declare it!”
Shimer is also small enough that the president and chairman of the board of trustees physically sign all the diplomas — and my PhD diploma from CTS is physically signed as well. Surely that’s impossible at bigger universities, so that we enter into a Derridean problematic where the signature still “counts” despite being mechanically reproduced.
Of course, in a world where the act of the signature is on the decline, where answering a little mini-quiz with information that supposedly “only you could know” counts as an “electronic signature” (even for purposes of paying taxes!), we presumably don’t find this problematic — just as we don’t find it problematic that the signature of the U.S. Treasury Secretary on our dollar bills, which performatively makes that piece of paper into money, is mechanically reproduced. In fact, when Obama first took office, there was an interregnum when new dollar bills were still being printed with Paulson’s signature even though Geithner had been confirmed as Treasury Secretary — a strange coincidence given the fact that Obama publically “flubbed” the oath of office and was later re-sworn in “just to be safe.”
It’s as though the Obama administration can’t help but enact the continuing decline of the power of the oath that Agamben, following Prodi, diagnoses. At Shimer College, though, we keep faith — we physically sign our grade sheets and our diplomas. Whatever else our students get, they get the peace of mind of knowing that all the relevant performative speech acts have been performed to the fullest extent, in the fullness of living presence.