The Best We Can Do?

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“Is that the best you can do?”

“It’s the best I can do under these circumstances…”

“Just do your best. It will be fine.”

“Yes, the roster changes weekly with Covid absences, and we could go online overnight.  It’s not ideal, but do your best.”

“Dr. Moore, I’m really sorry. This isn’t my best work.”

I’m hearing a lot about the best these days, usually qualified with a personal possessive marker (my, your, our) or a phrase (under the circumstances, right now, given the time limits). A word that would otherwise capture an intended target has become instead a reality check, an apology, and at times, an excuse. 

“Is that the best you can do?” In my family, this question usually provokes a smile. As a somewhat precocious four or five-year-old, my son was also a finicky eater. One day, surveying pizza we had ordered for a family gathering, he looked at me quizzically. He didn’t care for tomato sauce, cheese, or pepperoni. (Basically, he wanted crust.) So, I carefully scraped all the toppings from his slice onto my own and presented him with his “pizza.” He scowled. “Aww Mom! Is that the best you can do?”

Now at seventeen, my son struggles with the notion of best for a host of different reasons. His teachers are telling him to “do his best” for standardized essay exams. The problem, as he sees it, is that his best is not going to fare well when assessed by countable elements on standardized writing rubrics. He will do his best to articulate all the ways in which has wrestled with theology in Dostoyevsky, but he expects to receive feedback telling him what he should have done instead of his best (which, apparently, would not have been his best). I cannot fault his teachers here: they are required by a pantheon of educational institutions to measure learning in this particular way. But as his mom, I am grateful when his instructors find ways to acknowledge his intellectual efforts, as idiosyncratic and sometimes iconoclastic as they are. 

My son calls it the game: doing his best means playing the game, subverting what he is actually learning to meet requirements that may or may not have anything to do with that learning. 

I have been thinking about that game plays out in higher education, especially as the pandemic has upended our traditional classrooms. Since our initial shift online in 2020 to our current version of F2F courses, I have expressed my frustration over courses:  they weren’t my best. What I envisioned, what I planned and crafted—that did not happen, and given our current context, it will not happen this semester. In fact, that’s the theme of this lovely Twitter thread from Dr. Lindsay Masland, author of the opening chapter of Resilient Pedagogy. We can be resilient as we adapt our pedagogy, but we can also grieve: this wasn’t what I intended. It wasn’t my best.

But if it wasn’t my best, was it thus invalid? Less valuable? Students learn about writing through assignments I design—and sometimes, in spite of them. In many languages, the verb for teach is actually a causative form of the verb for learn – teaching is causing learning. Yet truthfully, we know we cannot make learning happen. Humility requires that we anticipate and acknowledge learning that occurs regardless of our pedagogy.

And we can look for evidence of learning in what was not our best, or perhaps not our students’ best. One student this past fall contacted me before submitting her final paper with an apology: it was just not her best work. But during the poster presentations of projects for that course, I began to talk to her about what she had originally envisioned for her poster: a multimodal exploration of the ways that syntax created and embodied light in a novel she had read. The digital presentation I saw was certainly not her best, but I could see how she was applying what we learned about syntax to the language in the novel, and the energy she poured into her analysis—along with the insights she discovered—made that short presentation come to life. 

She had said, “It’s not what I hoped, not my best.” But all she needed was a simple follow-up: “Hmmm…. Tell me what you were hoping for, what you wanted to do. Talk to me about it.” That student didn’t ace the project, at least not by rubric standards. But she learned—and the growth in her ability to talk and write about syntax from August to December was standard-defying. I will take that: not her best, and maybe not mine. But some mighty powerful learning occurred.

My spring semester starts tomorrow, and I’ve already received the first excused absence notice. My carefully constructed first-day plans must change, and I am already disappointed. Still, when I evaluate my pedagogy as not my best—and when students apologize for not doing their best—I want to open space to talk about that disappointment. Was it the best we could do? Maybe, just maybe, that’s not the question I need to be asking.

Where have you found unexpected learning during the past three years? How has your approach to your best shifted? I’d love to hear from you.


About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.