Grading 102 Exams with Nerb and Gilbert

Let’s take a break from Israel.

This time last year I was in Boston, in hysterics because I had to order a pizza called the Nutty Tuscan.

I was in the process of grading 102 undergraduate essay exams with my co-TAs, Nerb and Gilbert.  By essay 18 I was bored.  By essay 30 I was despondent.  By essay 64 I was unstable, and that is when Nerb made me order the Nutty Tuscan.


My favorite part of grad school—besides the fact that most people are functioning alcoholics—is teaching.  I don’t teach exactly, but I work as a TA.  At Harvard this means the professors give flashy, but incoherent lectures and the TAs lead recitation sections to clarify professor rambling.  It’s a lot of answering, “will this be on the exam?” and trying to dress more grown-up than 20 year olds.

TAs also do the bitch work of courses—designing labs, grading assignments, confirming the legitimacy of doctor’s notes, reminding students that their grandmothers can only die so many times in a given semester, etc.

All this is fun for me.  I hope to do it the rest of my life, but as the professor, and at a small liberal arts school in the woods of New England.

As much as I love teaching, grading exams can drive anyone temporary insane—especially when they are essay exams for a large, blow off course, like Archaeology 101.  When I TA-ed this class, the final consisted of identifications, short answer questions, and an essay.  The exams were hand-written in “blue books” during a 3-hour period.  By the time students got to the essay, their handwriting was indecipherable and their brains were spent.

It made sense for one person to grade all the essays to ensure consistency.  It made sense for me to grade all the essays to ensure efficiency.  Gilbert is not a native English speaker and Nerb is an excessive deliberator.  He hems and haws over every minute decision; hence, grading takes him ages.  In order for the exams to be graded by our deadline, I had to assume responsibility for the essays.  Gilbert got the IDs and Nerb was to do the short answers.

I arrived at our seminar room—grading base camp—promptly at 9 am.  I was well rested.  I was motivated.  I had snacks and caffeinated drinks.

The prompt was: Discuss three ethical issues related to the practice of archaeology.  Explain the causes, consequences, and “sides” of the issues.  Be sure to cite specific examples discussed in class.

Exam 1: The first issue in archaeology is NAGPRA.  NAGPRA makes sure that Native Americans are entitled to their cultural heritage.  NAGPRA is a multivalent issue…

Exam 17: …The issue of proper excavation methodology is exemplified by Indiana Jones in the 80s blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The protagonist, “Indy,” played by a young Harrison Ford, must eschew proper methodology to ensure that a powerful artifact does not fall into Nazi hands.  Although meticulous, systematic excavation is ideal, sometimes it must be sacrificed to prevent a greater evil…

It was almost noon when Nerb dawdled into the room.

Nerb is his knick name and it is so apt.  Nerb looks like a nerb.  What is a nerb?  You’d know if you saw Nerb.  He’s just really nerbby.  What else can I say?

Nerb is gangly with a pronounced brow ridge—a body form reminiscent of Homo erectus (As an evolutionary biologist, I mean this as a compliment.  H. erectus was a highly successful and admirable species!)  He is an intelligent, energetic guy, who becomes feverishly eager whenever discussing his two favorite subjects: 1) marathon training and 2) his archaeological research.  Nerb used to research Nuzi Ware, ceramics made by the Hurrians, an obscure people of the Bronze Age Near East.  Then Nerb got tired of Nuzi Ware 😦 and switched to the origins of iron smelting in the Caucuses.  Specifically he researches this process by scientifically studying slag, a vitreous waste product of metal production.

Nerb is obsessed with slag.  What else can I say?

Nerb blew his nose with a honk, and said, “Sorry it took me so long to get here.  I had to do my 18-miler this morning so I ran out to Concord and Natalie was supposed to pick me up in a coffee shop, but we went to different ones so I was waiting and SO HUNGRY for 30 minutes!”

He unraveled his trademark yellow-and-red stripped scarf that he got when he did a Masters at Oxford.  He went on, “luckily I had some GU in my pocket.  Do you like GU?”

“Not really, I don—”

“I like the peanut butter and chocolate, but think the fruit ones are disgusting!”

When Nerb is excited, it’s hard to get a word in.

Exam 26: …The source of funding for archaeological excavations can raise ethical issues.  Some excavations are funded by private donors or political groups, whose interests may influence the project.  For example, Turkey (the country) with Noah’s Ark or Shell (the oil company) at Catelhoyuk…

Nerb opened Tupperware, removed a full-length carrot, and began chomping it like Bugs Bunny.

Exam 32: …One example of ethically laudable archaeological research is that of our professor, Dr. Urey…

Nerb opened a cinnamon Poptart.  How does an adult have Poptarts?

Around hour 6, Gilbert burst into the room, beginning to complain before we could greet him.

Gilbert—“I’m going to be here all night.  I can’t believe we have to grade these by tomorrow.  This is so unfair.  I’m supposed to have this nice date tonight with this Canadian-Dutch girl and there’s no way I’ll make it.”

Gilbert is an obnoxiously charming Frenchman whose life is a series of romances, catastrophic breakups, and stone tool analysis.

Gilbert had just arrived on bus from New York.  It was his third trip to New York in the past 10 days.  He was trying to get a visa from the Russian embassy to go to Dagestan for research.  We assumed that he made up Dagestan and was really having some love affair in New York.  But it turned out Dagestan is a real place—a volatile territory of Russia known for Chechen terrorism and general lawlessness.  Its capital of Makhachkala has a small museum with a collection of stone tools of questionable relevance to Gilbert’s dissertation.

Maybe his trips to New York were legitimate attempts to obtain a visa.  Maybe we should have sympathy that he had to begin grading so late in the day.

Exam 39: …No issue is more ethically dubious than the Rosetta Stone.  Should the British Museum own this world treasure?  Does it belong to the French?  Or the Egyptians?  Like many questions in archaeology, only time will tell…

Gilbert started giggling like a teenage boy.



He giggled louder.

“What is it?”

“Nothing.  Just this New York girl sent me a picture.”

“What, a naked picture?”

He turned his computer and yes, it was a boob shot.  Apparently he was having a love affair in New York and trying to get a visa to Dagestan.  Gilbert opened a bottle of wine.  I guess to better savor the picture.

Exam 42: …One issue that archeologists have is where to dig.  This isn’t an ethical issue per se, but it can be, if for instance, a site is in someone’s backyard…

Nerb was huddled over an exam with the body language of consternation.  I could see the thoughts churning in his balding cranium.  Both Gilbert and Nerb are balding, by the way.  Gilbert in an, “I’m aging like fine wine” way and Nerb in an, “I hope this makes me a more aerodynamic runner” way.

Nerb’s face shot up.  “Errrr, now how much credit would you give for this?  I’m just not sure.  The student was supposed to explain taphonomy and he did correctly, but every time he wrote the word, he wrote tamponomy.  Do you think he meant to say TAMPONomy??”

I poured a glass of wine.

A woman in a wrinkled man’s dress shirt and leggings appeared in the doorway.  She had an accent, something Latin American.  She addressed Gilbert: “I need to speak with you.  Now.”

Gilbert left the room.

Exam 50: …Like any discipline, archaeology has its fair share of ethical issues!…

Gilbert returned to the room looking smug.  I poured another glass of wine.

Exam 56: …the repatriation of the Elfin Marbles…

Gilbert—“I need you to post a picture of me grading on Facebook.  This Canadian-Danish girl who I was supposed to see tonight doesn’t believe that I’m grading.”

Exam 59: …according to Willey and Phillips, “archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing” (1958:2)…

Gilbert—“Take another picture.  I hate this one.  Don’t you know my left side is my bad side?”


Caption: Gilbert grading, the French way.

I was on exam 60 and had been grading for 10 hours.  I was averaging 1 exam every 10 minutes, or 6 exams per hour.  At this rate I would need 7 more hours and finish at 2 am.  Or I could die.  Maybe I could just die.

Nerb—“Oh man!  Everyone is getting the short answer about slag wrong!”

I was starting to feel loopy.

Nerb—“You’d think I told them enough about slag!  Every section I mentioned slag!”

My sanity was floundering.

Me—“Hey.  What if there was a musical about slag?”

I imagined a dozen Nerbs prancing around the stage, freezing with jazz hands, and shouting, “Slag!” at different harmonic pitches.  This is the kind of thing that is HILARIOUS at exam 60, hour 10.

Me—“Slag!  The Musical.”

Exam 64: …The Temple of Doom is neither ethical nor unethical…

Nerb—“Hey!  Didn’t the professors say we could order pizza and charge it to the department?”

We looked the Upper Crust up online and they were recently shut down by a drug raid.  Otto Pizza didn’t deliver.  No one answered the phone at Oggi.  Here’s where a lesser comic writer would make a joke about how many Harvard PhD students it takes to order a pizza.

Nerb—“How about Crazy Dough’s?”

This is a place that shares a building with a tattoo parlor and comic book/bong shop.

He went on, “they have this great pizza with pesto called the Nutty Tuscan!”

Me—“I am not ordering a pizza called the Nutty Tuscan.”

“No, trust me.  It’s really good!”

“No way.”

“Come on!”


“I promise you’ll like it!”

Gilbert was distracted, sending texts, and did not come to my aid.

“Fine.  I’m starving.  I don’t care.  I’ll order the Nutty Tuscan.”

I dialed the number.  The pizza guy answered.  I couldn’t help but thinking about how Nerb was 1/4 Tuscan and assumedly had a pair of nuts…

“Can I have a large Nutty Tus—…Sorry, a large Nut—, Nutty Nerb—” and I cracked the fuck up.  Half laughing, half weeping.  I believe that is what they call hysterics.

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