Mar 29

Making the grade…AGAIN.

Posted by A Writer


My regular readers will notice that I've been absent for a while, and there's good reason for it:  I've been buried up to my neck in grading.  In fact I'm still buried up to my neck in it, and I'm taking a break.  Okay, in fact, I'm procrastinating right now from doing more of it.  Happy now?

Sorry, I'm a bit cranky.  Don't get me wrong: being a college professor is great (and it is, seriously.  If/when my music or writing careers take off, I'll reevaluate…but teaching is great nonetheless.).  I actually enjoy (usually) going to conferences, the research (in moderation) doesn't bother me, and the teaching is almost always a positive experience (even the prep isn't that bad).  I'm a long way from a millionaire, but I'm not poverty-stricken, and having a flexible schedule is a big plus.  Hell, I don't even mind committee meetings (so long as there are donuts.  Never trust a committee chair who doesn't think a meeting needs donuts.  It does, I promise.).  In fact I spend the first half of every semester pinching myself: "I get paid for this?  Seriously?  To talk about literature?  With people who have to listen?!?!?"  Ah, the heady days of September/February.

Then the papers start coming in.

Now I've been at this a while, and you would think by now that I'd have the process down to a science.  And in fairness, I have picked up some tips over the years to speed things up…even if most of them have to do with grading less.  (In my first class I decided I would permit any amount of revisions a student wanted on any paper.  Now I allow ONE revision on ONE paper and that's it.  Ever.  I also carry a crossbow now in case of emergencies.)  And I'm all about the experimentation, kids: I've tried spreading out the grading ("five papers every day for two weeks and I'll be done, WOO!"), setting aside a day for it ("sorry, honey, I'll be locked in the office for the next twelve hours…please slide a granola bar under the door at four hour intervals"), all-nighters (and Mountain Dew just isn't getting the job done for me the way it used to in college), staggering assignments among classes, group work, self-evaluation, you name it.  But I'm always left with the same problem: at the end of the day (or really every month of the semester…I hate the "end of the day" business) there's only so much you can streamline, and reading and commenting on papers just takes time.

And it sucks.

No, it really does.  I'm not joking.  I've actually heard some teachers try to make the ridiculous claim that grading is a positive thing: "I'm so happy to get to know my students better!!!!!"  (This is usually followed up by a slight giggle.  They're so cute at that age.)  But once the fresh-faced upstart has grown up a bit, he/she starts realizing that you get to know your students much better in the classroom.  Oh, sure, the quiet ones are more difficult, and their writing can surprise you.  But you could get just as "surprised" by meeting them one on one during office hours, or reading written responses that you didn't have to grade.  The need to comment meaningfully, to give suggestions on how to get better, to explain what the student needs to elaborate on–and especially to explain why you're giving the student a C instead of a B–that's the pain in the ass part.  And it's not a step you can reasonably skip if you're going to do your job properly.  I've often dreamed of creating the ScanTron paper grading system–just run the paper through the scanner while it looks for phrases like "objective correlative" and "at the end of the day," and out pops the graded paper on the other side–but the truth is it ain't happening.  Like it or not, I've just got to keep slogging through.

It wouldn't bother me so much, I think, if I felt that the comments I made really got used.  But students tend to react very specifically to comments–all I have to do is "fix" every part with a comment, he/she reasons, and I'll be into the A range without a problem.  The fact that I specifically say that my comments reflect a trend in the paper, or that one misinterpreted quote leads to lots of problems in the paper as a whole, is irrelevant.  What I really need is a rubber stamp which says SEE ABOVE.  I've actually had a student show me a paper with a hugely misspelled mess of a concluding paragraph–after ten previous paragraphs, equally bad, marked to hell pointing out the same mistakes–asking "what's wrong with this part?"

Why, nothing, oh charmingly precocious one!

In truth, it's not all the students' fault either.  They've been broken down by years of teachers viciously slashing and burning their work with red pen marks galore, and the experiences are traumatic.  So they've learned to look very carefully for every stray pen mark and "do something" with it…even if they don't know exactly what to do.  The pen mark is a danger sign, a shot across the bow, the "Where's Waldo" of academia: figure the answer out or give up the ship.  The idea of striking out on their own–of revising things of their own volition–has been so beaten out of my students by the time they arrive in my classroom that I'm lucky if I can get them to look for and correct a certain kind of mistake without holding their hands to get there.  And even worse, many of the things I comment on aren't concrete to begin with; it's probably relatively simple to tell a student how to fix a quadratic equation (relatively simple…there's a reason I teach literature), but asking him/her to expand on the analysis in a paper is a whole different kettle of man-eating fish.  No wonder I get the "I thought I said everything anyone can say about Hamlet!" response once in a while.  (Maybe they're right…there is a hell of a lot of babbling about that guy out there.) 

And so the dance goes on, my encouraging students to see the patterns in their analysis, them digging for the secret treasure map to a better grade, both of us tugging over the always charged interaction between student and teacher.  Maybe there's nothing at all the matter here; maybe this is all part of the equation that makes the process work, and helps some students become better writers and thinkers by the time they leave my classroom.  Maybe the hours of tedious commentary do add up to better educated, more well-rounded kids.

But at the moment, I'd rather just wallow in my sorrows for a couple more hours before heading back to fight the good fight.  Anyone up for a few  completely pointless games of poker?  If you're lucky, I might even give you an A when it's all over.

Mar 5

Hit points = -10.

Posted by A Writer


I just heard that Gary Gygax passed away, and it actually hit me a bit harder than I might have thought it would.  For those of you who didn't spend many of your teenage years (and a few years after that, okay?) hanging out with friends with a bunch of junk food, Mountain Dew and way too many dice, Gygax was the creator (co-creator, but he was really the brains behind the operation) of Dungeons and Dragons, the mother of all role-playing games.  D and D's gotten a bad rap over the years, first for allegedly drawing young people into cults, Satanism and suicide (often all at once!) and then for building an ultra-nerd culture which directly led to even more dangerous pursuits like, say, World of Warcraft.  It's also spawned a whole host of imitations, most of which are far inferior to their predecessor, and a few of which highlight some serious problems with the original game.  But when the game first came out in the mid-70s (after a few months for people to get used to the idea), it forever blew up the notion that games were about as interesting as your grandmother–she was nice, right, but how many times could she show you the same tintype of her great grandfather from the Civil War?–and about as old.  D and D told gamers to forget about boards, pieces, even boxes; just gather a bunch of friends, get a lot of sheets of paper, pencils, and dice, and let your imagination do the rest.  And once it took off, there was no looking back–even if the boards, pieces, and boxes eventually came back, since D and D is always about the bling.

I got into D and D pretty much right as it was reaching its zenith, and when I started playing it (Keep on the Borderlands was my first adventure, by the way, and it was pretty freaking awesome at my age…though it's pretty dated, looking at it now) I couldn't believe how cool the concept was.  I loved fantasy anyway–Tolkien was especially my bag–and here I was getting to actually be a wizard.  Awesome.  And besides, it tied together everything I liked best growing up–hanging out and playing games with friends.  And as I got older, I discovered that I was a pretty good DM (that's Dungeonmaster for those of you who aren't up on the lingo), and pretty good at running adventures…both because I was pretty good at retaining obscure rules for which the game was famous, and because I could ditch the rules when needed so as to create a more dynamic adventure.  It was a pretty productive time for me from that point of view–I was starting to learn how to pull together storylines, ideas, and characters to create a new world, and you better believe it helped me much later, when I was starting to create worlds in literary form.

Yes, in those early days D and D was pretty much the greatest thing ever.  Of course it couldn't last–we actually kept it going longer than a lot of people did, and to this day I still play sessions now and again.  But it's never going to match those marathon once a week deals in my friend's basement, or sometimes in the living room of my house, cracking up over stuff which wouldn't make much sense outside the game context.  Like this time one guy grabbed a Trident of Yearning and leaped into the nearest body of liquid, which just happened to be a pool of acid.  Man, that was some funny sh…er…right.  Like I said, you had to be there.  But it's one of my fondest memories, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. 

Of course, there were a lot of problems with D and D, both as a game and a pastime.  On the game side, it tended to the formulaic….dwarves, elves, dragons, you know the drill.  There wasn't a whole lot different about the game's setting, although later on it started to wander pretty far afield…flying ships, desert wasteland planets, stuff like that.  After D and D was sold to Hasbro, it had a pretty steep drop-off, and it really wasn't a pretty sight–the game got dumbed down, cartooned up (and not the good kind!), and basically beaten badly by a lot of more sophisticated competitors.  On the pastime front, it certainly did contribute to a feeling of isolation at times.  Why live your own life when your level 15 wizard is that much cooler?  And since D and D tended to appeal to more sensitive, intelligent and even oddball types, playing it soon got to be a badge of dishonor–leading to even more "nerd" jokes than before.  I always found this odd–I love sports too, but I never understood why painting my face blue and going to a football game without a shirt in sub-zero weather was cool while playing a game where I used my *gasp* imagination was nerdy–but there it was.  Besides, it wasn't really a physically active thing anyway, unless you were one of these people.  God help you if the kids ever found out about something like this.  

But still, D and D has always had an undeniable pull.  A few years back I was in a store in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (original home of D and D), owned by Gygax's son–who invited me to play D and D with him and his father that evening!  I turned it down because of other plans, but I've always felt a little bad about it.  I would have loved to see what the father of role-playing would do in front of one of those cool altars with jeweled eyes.  I'm sure all of this makes me some kind of latter-day geek, but I can't even tell you how tired I am of labels, pretty much of any kind.  All I know is D and D got my imagination fired up in a way nothing else did during those years, and it deserves a lot of credit for not letting me sink too far into my own head at that time.  For me, and I suspect a bunch of other people, D and D will always be associated with cool stories and good times.  And for that alone, it's worth all the weirdness and odd people and cult accusations that have sometimes gone with it.

I'd like to imagine Gygax somewhere in his version of heaven–playing at a game table with friends, laughing his ass off over some conversation with an obnoxious goblin or something.  Come to think of it, that's not such a bad afterlife for anyone.  Rest in peace, G.G.  Thanks for the dungeons, and the dragons, and even the dice.  And for the rest of you non-converts, throw whatever charges of nerd-ism at me you like.  I've still got my Ancient Katana, and I've got my lucky twenty-sider right here.