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.