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Sustainable Grading
April 24, 2012 - 9:38pm

So I’m still thinking about machine grading.  It’s hard not to at this time of the year, especially after we discussed sustainability in composition last Wednesday night. I’m thinking, still, about what Mark Bousquet wrote about how we (largely) did this to ourselves. It’s even made it all the way to NPR. And a series by Ed Tech Researcher (focusing on k-12, but still relevant – imagine teaching FYC to students who have exclusively written for machines for all of their schooling; we’ll be longing for the five-paragraph essay). And the New York Times.

I don’t know why this is such a hard post for me to write. I have so many conflicting emotions. When Audrey Watters talked about scaling FYC, I realized that this is already happening. Smarthinking offers an online writing lab, feedback for a fee. I trained for them before I got my current teaching position. The pay is low, even with a PhD, but you do get to set your own hours. The time that I was expected, on average, was more than I ever had the luxury of spending on my students’ essays. We were also expected to develop rote responses to common issues to cut and paste into our comments.

Honestly, I was impressed with the training and the level of research and thought that went into the approach. As someone who had taught writing-intensive courses, I could appreciate the focus on efficiency. The previous year, in the fall (and this was a tenure-track job), I taught five freshman writing class with 30 students in it. Each. We were required to assign five papers during the semester, so five times that semester, I got a pile of about 150 essays to grade. I became, for better or for worse, a grading machine.

This past fall, I looked into using MyWritingLab with my developmental writers. We were starting to hear noises that the course (like developmental math and reading) needed to be more standardized. A few of us wanted to get ahead of it (to have first-hand experience either for or against any “program” that might be proposed). As part of the package? Access to the Online Writing Lab from Smarthinking. As our school doesn’t have a physical writing lab, this seemed, to me, to be the biggest selling point.

The students did get some good feedback, but they made assumptions about my assignments (no, I’m not teaching a five-paragraph essay!) that I didn’t appreciate. I’m not sure how if the students improved because of all of the writing we did in the class or because of the self-passed, personalized grammar exercises. I felt like I was outsourcing parts of my job, in the name of efficiency and, to be honest, sustainability.

Class sizes are getting bigger, the number of adjuncts is growing, along with the number of sections they need to teach to make ends meet. When tenure-track or tenured faculty get offended by Bousquet’s accusations that we did it to ourselves, I say, in order to most adjuncts and increasingly tenure-track faculty (particularly at community colleges) are forced to turn into machines, developing more and more ways to make teaching FYC personally sustainable. It’s a vicious cycle; we’ve become either so good at grading efficiently that we’re mistaken (and treated) like machines, or we’ve lost our way so much that machines are actually preferable.

Maybe we’re entering an era with a new aesthetic. Maybe the machines will grade our papers and write our papers, too. As an undergrad, I wrote a dystopian short story/partial novel where artists were considered mentally unstable, put into institutions, and all “art” (which was scientifically proven to benefit the brain) was created by machines for optimal impact. Maybe I’m fighting so hard against this because it means I’m out of a job. Or I’m fighting so hard because I don’t want my kids to be graded entirely by computers, taught entirely by computers.

Or maybe we really need to figure out how to do this differently, sustainably, so that we can try and stave off my dystopian nightmare.

 

 

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