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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


"I Have 80 Essays to Grade"

...is something that no instructor should ever have to say.

October 28, 2018

I didn’t cry for all that long, but undeniably there were tears in my eyes.

I was responding to a student assignment using the commenting feature in Microsoft Word, wrapping up my final bit when the program inexplicably quit, as it is known to do.

Re-opening the program I prayed to the gods of autosave. Sometimes with a crash you get lucky and everything is there when the program reboots.

In this case, it wasn’t. Over half of my comments on the assignment had been lost. Tears of frustration at having to redo them sprung to my eyes. It wasn’t even all that much work, time wise, maybe 10 minutes, but in the moment I felt emotionally broken over having to recreate what I’d already done.

This is the time of year when I see people saying things like “I have 80 essays to grade.” Often, the number is higher, 100 or 120, or even more.

Those statements send me to that moment of breaking down when a lost 10 minutes of work felt like the end of the world. At the time, I thought working myself into a frazzle in order to produce the kind of feedback students required was just part of the deal, and maybe it was, but it shouldn’t have to be.

Certainly if we have any care about what and how students learn, it definitely shouldn’t be the case.

When I was teaching full-time I would always have assignments due on Thursday and then return them the following Tuesday. I did this because: 1. The semester marches on whether or not I have grading to do. 2. Students should get feedback on a previous writing assignment before they receive the next one. 3. As a contingent instructor, I had to protect weekday time to do the work which brought in outside income to make up for my low salary.

This meant Saturday and Sunday were 100% dedicated to responding to student writing. If you do the math, 80 assignments at about 15 minutes per assignment (a very rapid clip if quality and depth of response matter), added up to 20 hours of labor.

In fact, it is impossible to keep up a pace of four assignments per hour for 10 hours straight, so inevitably some grading would have to happen on Friday and Monday, and those 10 hour days would ultimately be more like 12 hour days.

This is why losing ten minutes of work would go from being a trivial annoyance to a spirit-shattering calamity. There was always a point about 2/3 of the way through the pile where I could feel myself getting irrationally angry over entirely common and expected student errors. I would have to take a break to keep from unduly punishing the poor soul who made the wrong mistake at the wrong time, even after many of his or her colleagues had made the same error.

The natural response to having to work under these conditions is to figure out how to decrease the burden, but this always comes at the expense of student learning, and most often takes the form of requiring them to do less writing.

Assignments get shorter, or you drop one of the assignments. When I had 40 student literature classes, I would tell them they could drop the lowest grade on an essay, hoping that some would be calculating and decide not to do one of the essays entirely.

I know that this policy resulted in some students skipping entire units, calculating that they shouldn’t bother reading a novel they’re never going to write about. It felt crappy, but I needed to survive and I knew students wouldn’t complain about such a policy in a gabillion years.

I would craft template responses for common problems, cutting and pasting them into comments. If an essay was seriously off the rails, I’d stop grading it, denying a student who needed help the kind of feedback that might help them. For really good essays, I’d hardly comment, grateful to be relieved of the burden of response, but simultaneously denying a student something which they could reflect and build upon.

Hindsight reveals to me that I was not upset about the time I was spending so much as despairing over spending all that time and still being required to compromise my work in ways that deep down I knew to be unacceptable.

Feeling crappy about these compromises put me on a path toward ultimately embracing grading contracts and retooling my pedagogy around writing transfer and writing practice, a journey which is hopefully captured in The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

It helped, but nothing can overcome being overwhelmed.

These kinds of student loads have been completely normalized, but everything we know about writing and writing instruction demonstrates that they are incompatible with good outcomes for students or sustainable, fulfilling work for instructors.

There are no mysteries about what it takes to improve writing instruction. The problems are well-understood. There were years in which I took pride in being able to “handle” student loads of 125 in writing-intensive classes. I wore this as a badge of honor, but getting some distance from the experience now, I recognize how messed up it was, how the conditions under which we labor are inconsistent with what those above us claim to value.

Writing and critical thinking - nothing more important we’re told - and yet courses designed around those activities are staffed by instructors tasked with double the maximum student load.[1]

When I asked a question about grading volume on a listserv for writing program administrators, most of the replies reported student loads of 80 plus per instructor, often much more.

But there were a handful who reported that their campuses or specific administrators had made capping class size and overall loads a priority and achieved numbers more in line with disciplinary recommendations, 15 students per section, no more than three sections per instructor.

This suggests it can be done as long as it is central to the discussion.

The status quo is educational malpractice, just about everyone knows it, but very little is done about it.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s even worth talking about anything else until we first attack this problem.



[1] For post-secondary classrooms, the NCTE recommends no more than 20 students per section and no more than three sections per instructor for a maximum total of 60 students in writing-intensive courses.


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