Sometimes I Don't Hate Grading. Why?
What's the difference between grading the terrible chore, and something that's actually pretty interesting?
Like a lot of college instructors, I have, from time to time, expressed my dislike of grading.
Did I say dislike? My bad, I meant marrow-deep loathing. It is the worst part of the job, by far. Last week at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Robin Lee Mozer’s “I Would Rather Do Anything Else Than Grade Your Final Papers,” went viral, with retweets of #metoo and #amen filling our publication feed.
Mozer nails the dread that seems to accompany grading, particularly for those of us that must grade student essays.
I began to wonder, what is it, exactly, that I hate about grading?
Because I’ve been teaching three sections of the same course, every time I take in an assignment, I’m faced with 60 essays to grade. These will take me somewhere around 15-20 hours of work time, but just like our students, when confronted with a big task, at the base of the mountain, all I can think about is the difficulty of the climb, which leads to procrastination. This increases the pressure and the time constraints, and intensifies the ultimate unpleasantness.
Also, because I collect assignments on Thursday and return them by the next class on Tuesday, every essay assigned means an entire weekend given over to grading.
Not failure in the literal sense, but grading 60 essays means confronting the ways both the students and I have come up short. It genuinely grieves me when I see errors that I thought I had inoculated against with my brilliant instruction. My nature makes me wonder what I did wrong when I come across a head-slapping mistake. The volume has a multiplying effect on this particular displeasure as well. Many of the mistakes repeat and repeat and repeat, and the 15th time I see something will set my teeth grinding.
Doubt and Disappointment
Sometimes when grading so many essays I will begin to question the very practice of education, a mini existential crisis as I wonder how this particular assignment is helping my students become the people they desire to be. Deep down, I believe it is this doubt, or skepticism that makes me an effective teacher, willing to question dogma, but it also must be reckoned with, and spending an entire weekend grading can bring black clouds.
But thinking more deeply about grading, I realize there are times when I don’t hate grading, when the grading – if not actually fun – feels rewarding.
In fact, the end of semester grading in first-year writing, despite the volume and time pressure is often the least dreadful grading I will do all year.
The difference, I believe, is in what I’ve asked the students to do. Early on in the semester, as I build the scaffolding for their writing practices, the assignments often ask them to demonstrate particular skills, such as successfully summarizing someone else’s argument. As I grade, I have a target in mind for what demonstrates full success, and inevitably, every single student is going to fall short of that target. I am destined to be disappointed.
The final assignment is different. It asks them to craft an argument of their own design aimed at an audience of their choosing. Their is to use the skills they’ve practiced earlier, and I am instead reading to discover what they have learned about the subjects they’ve chosen.
Instead of a teacher, assessing skills, I am a reader, responding to ideas, and in many cases the students are presenting ideas and arguments I wasn’t aware existed.
Reading these arguments I am learning, rather than judging. Sure, there’s plenty of moments where I might wince at a missed opportunity for clarity or additional strength in their arguments, or a botched citation, but it’s a wince that has me excited to point out something that could be useful to them going forward, rather than focusing on what went wrong in the past.
It is this epiphany, that I carry different attitudes for different kinds of grading, that caused me to realize that I’ve never resented the grading I do when I teach fiction writing.
When a student turns in a short story, I assume that it is not going to be a fully accomplished work of fiction. I assume this because: A. In an introductory course, it’s unlikely for someone to write brilliant literary art out of the gate, and B: Students are turning in drafts, and even the most seasoned and accomplished writers write drafts that are not great.
When I read a student short story, rather than focusing on all the things that are wrong, I am instead looking for life, for the spark, the energy which will ultimately be the core of the story it could become. It is very rare to find even beginning stories entirely spark-free, more rare than it is to find a story that feels wholly realized.
I do this because in class, I want to focus on the spark, the moment the student was at her best and then discuss what it is about this moment (or these moments) that seem to carry such energy. We also talk about the parts where the spark is not apparent, but this is merely to set the best aspects in greater relief.
My goal when teaching fiction writing is straightforward: to make students enthusiastic about making another attempt at creative expression, and feel better armed in that attempt the next time around.
Why I haven’t embraced this ethos for composition is beyond me, other than I’ve spent a lot of years in a system that privileges product over process and I’m as prone to those biases as anyone. I’m so busy judging their skills, I forget about how important a role motivation and interest can play in developing and demonstrating those skills.
By accepting the flaws as inevitable before I begin, my fundamental orientation changes, both in how I read and respond to the work, but more importantly, my own emotional experience when grading. In fact, I’ve never even called what I do in a fiction class “grading.” It is simply reading and responding, which is a lot more fun.
My personal takeaways:
1. Always assign writing that asks students to not only show what they can do (skills), but also demonstrate what they’ve learned (knowledge). In conjunction with this, the most important knowledge is something the student has decided is important to themselves, rather than having been dictated by me. Every assignment should have an element of discovery for me and the students.
2. First, find the spark. If there is a moment where the work is on target, when it comes to life, I will talk about that first. If a spark is not detectable, rather than spending hundreds of words describing the spark-less nature of the work (which the student is likely well aware of), I will instead ask the student what it is that kept them from connecting with the assignment.
I don’t think grading 60 or more essays over a weekend could ever be “fun,” (the volume precludes this), but if I’m ever tasked with such a thing again, maybe it’ll be a little bit better.
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