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Love the Teaching, Hate the Grading, and Other Institutional Paradoxes
May 20, 2012 - 9:44pm

April is the cruellest month in (Anglo-North American) universities, given that the yearly academic cycle reaches its peak with final exams, which are in turn preceded by the crushing weight of major end-of-term assignments. Some students, worn out by the demands of the season, lapse into a state of caffeine-fuelled zombie-like vacancy. For those of us on the receiving end of their work, there is the prospect of a mountain of marking that forms the final obstacle to a brief breather before the summer term begins.

Based on the feelings expressed regularly by many professors and graduate students, I don’t think grading is something many people see as a form of genuine and enjoyable engagement with students--unless it is a case where the course director has been creative with the assignments and/or most of the students are motivated to work hard.

Instead, professors and teaching assistants tend to experience grading as a chore (or in some cases, an ordeal) that must be completed so that marks can be submitted--a technocratic necessity rather than a pedagogical one.

This makes sense for a few reasons. Grading is not an inherently meaningful activity, but more a function of a massified hierarchised institution. A letter or number grade assigns a relative value to a student’s performance, which is then used as a measure of his/her value within the educational system overall. Outside of this system, assigned marks have little relevance.

As such, in an increasingly competitive environment students may see grades more as tokens of exchange than signifiers of acquired skill or learning. That’s partly because it’s so hard to assess those things and link them to an objective “standard”. Students may (rightly) see grades as flexible, and act on this assumption, possibly encouraged by the consumerist tendency that comes with attaching a price tag to education--conflating payment for access with payment for an outcome.

Another issue is that we’ve institutionalised the way in which grading is un-enjoyable. The process and schedule of the academic year ensures this: grading tends to happen all at the same time, there’s usually quite a lot of it--and because students are fatigued and under pressure, what we see might not be representative of their potential.

In the past I’ve also felt as if I have little influence over the outcomes I see when I’m grading assignments. I remember this was among the first issues that alerted me to “something rotten” in the state of academe, years ago when I started working as an undergraduate teaching assistant. It wasn’t that I didn’t care--I cared a lot; I wanted then, and still want now, to help students to learn and write well and earn the marks they desired. But I didn’t have the time and energy (and skill) to provide the level of help they seemed to require. Later, it was both relieving and distressing to realise I was working with all their past and present educational (and life) experiences, not just my own inadequacies.

Grading is just one of the experiences I’ve had, inside the classroom and out of it, that’s led me to look at the institutional frame in which university teaching takes place. To make the larger connections, why would excellent professors be limping along on contracts without job security? Why did undergraduate TAs make only half as much as the graduate students who did the same work--who, in turn, would later make less as contract workers than on the coveted tenure track? It was clear from early on that teaching in the university could be downloaded with impunity on to those with little or no experience or training (or control), and who were willing to work for lower wages.

Can these problems be addressed in a context where more and more people are being told to get a postsecondary education? Not only do we have more students now, but the students themselves must juggle their involvement with education with other demands on their time and energy. We must also find ways of engaging with, and helping, students from more varied educational backgrounds, without making unreasonable demands on those doing the teaching (and grading). And somehow, as teachers in this system we must become more “efficient” given the perpetual economic tightening in the context of managerialist governance of education.

This is where governance meets (and clashes with) pedagogy in the institutional context of the massified university; it is why the conditions of postsecondary teaching demand attention at the level of the egg timer often used to ration each minute of essay marking. Grading and the feelings and problems associated with it show us only a few of the ways in which the long-term devaluing of teaching in the academic economy is both experienced and perpetuated in our everyday lives.

Hamilton, Ontario in Canada
Melonie Fullick is currently a Ph.D. student working on research in post-secondary education, policy, and governance. She is a regular contributor at University of Venus and can be found in virtual space on Twitter [@qui_oui] and at Speculative Diction at University Affairs.


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