hashtag #gradingjail

Though classes have been over for about two weeks now, of course they aren’t really over until the grades are filed, which in turn can’t happen until the grading is all done. Last week was all about final essays, while this week will be all about the final exams my Brit Lit survey class wrote on Saturday morning–yes, that’s right, while other people were resting all snug in their beds, or bustling out to get an early start on their shopping the Saturday before Christmas, my students and I were stuck in a drafty classroom with really squeaky chairs from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m., counting down the minutes until we could be quite done with each other.

Invigilating exams is actually an oddly otherworldly experience. Because vigilance is, clearly, called for, you can’t just settle in for some serious work but have to alternate brief intervals of reading or writing with probing stares around the room or measured walks up and down the aisles (I use these strolls as opportunities not just to look out for students who have painstaking transcribed the whole of Mary Barton onto their inner arms or something but also to remind them all to double space their answers, offer additional exam booklets, and hand out extra Hershey’s Kisses). This particular room had steeply tiered seating, so I got some decent exercise every time I did this, or every time a student’s hand went up with a question about format or a lament for a dead pen (why anyone would show up for an essay exam carrying just one old ballpoint pen remains a mystery to me, but somehow every time, I hand out at least one spare). Otherwise, though, the atmosphere is one of anxious hush: the furrowed brows and deep sighs bring out all kinds of maternal feelings in me (these evaporate, more or less, once I start marking!). I always do bring some things to putter away at. Saturday I put a few keystrokes in on a writing project that’s in its very early stages, for instance, and I also read about half of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which turned out to be just right: smart enough to entertain but light enough to set aside as needed. More about that later, when I’ve read to the end!

Anyway, the booklets have all been collected, the candy wrappers are cleared away, and now I’m in the final week of what academics on Twitter discuss with the hashtag #gradingjail….and that is actually one of the things I have been thinking a lot about since classes ended and the complaining begin. Why is marking student work often not just unrewarding, but downright depressing, even disturbing? Why do people whose job it is to teach get in such a stew when they see the results of their, and their students’, term’s work? I can only think that something must be wrong–with us, with them, with the work, with the process–when we end up feeling entrapped, imprisoned, by what is, after all, a completely routine as well as absolutely essential part of our professional lives.

To be clear, not all marking is depressing. It’s always exciting to read a good piece of work, especially when you know you have had a hand in developing it. Thinking about the finished essays that gave me the most satisfaction to read this term, I realized that they were the ones in which the students had brought an idea or proposal to me, taken in my initial suggestions, come back after working on it some more, talked it over again, gone off to do more work based on our discussion, and eventually produced a thoughtful argument with which they were clearly engaged and which had flourished with my input and their effort. Now that’s teaching, right? So if that’s the gold standard, not just for results (and in fact, these aren’t all necessarily A+ papers when they are finished) but for the process, why is this not always the way things go? Why does it seem so often that the effort was perfunctory, the challenge was unwelcome, the requirements were simply ignored, the opportunities to learn and grow unappreciated?

There are a lot of answers, I think, and one of the things I hope to do on my upcoming sabbatical is address the ones that lie within my own power to address. I don’t think I can do a lot more than I already do, for instance, about students who just don’t care–and there are definitely some of those; it would be naïve to think there aren’t. There are doubtless a range of reasons why they don’t care, or can’t care right at the moment. But I can only do so much to reach them, if their interests or priorities or needs are somewhere else and they are just showing up (or not!) because that’s what they have to do. Mind you, I have to treat them all as if they do care, because it can be hard to know–that’s one reason marking is emotionally draining, I think: often you suspect you are pouring your effort in only for it to be ignored. (I like electronic grading because at least there are no uncollected papers serving as tangible evidence of their indifference.) But I’ve made the mistake once or twice of being rough on a student for not trying or caring, and it feels pretty bad to realize you were wrong about that.

So, if you start on principle from the assumption that most students do care, what gets in the way of their desire to engage with and develop their work as far as they possibly can, and what can I do to turn things around for them and keep myself out of #gradingjail–or at least make it one of those nice minimum security prisons? A few thoughts so far:

  1. Time is a major obstacle. Most of my students are taking five courses, many of them writing intensive, most with final essays due at the end of term. Even if they weren’t working part-time jobs (which most of them are) or juggling family responsibilities (which some of them certainly are), they’d have a hard time giving enough time to five final papers to get good results across the board. I have sometimes tried to take this into account by giving an option between a final paper and an exam. It’s true that this means those who write the papers do so in a much less perfunctory “because I have to” way, but those who write the exam do not make quite the same intellectual investment or get the same kind of intellectual reward.
  2. Class size is a problem. Except for graduate seminars, my smallest class is 20 students; I find it is just barely possible to do an assignment sequence involving rewriting with that many students while still moving through (and writing about) a reasonable amount of material. And even there, if every student came for the multiple visits (or exchanged the multiple emails) that lead to the kind of results I’ve described, I’d be swamped–not least because one seminar is not, of course, my only course per term. Still, ideally it would be nice to take everyone through proposals and drafts and revisions. I think for a seminar class I should be able to figure out how to do this–there’s a planning project, then, for my fall term seminar next year, to seek out advice and models for assignments that encourage long-term attention and rewriting, and that are manageable for a group that size. But what about groups of 40, 60, or (as I’m afraid we have recently resolved on for our first-year classes) well over 100? There aren’t enough hours in the day, for me or for whatever cadre of TAs is lined up for the really big classes, to give the kind of time and attention to their writing assignments that I believe is necessary for them to learn and improve. At Cornell, I taught in a writing program with classes capped at 17. We could do all kinds of things in a class that small, including lots of one-on-one work–and in fact that may be the last experience I can remember of feeling I was working with individual students, in detail, on ideas and lessons they could (and even would) use on their next attempt. I’ve heard people say you can teach writing just fine to large groups; in my gut, and from my experience so far, I believe that just isn’t true, but again, there’s a project for me, to figure out how people think this can be done, as I’m going to be expected to do it before too long.
  3. Preparation is a problem. I have had the feeling quite a lot recently that I am asking things of some of my students that have not been asked of them before, from ‘little’ technical things like correct spelling and writing in complete sentences to large scale things such as close attention to textual evidence or deep analysis of literary ideas instead of recapitulation of plots. Oh, and reading really long books! with footnotes! and characters that aren’t ‘relatable’! The gap between my expectations and their results is, of course, where much of the pain of grading originates, but if they just aren’t prepared to do what I’m asking, am I being fair to keep on asking it? How far should I dial back my expectations? Or, how can I use both classroom time and assignment sequences to move them into a position where they really can be expected to write the kind of essay I want from them? Again, here’s homework for me. Although I do build in components that I think and hope prepare them for larger assignments, perhaps I can do even more.

These are not observations with implications only for #gradingjail, of course, but that’s where I’ve been lately–and will be again tomorrow, and the next day, and probably the next day too–so that’s the context in which I am currently brooding about them. They apply mostly to essay writing, but I think a number of them are also relevant to exams: I’ve been tearing my hair and muttering “weren’t you paying attention?!” a lot, but time, class size, and preparation make a difference to attendance, diligence with class readings, and investment in the course material too, as does the sense that your professor knows who you are (or doesn’t) and has a specific interest in improving your understanding.

So: Those of you who also teach writing, and/or also spend time in #gradingjail, what do you think makes it such a hard place to be? What are your most positive grading experiences, and what do you think makes the difference?

3 Comments to hashtag #gradingjail

  1. December 21, 2010 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Excellent contribution to what ought to be a good discussion. You have hit on a few very important, and sticky, problems.

    On the revision sequence thing, have you considered having them read each others drafts? I used to do this with final year (undergraduate) dissertations with good effect. And Chris Atherton (@finiteattention) wrote an interesting piece about exemplars recently that had me thinking about how that practice might work better. I know Lee Skallerup (@readywriting) gets her writing students doing collaborative revision work together, though she finds it difficult and I’m not sure what size her classes are.

    My recent thoughts on writing, with links to Chris’s piece, are here.

    As for #gradingjail, I think there are other things going on there about judgement. Both unease about judging students and the impact of grades on them (perhaps there a bit in the question about expectations). And concern about how grades will impact on judgements of us as teachers, student evaluations and evaluations by peers and higher ups. These latter questions are clearly more important at different stages of one’s career but there nevertheless.

  2. December 21, 2010 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    I looked into this, as it turns out, earlier in the year for something I was then writing. The whole examination system labors under a misapprehension that being tested at the end of the year provides a motivation to students to work. In fact, it doesn’t. It flips students into the fear/reward parts of their brains in which they act in expedient and desperate ways, when we most want them to be creative. Creativity requires freedom, play, time, space, engagement that is willingly chosen. Exams offer the direct opposite – incarceration, regulation, obligation, onerous authority, the fear of being not good enough. What a student wants to come out of an exam with is a good self-image, not necessarily a genuine love of their subject, because the emphasis throughout their school career has been on performance linked with self-esteem, which is just a dreadful combination. Think of something that you do not particularly well (me: change fuse in a plug) and try to imagine doing that with an audience of highly critical spectators. Well, imagine doing something you’re good at with an audience of critical spectators! Either way, it is a great deal harder, and although the task might well be accomplished in the end, it will not be done with ease and fluidity. If only those critics would come down off their high horses and lend a hand! Then suddenly the job is transformed into a genuinely learning process again.

    Of course this is problematic in that teaching demands authority and discipline and often timed assessment. What I wish we could do with students at this level is take the time to work with them on their fears and expectations in the learning process. If we could get them to examine their responses and gut reactions as they go through it, then there is more chance that they will be able to prevent the negative parts of learning from undermining their ability to work well. But in today’s climate, how to do that? Very difficult situation all round.

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