When it’s time to grade papers, I suddenly go into housecleaning frenzies. I start preparing next semester’s courses. I finally get around to reading the most obscure and boring articles on my research reading list. I actually clear out my email inbox. I do things like write blog posts.
I would rather lick the bottom of a New York subway car than grade papers.
Why is grading so awful?
It certainly isn’t because my students or their work bore or annoy me. Even my worst student ever on my worst day is not more boring or annoying than housework, let alone as repellant as a subway car.
I think it’s the disappointment. Grading involves layers and layers of disappointed expectations.
When a course begins, I always feel hopeful and excited about my students. I enjoy getting to know them, I enjoy their comments and questions in class. They almost always seem (mostly) engaged in the course material, and they’re by definition a bunch of bright young things—who doesn’t enjoy hanging out with a bunch of bright young things, talking about Important Stuff?
But then I get the first stack of papers, and I have to come to a bunch of disappointing realizations:
1. My course is not their first priority. Students have many competing demands on their time, and even the best and brightest rarely have time to devote their all to any given assignment, so reading papers is an exercise in seeing a bunch of bright young things not quite living up to their potential. Before grading, they are nothing but vessels of potential. But in the process of grading mundane reality hits me full in the face: nobody is perfect, and extraordinary performances are extraordinary because you don’t see them often.
2. I may have been fooling myself a bit about how engaged they really are in my course. Not everybody loves my subject like I do, and some people positively hate it. While most students are mostly polite about this when we’re face-to-face, indifference or aversion for the subject always comes through in the writing.
Between the factors described in point 1 and point 2, I often come to the painful realization that many of the papers were probably written in less time than it takes me to evaluate them.
3. Some students work really, really hard for sadly little payoff. Mostly it’s because they’re beavering away in the the wrong direction, sometimes it’s because this isn’t their subject and much as they want to succeed, they can’t see the forest for the trees. Seeing this come through in the writing is even more painful than seeing the work of students who just don’t give a damn.
4. Even though I work very hard designing my course to meet their needs as well as possible, it never really meets their needs to the degree that I want it to. In trying to balance (a) how much can be covered in the time allotted and how much needs to be covered to meet the expectations of the department, (b) meeting the needs of students who are increasingly ill-prepared for college when they get here with the need to maintain high standards of academic rigor, and (c), meeting the needs of students who range incredibly widely in background, skills, and interest levels, there will always be a degree to which the balance cannot be struck. When you’re in the classroom or planning for the course, you’re actively working to fill these gaps and maintain the balance. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction in that effort. But when you’re grading papers, you’re confronting the degree to which you failed in that task. It’s always sobering, and often positively devastating.
In short, when you’re grading, you’re finding out exactly how much of what you said and did as a teacher made it through into the students’ heads and back out again in writing.
You will inevitably find yourself reading misquotations of your own words, put out of context and misapplied.
You may find out that most of the students only did a fraction of the readings. Some of them did none at all.
You learn that even if you state a basic instruction (such as: “turn in the paper BOTH in hardcopy and on the course management software”) several times in several venues (on the syllabus, on the assignment sheet, and out loud in class, with key words in all-caps) that a certain astoundingly large percentage of the class will still disregard these instructions (leaving you to manually upload dozens of papers and wait for the plagiarism checker to work, while hunting down all the missing papers which could be anywhere — mailbox, emailbox, main office, randomly dropped on a table somewhere in the department…the process can take hours).
So, you spend hours and hours of your time in this discouraging endeavor of grading, so that your evaluation and feedback will, hopefully, help the students to do better next time.
Only to hand back the papers and watch the students glance at the letter grade and then stuff the paper away, or even straight into the trash can. You spend the next week or so fielding complaints from students who all-too-obviously didn’t do the reading or show up to class, but who are still angry at you for failing to give them the terrific grade they feel entitled to get, according to the prevalent misapprehension that one receives good grades in return for paying tuition, rather than that you earn them by demonstrating specific knowledge and skills.
And when all this is done, another stack of papers arrives and you do it all over again, except that it hurts a bit more the next time because each subsequent stack of papers demonstrates that all the work you put into feedback on the previous stack of papers got mostly ignored. Again.
This process is so miserable that most of us would probably run away screaming from the entire profession because of it…except for one thing.
There is one thing that makes it all worthwhile in the end (though no easier to face when you begin). In each stack of papers there will be a few papers—you never know how many but there’s nearly always one and in some delightful cases there are quite a few—that were written carefully, thoughtfully, and with a passion for learning (not for getting good grades).
Some students take intellectual risks in their papers, and that’s a beautiful thing even when it doesn’t fully pay off. Some students go above and beyond the requirements because they really want to understand. Some students put such creativity and old-fashioned sweat into their work that they achieve fascinating, unexpected insights. Some students simply seem to be really enjoying themselves and the course. Some students don’t do anything extraordinary, except that they actually take what you’re offering to heart and show significant improvement from one assignment to the next. Those are maybe the most gratifying papers of all.
Because of these few students, we all keep at it. But that doesn’t make staring down a fresh stack of papers any easier. On that note, I think I have some dishes that need washing….