"I can tell when you've got papers to grade," another blogger said to me the other day. "Your blog posts get really short — just a photo maybe or some paragraph of description."
Well, yeah, it's hard to write anything meaningful or lyrical when I've got a stack of papers to grade. The unmarked essays take up all kinds of space inside my brain, squashing any profound thoughts or witty insights.
I don't know why grading essays is so torturous. I like the topics I assign, and my students come up with cool, perceptive ideas. When the students are working on their papers, and we go around the room with each student talking about his or her topic, I always think to myself, "What great ideas." And then I tell my students, with complete sincerity, that I'm looking forward to reading the papers. The weird thing is that I do mean that.
And I do like reading the essays. I learn all kinds of stuff. If I could just sit by the fire, read the essays, and not write anything on them — well, I could be done in a couple of hours. And it would be a pretty enjoyable experience.
But it's the writing on the papers part that drives me crazy. I hate having to judge the paper to give it a grade and then try to explain to the student why the paper got that grade. It always seems like a lost cause. I mean, if the student understood what made an A essay an A essay, it's likely he wouldn't have written a C essay to begin with. And it seems rude to say to a student, "Yeah, this essay was adequate but you just had nothing insightful to say."
I hate reading a paragraph, figuring out what's not quite right, and then trying to say it tactfully to a student. Well, okay, I'm not even always that tactful. I have been known to circle a sentence and write in the margin, "This sentence says nothing." Or sometimes I'll underline a sentence and say, "Read this aloud. Does it make any sense to you?" I'm not sure how tactful it is to circle a whole paragraph and write, "You could improve this essay by cutting this paragraph out completely."
I like it when I get to an A paper. Those go fast. And the really bad essays are fun in their own way because I can quickly see what the problems are. I know what to say to the student. It's a bit like watching someone on a sinking life raft and knowing you can at least throw them a line. It's nice to feel needed.
But all the in-between essays take me forever. I want to explain to the student what she did right, which parts she should feel good about — but then separate that from the stuff that needs to be improved. I want to tell a student that his thesis was wonderful, but starting out the introduction with the words "In the modern world of today" makes me want to bang my head against the floor. I want to tell the student what needs to be improved, but also say something encouraging.
And so, I read the essay, write some comments, reread the essay, figure out the grade, read the essay again because I haven't yet said anything encouraging .... and then look back at my messy handwriting, the scrawling on the margins of the student paper, and feel like I didn't do a good enough job. And then, because I'm feeling discouraged, I get up, do some housework, have a snack, and check my email. Then I sit back down again. Only 59 more essays to go ....