October 22, 2008

Well, yeah

"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 ....

21 comments:

Lorianne said...

Oh, yeah...definitely! In fact, I'm taking a break right now from my paper pile, so I definitely feel your pain...

Right now, I'm commenting on drafts, which on the one hand is time-consuming because you have to say something HELPFUL, but on the other hand, you don't yet have to justify a GRADE. You can just basically say, "Okay, you gave me lots of information, but I don't know what point you're trying to make with that information."

But after about the fifth time saying (well, actually, typing) this, I too want to pound my head against a wall. I suppose with all the snacking, I'll gain ten pounds by the time this pile is done...

readersguide said...

I don't know -- your advice may not be tactful, but it definitely sounds useful.

jo(e) said...

Lorianne: I do prefer to comment on drafts ... but then I need to grade the final copies as well and with so many students, that can be really time-consuming. But yeah, writing the same thing over and over again drives me crazy.

Readersguide: Thanks! My students tell me not to be tactful. They claim they would prefer that I say things like, "Your introduction sucks." I like that about this generation of students.

kathy a. said...

but don't you need to explain why it sucks? they need the why.

and that has to be a drag when you need to say it over and over.

jo(e) said...

they need the why.

Yes, that's why it takes so long. Because I have to stop and figure out why it's bad writing .... and then figure out how to explain it to them.

KathyR said...

What? It isn't good enough to say "this makes me want to bang my head on the floor?"

elswhere said...

My sister-in-law teaches at a small college that doesn't do grades, just comments, and she says it has made her grading process infinitely easier partly because she doesn't have to be so tactful; she just writes her evaluation of the paper without having to use her comments to justify (or soften) a letter grade.

I bet she also would like to write "this makes me want to bang my head on the floor" a lot. Maybe she even does.

Rana said...

I feel like I could have written this post - I agree that the mid-range papers are the hardest of all to grade, especially.

I think it's the combination of repeated not-very-original shortcomings (unlike the really bad ones which can sometimes be amusing, or which are so bad you can just point at the worst things) and having to carefully explain why the not-so-obvious falls short.

And, for me at least, the distinction between a B-, a B, and a B+ is pretty fine - while the difference between those and As or Cs is much more obvious and easier to explain.

Sometimes I wish I could just meet with the students one-on-one and explain the paper's strengths and weaknesses - and get a sense of what the student was _trying_ to do, instead of having to read all of them.

(Ah, well, I don't have to worry about this for a few more months.)

The verification word seems apt: "slumput" - written in red!

(Though I always write my comments in pencil.)

TC said...

Now, see, as a long-time writer and editor, I think that grading and commenting on papers would be the EASIEST part of the job for me; over the years, I've established a sort of editing style, and I don't think (though I can't know for sure) that I would feel too badly about telling a student exactly what is wrong with her essay--complete with snarky comments like, "As opposed to 'in the modern world of YESTERDAY?'"

What would make ME want to bang my head on the floor is the idea of having to get up in front of a group of students and SPEAK. (Shudder.) There's a reason I'm a WRITER and not a SPEAKER. Plus, I have the patience of a gnat when it comes to people who don't intuitively GET what I'm talking about. I'd be an AWFUL teacher, especially of young kids. I MIGHT slide by at the college level...if it weren't for that speaking in public thing.

Still, every time I read one of your posts about your students, all I can think is that I wish I'd had more professors like you--who care enough to let the process be painful, rather than just giving up. You're the kind of professor students really LEARN from.

cheesehead said...

Gee, this sounds an awful lot like writing a sermon, only the sentences that suck sometimes are my very own.

liz said...

One of my profs took a red pen and circled things and put a number in the margin.

Then on a separate sheet, he wrote why he'd circled what he'd circled.

A papers got circles and numbers and a separate sheet too, because he'd circle something he hadn't known before, or that struck him as being well said.

I hope that you have many A papers and a few really lousy ones for humor's sake and very few middling ones.

liz said...

Another teacher had a sheet in her syllabus with a three-letter-acronym list on it: ROS = run-on sentence; NEI = not enough information; WYC = where's your conclusion; GIB = gibberish; RED = redundant.

She would circle offenders and put the three letter acronym in the margin. She said she'd found herself writing the same things over and over again and decided to make it easier on herself. She also found that the list of acronyms reduced the number of times she needed to use the acronyms because it reminded people to check their essays for her pet peeves before handing them in.

YourFireAnt said...

Bring the essays out into the woods with us tomorrow, and we'll all help.

;-)

Bardiac said...

You got this issue exactly. It's not the reading; it's the grading and trying to explain how to make things better in a reasonably kind way. And then the stack is endless, so no matter how interesting, after 15 or so, you want to run away to join a circus...

Kathryn and Ari said...

Oh, how I empathize. And agree. And comiserate!

Silver Creek Mom said...

I feel your pain... Being a student that has to write said papers and has no clue what to do.
{{{HUGS}}}}}

Danny Bradfield said...

Too many of your sentences start with the word "And..."

Sorry, I couldn't resist.

;-)

Lomagirl said...

I have an enormous slough of papers to wade through. That's why I'm reading blogs. Anything is better than that- and the politics.
Arghhhh.

Lomagirl said...

Sorry- I meant the politics inherent in working for an educational institution. I started thinking about what I need to be doing, and I got kind of depressed.

bsouth said...

Well, I wish you had been my teacher in the past. I like your honest and I think you're pretty tactful - you never tell them you want to bang your head on the floor!

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