Caught Up with Grading

For the first time this semester, I’m actually caught up with my grading! ::happy snoopy dance:: Yay for Spring Break!

Primarily a writing instructor, I can’t get away from grading essays. Mountains and mountains of essays. So articles like the one below helps to keep a healthy, professional perspective of the importance of grading as necessary feedback to my students.

Even with the proper perspective, though… I still wish this grading can go by faster.

From the issue dated February 15, 2008

The Unbearable Importance of Grading

I doubt I can even count the number of times professors have said to me that the only part of our profession they truly dislike is grading papers. I’ve seen colleagues retire because of the burden. Can grading be so awful? In fact, although little discussed, it is one of the primary venues of teaching.

I remember vividly the first papers that came my way, as a graduate student at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, in 1970. In those days (perhaps even now), students wrote by hand. Most British students wrote with fountain pens, and it gave their work a certain dignity and sense of authority. I used to feel awkward “marking up” their essays with my feeble ballpoint or red pencil. For the most part, I made subdued remarks in the margins and confined myself to a substantial note at the end.

My own handwriting was no match for theirs, but I put some confidence in my evaluation. I recall that students came into my office to say that they couldn’t read my handwriting, and so I had to read my comments aloud. That often proved embarrassing, as I felt freer in writing than face to face.

With some relief, I became a grader of American papers in the mid-70s. The relief mainly came from the fact that students usually typed their work. This was before the age of computers, so revising a paper wasn’t easy. If a student committed something to the typed page, it usually stayed there. You couldn’t cut and paste, not easily. If you misspelled a word, there was no checking system. If you caught an error, you applied Wite-Out, then typed over it. Papers often looked like some sort of collage.

I obsessed over spelling and punctuation, and wrote in the margins things like: “Two hyphens on a typewriter equals one dash! Please learn the difference between a hyphen and a dash!” I often felt like a copy editor, as I spent so much of my time on the details of writing. It was hard to get at the ideas in the papers, which often lay buried in technical mistakes. To this day, if a paper is full of grammatical problems, I get distracted from the argument, assuming content and form synonymous (although I’ve read enough badly written books with important content to know there is no necessary connection).

But the analytic commentary remains the heart of what I consider good grading. Once a very prudish professor in Scotland crossed out the word “masturbation” in one of my papers (I was writing about a poem in which that activity was vividly present). He wrote above the word, in bold letters, “self-directed pleasure.” And I still bear a mild grudge over some remarks in the margins of my early writing. One time when I noted the “countrified” diction in a particular poem, my professor wrote: “There is no such word!” There is indeed such a word, though it’s not a particularly good one, and I have never used it since. “Incoherent!” wrote another professor, beside the final paragraph of a major paper during my freshman year. That terse comment appeared in red ink and shook me badly.

I had worked over that paragraph for hours and went into the professor’s office in a quiet rage, although I feigned only mild interest in his remark, pretending that I wanted just a little clarification, not repentance. That single exclamation on my paper led to a long tutorial in which this patient man went over every sentence in the final paragraph, challenging me to explain what I meant at every turn. He pointed out ambiguities and syntactical confusions. He explained that my conclusion had very little to do with any evidence I had presented. That meeting had its effect, and I still hover over a concluding paragraph in my work. And I live in fear of incoherence, believing that prose offers (to misquote Robert Frost) a “momentary stay against confusion.”

Nowadays I often write “Incoherent!” in the margins of student papers. That provokes the best students, and they come to see me in my office. I sit down with them and go over the passage in question in detail. And when I do this, I remind myself of my freshman moment, and that the person on the other side of the desk, the student, has feelings, and may well be offended by what I say. I don’t pull my punches, however. I can live with a little provocation in the right places, aware that it may teach a good lesson.

Any professor will know how it feels on the day class papers arrive. I don’t care how few students sit in a particular course: A stack of unmarked papers on the edge of the desk always looks like Mount Everest. Experience has taught me that it’s better to get climbing right away, and to climb a little every day. As a young professor, I would put off the onerous task, preferring to do other things, such as work on some project of my own. I learned the hard way — by staying up all night with a pile of papers and a pot of coffee to grade everything in one fell swoop — that good grading can only be done in discrete batches, as it requires immense quantities of attention to read and respond properly to a paper. My attention will always fray after half-a-dozen papers.

I suspect that most graders develop their own methods, working with their own deficiencies and strengths. What I do — what I have to do — is skim a paper first, writing nothing on it. I read it quickly to see what overall impression it makes, and to understand the shape of the argument. I need to get the flavor of the paper, its style of argument, its tone. Then I dig in. I almost always use a sharp-tipped red marker. Red is the color of grading. It catches the attention of the student. If you turn a colon into a semicolon, or vice versa, a student will easily see what you’ve done. It makes quite an impression when you draw a red line through every sentence in a paragraph, as I sometimes do with opening paragraphs, which tend to be irrelevant. (The student often needs to clear his or her throat for a few sentences, warming up to the subject.)

Although the final summary from the teacher is important, marginal comments are the crucial test of good grading. A teacher has to have almost athletic intelligence, responding to the twists and turns of argument, suggesting better ways or applauding a particularly apt phrase. What the student remembers is the specific suggestion. I make the usual general comments when necessary: Prefer the active to the passive voice whenever possible, use strong verbs, and so forth. Anyone who has spent time writing will know the list of helpful tips. But the real work of grading involves making concrete suggestions, suggesting alternative words or phrases.

The hardest papers to grade, for me, are those where nothing is really “wrong” with the prose or the argument, where everything is “sort of” correct but nothing is vivid, nothing quite original. The prose has the texture of oatmeal. In those cases, you have a choice. You can just pass over weak passages (or weak papers), or you can get out the shovel and dig. I usually suggest that the writing is bland and take one paragraph as an example. I rewrite it as if it were my own work.

One of my good friends, a wonderful writer now in his 80s, told me that he learned to write by sitting beside a much more experienced writer who “corrected” his prose. My friend watched in awe as adjectives disappeared, absorbed into stronger nouns. Similarly, adverbs disappeared as stronger verbs emerged. A sentence like “The boy ran swiftly down the small, narrow street” became “The boy darted down the alley.” When I can, I try to emulate that model, sitting beside my students in my office, “correcting” their work.

Of course students must learn in time to internalize a teacher’s voice, becoming their own editors. But there is no substitute for the one-on-one work that grading entails. In grading, in these acts of intelligent, sympathetic responsiveness, lie opportunities for making those little impressions on a student that will last a lifetime.

Jay Parini is a novelist, poet, and professor of English at Middlebury College. His next book, Why Poetry Matters, will be published in April by Yale University Press.
Section: Commentary
Volume 54, Issue 23, Page A38


About lizardqueen

If single-mothering were a paid job, I'd be rich. However, it doesn't, so I write (which doesn't pay the bills) and teach (which does). I'm overly-educated in the liberal arts, but that doesn't hinder my ability to be pragmatic and realistic. YAY.
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