Dispatch from Adjunct Land 4: Grading

Final papers were turned in this week! Guess what is consuming me mind, body, and soul right now.

Of course everything I share here is based squarely on my own experience and, to an extent, the experience of my friends. So I’m sure there are people out there who love grading. Or who take pleasure in giving bad grades. Or who pick on certain students. I don’t know those people. This doesn’t mean they don’t exist, only that I can’t really report on that.

Grading is the worst part of teaching. It never ends, especially in the humanities. It’s tough to know how to approach grading. And giving a poor grade, even one that is deserved, sucks.

A picture of the author's desk.
Where the magic happens. The black/white/orange thing is my Master’s Hood. I wear it sometimes when I do the dishes.

As a writing prof, I give as many writing assignments as I can. Some are only graded with a check mark or a cursory ,”Good job.” (That phrase, of course, quickly becomes meaningless, leaving me scrambling for a thesaurus.) I spend a long time on some papers, commenting on everything: grammar, sentence structure, and content. My students are beginners and very early in their college careers, so I try to explain everything and suggest additional resources. (The first time or two, anyway; explaining that sort of thing every single time leads to burn out.)

The author's collection of writing books.
Speaking of additional resources, my “school books.” A few of the titles you can’t clearly see: They Say/I Say, Pocket Style Manual, Everyday Writer.

I despise the sandwich method (say something positive, then something negative, then something positive), but I strive to balance the good and bad comments, lest students become discouraged. The sandwich method, I feel, too easily hides what the students need to work on. I try to take the long view: not just what improvements can be made for my class, but for future classes and the working world (and I use “real world” examples as much as possible). But of course, if you don’t say anything positive, the student will feel like giving up, and understandably so.

Some grading theories suggest acknowledging what the student did right. This is a challenge for the assignments that are completely wrong, down to the typeface. But you can at least acknowledge the effort that went into the work. Because I don’t want to be fully consumed by cynicism, I try to give the benefit of the doubt and assume the student put in a good-faith effort. (Though a student once blasted me on an evaluation for that. I thanked them for their hard work, you see, but they hadn’t worked hard at all!) It’s true, some students put little effort into their work. But my classes are largely composed of working adults who juggle multiple responsibilities. Sometimes turning in a D paper is a major achievement.

I mainly teach online, which brings in a new set of problems. Some students have trouble with reading comprehension, which leads to a troublesome cycle: they have trouble comprehending the directions, comprehending the examples, and thus comprehending the feedback. There are ways around that, though, including phone calls and voice or video recordings.

One factor that many people dislike about online education but that I love is the anonymity. Online students are much easier to keep track of than face-to-face students. I think this is because online students have to do so much writing. I’ve always had a talent for remembering what I read, so it’s much easier to remember facts about students and their projects when all I do is read about them. Further, if a student annoys me for some reason, it’s much easier to let go of those feelings when it’s time to grade. Having a memory of a student’s voice or body language makes it more difficult to approach an assignment with a blank slate.

With some exceptions, it feels gut wrenchingly awful to give low grades. Perhaps I have too much ego, but I’m left wondering: What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently? What is the magic solution to getting students to understand X, Y, and Z?

Skinner: And now, as a special sendoff and a way to say “Gong Hei Fatt Choy” to our visiting Chinese principals, Bart Simpson has promised us a fireworks display. [motions to Bart]
[Bart looks at Edna and groans as she gives him “F”]
Principal 1: All week, he promise big firework display.
Principal 2: Bad student.
Principal 1: Uh-uh…bad principal.

Obviously there is no magic solution. No one teacher can serve every single student. You can create the most logical, easy-to-follow examples, but if the student doesn’t read them, there’s nothing you can do. Nor can you compensate for the other demands on a students’ time, such as work or family. But still, after giving multiple Ds or Fs, I feel like a failure. Just as students shouldn’t take a grade personally, teachers shouldn’t either.

(And of course, the teacher is not giving those grades, the students are earning them, but semantics don’t matter after 8 hours of grading essays.)

Excuses are an important part of the grading process. The institution I work for doesn’t accept excuses, other than for large natural disasters. I have some discretion if I want to offer extended deadlines or incompletes. But in general, it doesn’t matter that the computer crashed or one was sick. Work’s gotta get turned in. I don’t care about why an assignment was late, and I much prefer a late paper to be turned in without commentary. If someone uses my late policy, that’s fine, I don’t need the whys of it. Of course, some people need to get the reason off their chest; they need to talk to someone. It may also be taht typing the excuse out is a way to hold themselves accountable, a reminder not to do it again.

The real trouble, though, is that some students present quite elaborate excuses. I’m not allowed, nor do I want to, ask for proof. Yet by turns my heart breaks if these stories are real (illness, job loss, crime) and fills with rage if these are lies.

Teaching is a profession that consumes every part of you. I’m nearly always thinking about work, and more specifically, about grading: the grading that’s left, the comment I could have worded better, the resources I should post, the examples I should create. Once I became a TA, I instantly had more respect and appreciation for every teacher I’d ever had, and a common refrain among my cohort was, “If our students only knew!”

Alas, there is no real solution. Assigning less work doesn’t benefit students. Providing cursory feedback on every assignment (instead of just some) also doesn’t serve students. However I feel about adjuncting, I still love education, and I love writing. There is value in being able to communicate clearly and well, and I take pride in helping my students improve. Writing well is a skill that will serve them no matter what they do.

Like pretty much any educator, I could drone on forever about grading: how much I hate it, some of the strange assignments I’ve received, some of the amazing ones I’ve received, but for now, class dismissed.

The author working on a laptop with a cat in her lap.
Cats are also an important part of grading. Also this red chair is actually where most of the magic happens.

Pardon the blur; this camera was in the process of giving out.

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History. Hindi cinema. Hugging cats.

One thought on “Dispatch from Adjunct Land 4: Grading”

  1. Grading can be a real pain in the ass and very stressful. I’ve never taught a class myself, but I still did find myself creating assignments for a group of undergrads and grading their papers as an assistant to a great professor. At first I was sort of appalled at some of the really bad writing and shortcuts students took with their assignments. But, then a good friend reminded me that he used to be one of those students who didn’t read very well or write very well, but tried very hard in class, and that there could be a student like that in my group. With that in mind, grading became a lot less stressful when I focused on giving students feedback and advice to improve their writing skills and if they understood the material and had solid premises from which to proceed.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences as an adjunct. :)

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