Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Grading Season

Many of my colleagues have just finished up grading for the semester. I tried to get in contact with one of them during this grading frenzy only to be reminded that it was grading season. Because I haven't had to grade this semester, I have taken some time to think about the incredible amount of energy and time goes into grading.

Grading is draining work. Grading papers requires a great deal of patience, focus and, oddly, courage. If you care about teaching your students how to write well, then you need to spend a good deal of time figuring out how they write now and what they need to learn. No one student has the same writing problems. While, sure, most students write too quickly and carelessly, the real writing challenges for students are multi-varied. Some students have something really interesting to say, but they haven't yet figured out how to explain it to someone else. Some students are terrified of taking a stance on an issue, fearing the inevitable consequence that someone will tell them they are just plain wrong. Some students haven't taken the time to think about what to say. Today I heard an interview with the writer/editor Roger Angell from the New Yorker, who said: "Writing is hard work. Writing is thinking." I think that was the truest statement I have ever heard. Sometimes students just don't want to think.

I see my job as one in which I push students to think, to care about what they say, and to develop the courage to defend their own views. This is not just technical work, it is emotional work. And that emotional work demands a great deal of courage from me as well. In particular, I have to care more about making my students better writers and thinkers than winning their affection. This is not as easy a task as it might sound. Students are quite adept at "playing" their profs. A great many of them grade grub. They see education as some sort of endurance race, whereby if they worked hard and showed up to every class, then they deserve an A. Students' egos are also undeniably bound up with their writing. Isn't that true for all of us? When we criticize student work, we have to always be careful to deliver the criticism in a way that inspires them to improve, rather than whither in the face of red ink. To that end, I often try to not write on the paper and instead type comments that treat the papers as a whole. This is extremely time consuming, but at least prevents students from simply correcting grammatical errors.

When students rewrite papers, they rarely rewrite. They just clean up the careless spelling and sentence structure. This of course does nothing to make a better paper. I think that most students intuitively know this, but to admit this to themselves would require them to have to give more of themselves than they are willing to give. But, can we really blame them? How can we lose sight of the fact that we too find ourselves in an emotional turmoil the minute we are required to write. Writing demands that we slow down, care about our reader, and clarify, clarify, clarify what it is we want to say. I can't think of any writing job I have done that didn't make me want to scream, throw things, find a less stressful day job, or clean my stove with a toothbrush. I try to remember this everytime I work through a paper with a student. I know how hard it is to write well and I have to find a way to make the student want to willingly put him or herself in that emotional turmoil.

I am usually brain dead this time of the year. I can barely function for the first few weeks after grades are due. I am grateful that my college refuses to offer summer school classes (for I would be tempted to teach for the $). If we didn't have summers to recharge ourselves, to spend sometime working on our own ideas, then we would never be able to go back to doing the hard work of teaching.

To all of you who have just turned your grades in: congratulations. Probably very few of our students fully grasp the amount of energy we put into their intellectual development. I swear if I hear one more student say "Well, you could just give us all A's" I will start beating my head against the wall. Sure, I could give everyone As. What would be even better is if I just don't show up to teach them at all. I could just give them a list of things to read and then walk away for the rest of the semester.