grading my weakly writing

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More than usual, this week’s writing is just to keep my promise to myself. I am taken up entirely with grading. Grading is one of the worst parts of teaching. For a new professor, grading is worse than meetings, because we have no stake in the institution and do not yet love the things being slowly destroyed.

Recently, a good student asked a revealing question. It concerned one of my many annotation assignments, where I collect readings and grade the marginalia. The point is to see how carefully they’ve read the text, to see if they’ve found the juicy bits. I’d given the student a 90%–generous by any standard other than hers. I told her it was a good grade, one of the best in the class.

Nonetheless, she asked: “I want to know what I did to lose the 10%”.

And this, gentle reader, is a serious difference between students of today, and my crew. When I went to school, it worked like this: you knew that there were a certain number of A’s, and so your job was to convince the professor, through your written work, charm, and, if need be, an office visit or two, that one of those A’s should be given to you. It was macho, competitive, and arbitrary: a terrible system, one I will not apologize for, or be nostalgic about.

But I do believe we’ve managed to come up with something worse. In the mind of this student (and I believe she is not alone) you begin with 100%, and with every miss-step, every error, your grade is whittled down to what you ‘deserve’: grades are a matter of loss, not gain. While perhaps less macho, it is more anxious and less creative. None of my peers suffered under the illusion that our essays were great works: but they were still something built, crafted, or made—a kind of machine, confession, or (very rarely) art. Often crass, usually soulless, there was always the potential for an assignment to be judged for what it had done: thus the fear was “is it good enough?” and not the more anxious question “what did I allow to be taken from me?”.

As far as they are concerned, students are now graded on their blunders. They begin with an A+, and must do their best to protect it: assignments are entirely defensive maneuvers, exercises in avoiding failure. The school chants that students should “fail better,” but this only compounds the cruelty. They quiver inside of the rubric.

Once she asked the question, I realized that I have been an idiot. Of course, the ‘culture’ of assessment would hurt them, whose egos are developing inside it. In most classes, at least one assignment is designed with an eye to monitoring the course’s ‘progress’—assignments are handed to me, and I in turn hand them over to a higher authority. Of course, students can feel this.

Things have changed here, perhaps more than I thought: part of teaching is trying to gauge the distance between you and your students, and there there is a great temptation to exaggerate. But the student’s question rang true. As an aside: I think this is part of the reason it has been so difficult for me to get them to develop arguments–an argument is built, and they are too busy trying to avoid the knives.

I need to completely rethink my teaching, and grading. I used to use grades as a stick to poke lethargic students—especially the clever ones who have grown used to coasting. But I need to find some way to convince them that I am not just hunting for errors, that I do in fact want them to make things. At the very least, I need to replace anxiety with fear.

3 thoughts on “grading my weakly writing

  1. I had a professor who graded the same way in college and it baffled me. I remember going to his office and asking him the same question. What was wrong that I did not receive a 100? He explained his grading method to me and at first it didn’t make a lot of sense because we’re taught from day 1 this exact thing– you start from a 100 and you are taken off for mistakes that are made. Honestly, I preferred his method a lot more because it didn’t focus on the mistakes made, rather the effort and brain power I put into my essays. He made me a much better academic writer and I appreciate it wholeheartedly. I hope some of your students can see it that same way.

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  2. Interesting, here where I live we actually start with 100%, and are marked down bit by bit per mistake. The focus isn’t on what we do right, but what we do wrong. Quite the opposite approach!

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