Thursday, November 5, 2015

Grading as Nineteenth Century Activity

I have reached the point in my academic cycle where I feel like I am never done with grading.  Last night, to get ready for my class this morning, I graded the old-fashioned way:  by writing comments on essays printed on actual papers.  I wrote with a pen.

Why would I do such a thing?  Most of my students had submitted their papers electronically.  I could have graded papers the way that I've been doing it for the past two years, by reading essays on a screen and typing comments--or by cutting and pasting comments from a master document.  I could have created a check off sheet.  I could have had students in for face-to-face conferences.

I printed all the papers because I thought I would spend a morning in a boring meeting that wouldn't have much to do with me and that I could get some work done.  I should have known better.

I felt guilty, though, about printing the essays.  And by evening, I was tired of staring at a computer screen.  And so I graded the way that I did when I first started teaching in 1988.

Last week, Bookgirl posted a Facebook link to this essay by Patricia Moreno, which explores grading.  I love this insight about grading student essays:  "Compared to the pace of other modern activities, it's like being back in the nineteenth century. Success is utterly unpredictable. It takes forever. It is, as we've seen, mentally draining."

I would add that I feel drained when I'm done, but when I was grading last night, I felt like I entered into a strange state of flow, of being present, of being almost meditative.  I realize, too, that my experience has to do with only having 14 papers to grade.  When I've had 5 classes of 25-30 students, the grading quickly becomes exhausting.

Moreno makes these interesting analogies:  "Like caring for children, cooking wholesome and delicious food, and helping the people around you feel like life is worth living, grading is slow, personal, often repetitive, having almost nothing to do with modern fetishes like ruthless efficiency, massive scale projects, and problems you can solve with a quick internet-based rethinking of the status quo."

I wonder if it would be different if I taught in an MFA program.  If I spent time helping students improve their poetry manuscripts, would it be energizing in a way that first year Comp is not?

I suspect it would be the same:  lots of drudgery, but with glimmers of growth that make it all worthwhile.

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