Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Swimming upstream feet first with my hands tied behind my back

A few weeks ago, jo(e) wrote a post titled, “And this is the way I grade the papers,” a list of twenty things that simply must be done as prelude to actual grading. This post certainly resonated with the teaching contingent of the blogosphere. A sample:

Yesterday, I devoted my whole morning to grading papers. And I am still puzzled as to why I did not get them done. I did not procrastinate at all. I did nothing but grade papers all morning. Well, nothing except:

1. Took a photo of my son walking out to the school bus. But that does not count as procrastination because I took it before I even got dressed. I snapped it from the bedroom window.
2. Wrote a blog post. But that hardly counts because it was short.
3. Sent a few emails. But some were to students, which means that they count as work. See, that was me being productive.

And it gets better from there.

I do not know a single teacher whose workload includes assigning and evaluating papers and who actually enjoys – or is even neutral about – grading papers. I’m sure the world harbors a few grading masochists, but truly most of us would rather have our nails done, as in ripped from the fingers with wicked instruments and without anesthetic. That this attitude pervades teaching and is embraced even by the best of teachers says something. I’ve spent the past two weeks wondering just what that is.

From my bloggy corner, it isn’t really dread of awful writing, awful thinking, although I see an overly generous share of that. It’s the feeling of futility that “evaluating” papers from afar brings. If my true goal is to help students improve their writing, my scribbling on their page on Sunday morning just won’t do that.

I had extended office hours today and invited students working on poetry explications due tomorrow to stop by for feedback. About a half dozen took me up on it, yet only one of the half dozen needed a lot of help. (This is usually the way.) However, everyone benefited, including me. It’s easier, more expeditious, and far more fun to discuss with someone why X is a better choice or why Y is confusing than to write it all out. And if I go the other way and write nothing on the page, the student gets no message, except, perhaps, B minus. And what does THAT mean?

That’s the number one cause of my allergy to evaluating student papers. Why the low-grade dread of grading (pun intended) appears so universally among teachers and is not just my little personality quirk probably also springs from the nature of the teachers themselves. First, many – though not all – of us are people-people. We like interacting with people. “Too many comma splices” is not interacting – nor does it really deliver much of a message. Yet it takes literal days to do this kind of "interacting" with 105 papers. Secondly, most – if not all -- of us are quite bright and creative and enjoy intellectual and aesthetic challenges. Student papers can be intellectually and aesthetically challenging, all right. Just not our preferred form of challenge.

In two and a half weeks I begin conferences with my students, all 105 of them. We’ll talk about these incoming papers and I’ll look at drafts of the next, and this, in my opinion, will be the only truly effective one-on-one teaching that I do all semester.

Anything else is swimming upstream feet first with my hands tied behind my back. And I can’t swim.

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