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Monday, April 24, 2006

It's never going to end. But it will end.

I’m poking my head out of Grading Jail* just long enough to make these observations:

1. Contrary to my expectations, I’m pretty sure that I’m grading much more slowly this semester—and that I’ve been grading even more slowly with each new set of papers—even though I now have more students than I’ve ever had.

Last term, I had 76 students (which was 58 more students than I’d ever before had in a single semester), and my paper grading efficiency rose to about 25-30 minutes per 5-6 page paper. This term I started out with 112 students, which I’ve since whittled down to 99, and I was convinced that I’d soon hit the magic rate of 20 min/paper—but that hasn’t happened. Instead, I’m d-r-a-g-g-i-n-g myself through each one.

I’m also having an unexpected crisis of faith about my abilities, not so much as a grader (it’s pretty easy to distinguish an A- from a B+, a B+ from a B, and all the way down on just a quick read-through), but as a commenter. I’m just not sure, any more, that my feedback is actually helpful. When I’m confronted with a paragraph, I often find myself paralyzed: okay, so the sentences are inelegant and have usage and word choice errors. The paragraph as a whole is disorganized, with an idea down here that really belongs up there, and the same idea expressed three times in three different ways. Oh, and the argumentation is flawed—the author has ignored a really obvious counterargument here and is making a bogus claim there. So, where to begin? I know that I can’t and shouldn’t deal with all of it, and that my students need to have the Big Things highlighted and not a lot of minutiae—but what does that actually mean, on a given paper? I used to think I knew, but now I appear to have lost that knowledge.

2. Pursuant to item #1, I’m going to rethink how I deal with writing in my literature classes for next year. First of all, I clearly need to set aside more class time to deal with it, even if it’s only ten minutes here and ten minutes there. Second, in my survey-level classes (where I only assign two papers, since the class also has a midterm and a final), I may require that students come to my office hours at least once, either to go over my comments right after I’ve returned their first set of papers or to review those comments as they work on their second papers.

Even though I use a grading rubric that breaks down my comments and their grade into five separate categories—thesis, argumentation/structure, textual support, introduction and conclusion, writing/mechanics--I’m just not convinced that my students are deriving (or even know how to derive) general principles from the feedback that they get on an individual paper; I sure didn’t make that leap when I was an undergraduate. It might be good for me actually to show them how to do this.

3. On a more positive note: I’ve become an expert subway paper-grader, and I actually really like grading on the subway; grading a couple of papers in transit allows me to rationalize an afternoon or evening out, and I’m always more productive in a time- and spatially limited environment. As long as I can get a seat, I’m golden: I’ve got my legal pad to use as a desk and I’ve perfected a grip and penmanship style that allows me to weather sudden stops and jolts. The only negative is that the people around me always seem fascinated: looking over my shoulder or continually casting sidelong glances my way. I sometimes wonder what the content of those looks is. Is it admiring?--“Damn! What a way to be productive!” Or is it critical?--“Shit, I hope my teachers treated my work with a little more attention and respect!”

4. And on the most positive note of all: 12 more papers to grade from my survey sections, then 21 research papers from my seminar (which I haven’t received yet)~~and then I’m free!

*I believe Lisa holds the trademark to this term. But boy, do I love it!

link | posted by La Lecturess at 12:48 PM |


Blogger ceresina commented at 5:01 PM~  

re: subway.
Once upon a time, I could've been one of your onlookers. I would've been fascinated, & wondered if I could ever be so cool.
(Maybe I am in the right field after all.)

Blogger MaggieMay commented at 5:31 PM~  

My #1 belief about grading (and all work-related things): it will take **exactly as much time as you allot to it.** (Another way of stating it: grading time expands to fill the amount of hours you devote to it!)

Blogger Dr. Crazy commented at 5:39 PM~  

A suggestion about making comments meaningful to students: One of the things that I've learned in my years teaching outside of my grad institution is that students don't tend to respond to comment-jargon because they don't know what it means. So, for example, if you say, "the argumentation in this section is flawed," they have no idea what that means concretely. Thus, I've taken to being a lot more colloquial in my comments at least the first time I address an error in order to demonstrate what I mean by "flawed argumentation" or "poor word choice" or whatever. This seems to help.

And no, you can't do everything. What I tend to do is to write a LOT on the first two or so pages of a paper and then to just make notations about repetitive errors on the rest in grading short-hand. This ONLY works if you explain to them that this is what you're doing, though, and ONLY if you can get them to ask you if they don't understand something.

I don't know if any of this helps. Oh, but one last thing: I do better with grading more quickly if I use a timer. My mentor in grad school suggested it, and it really does help.

But also? It's just that time of the semester. You've gotten slower because you are t-i-r-e-d. Don't beat yourself up about it :)

Blogger Inside the Philosophy Factory commented at 11:56 PM~  

I'm not sure -- but I think I gave it to Lisa :)..

I got it from a non-blog friend...

Anonymous dr m commented at 9:18 AM~  

In the last 2 weeks I've graded stacks of papers in a doctors office waiting room and while watching my son at swim practice. I'm all about maximum utilization of idle time. If my students only knew.

Blogger Oso Raro commented at 12:37 PM~  

Love the subway grading, Doll. Talk about multi-tasking! Reminds me of my old girlfriend Mahku, who dizzy queen that she was, would grade papers while driving a curvy coast road commuting to school. Now that for me takes the cake! We grade when we can, since it is always such horribly grinding work. I have always, always hated it. I've tried to use different assessments to make it easier, but always have to return to written work. The easier shit never works, and students always bomb it and then whine and moan.

So now, I marathon grade until my eyes melt and I'm dizzy with a backache, and then play for several days and do it again. Such a loathesome task that I can only face it as I would my annual physical with its mandatorary testicle pull, something to suffer through.

Blogger StyleyGeek commented at 10:10 PM~  

My personal solution for the "how much to comment on" dilemma is to put two prominent "how to improve this paper" comments on the first or last page (i.e. where ever I have put the grade, since that's the first place the student will look). In my experience, both as student and grader, these are the only comments they will really read or remember.

I select those two comments by choosing (1) the advice that, if they follow it, will make the biggest difference to their grade and (2) something else that will make a big difference to their grade, but that I am 100% sure they are capable of doing. (The comment under (1) is often something that will be a big struggle for them to implement, so is maybe more of a long-term goal). And I try to make both of these as concrete as possible.

Then I finish up with a compliment (if I can find one!) and their grade.

More minor comments get sprinkled through the rest of the paper, but I don't stress about those too much, because the chances are they won't even read them.

I put more time and effort into leaving useful comments for the students who are struggling most, but still not more than the above two or three in the prime position, otherwise they end up suffering from comment overload.

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 11:07 AM~  

IPF: So noted! You'll be cited from here on out.

Anonymous Dee commented at 10:44 AM~  

Coming in late, but...

One of the things I do, especially when I see common errors, is to create a general handout--say I see a paragraph with a lot wrong that could be easily improved by moving around some sentences and tweaking some words, I might put the before and after on a handout and talk about how that works during class time. Or I'll put a good conclusion on the handout, and try to explain what makes it good. Or I'll give some examples of passive writing on the handout, and rewrite them to be active, and assume that then they will be able to extrapolate when they see "passive" in the margin with a phrase marked. Because, like you, I'm very unsure about my abilities as a commenter.

Then I don't mind putting in the extra time because the entire class will benefit from it, when I wouldn't have the time to do this on individual papers.

To faciliate this, of course, my syllabus says I may anonymously share work unless students opt out each paper, and I demand electronic and paper submission, so that I can quickly do these things via copy and paste.

Blogger Dr. Lisa commented at 7:42 AM~  

Alas, no, I believe I stole Grading Jail from Inside the Philosophy Factory.

however, I do spend an inordinate amount of my time there!!!! Bad grading jail!!!

Anonymous Anonymous commented at 3:46 AM~  

Do you think it even matters much? Comments on the papers I wrote as an undergraduate and as a graduate student sure didn't help me learn to write. What if you just filled out your grading rubric and used your office hours to talk to students who wanted to discuss their papers?

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