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Dec 14, 2008

The grading season

It is this time of the year, when our kind spends hours and hours over student papers, portfolios, and exams. As I school director, I get to teach only one class, which brought me only 90 pages of single-spaced text to read. I am on page 52 out of 90 right now. But I remember times when my end of semester load included 4300 pages of undergraduate writing, to be read, commented on and graded in three of four days. People who don't do this kind of work, cannot imagine how hard it is to focus on student papers, to force oneself to understand the points, and to provide intelligent feedback. It is harder to remain compassionate, to avoid getting irritated by the same silly errors and platitudes, and to remain an even-handed and fair grader. At least this time, I am working on doctoral students' papers. Doc students are all competent writers, and good thinkers. Someone before me graded their awkward, badly written, choppy papers in high school and college, so I can enjoy the good writing and thinking they produce now. Writing and thinking are complex, slowly developing skills. If you ever doubt it, pull out your own freshman paper, and read it.

There does not seem to be any way to make grading more efficient or less time consuming. Not sure about others, but at the end of semester, I always feel guilty about not providing enough feedback before, not reading enough drafts, not spending enough time on students. Grading is exhausting, no matter what you do; there is never less of it, nor it ever gets done as thoroughly as one would wish.

It is also not very gratifying. Students who do well tend to ascribe their success to their own efforts and own smarts. Those who do poorly tend to blame us, and find our grading unfair, prejudiced, or sloppy. Neither group reads the comments produced by our hurting brains late at night. But we chose to avoid acknowledging this sad fact: grading is still teaching and we try to be helpful anyway. So friends and colleagues slaving over student papers, I am with you, I feel for you, and thank you for your hidden, unglamorous Sisyphean labor.

It is easier when you reflect on how much students actually progressed from when you first met them in class. Education is still a highly inexact, wasteful, and amateurish enterprise. Yet somehow it works, and people visibly learn something useful. It is less visible in the span of one class, but is very obvious when you compare, for example a freshman with a senior in college. Whatever we do with them must be somewhat effective. That's the mystery for today. The grades are due on Wednesday 5 PM. Happy grading.

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