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a question for the crowd

Stuck under a pile of my own grading, but I have a question for you: do you think the final comment on an essay is an essential piece of the puzzle?

I comment expensively throughout essays, because I’ve always felt it’s more useful for students to have concrete feedback, where I say, “Hey, this thing you are doing RIGHT HERE is good/bad/effective/ineffective.”  I write a lot.  I have a particular felt-tip pen I like for marking (in orange or in lime green), and I will use up one pen per round of essays.  No shortage of qualitative feedback, is what I’m saying.  Students always comment on how much they like and appreciate my in-esssay feedback, and students who read it and work with it do tend to improve.  I’m insecure about 90% of my life as a teacher, but my commenting is solid.

I also use a mini-rubric that I learned in grad school on all essays: TOGS, which stands for thought, organization, grammar, style.  Students get a mark for each piece of that puzzle and then an overall mark.

Here’s my confession: I think my final comments are worthless.  Either I rehash the commentary in the paper or I have nothing else to add.  I realized last time around that almost every essay starts with “You have good ideas, but…” or “This is an interesting essay…”  So I told myself I would nix the final comment, and encourage students to pay attention to the far more useful comments within the text.

Except, I can’t.  I can’t stop writing these meaningless at worst and repetitive at best comments at the end of student papers.  I’m not convinced of the pedagogy of these final comments, and I know students only improve if they engage with the in-essay questions and comments.  So what the hell is my deal?  When did I get married to the final comment?  And why is it that even when we think our pedagogical choices through and feel like we have sound reasons for the choices we make, it remains so hard to let go of the received wisdom of all the teachers who have taught us before?

it’s that time of year

With the drop date approaching, it’s time to have a series of difficult conversations with students, ranging from “you need to pick things up a little if you want to do well” to “you can’t possibly pass.”  I always find this hard, because as a student I was basically always mortified to discover that my professors knew I existed.  But I’ve gotten good feedback from these conversations, too — and the percentage of floundering students who have no earthly idea that they aren’t doing well, let alone failing, is astounding to me.  How much hand-holding is too much, of course, is the age old question — and if I advise them too well, and all the failing students drop, will that make my grades look artificially high?

Nothing is without questions at this stage in my career, I am learning.

I’m finding that realistic expectations and perceptions are a real difficulty for my students.  Trying to explain that a B- is not in fact a bad mark, but instead demonstrates just above satisfactory competency in the material, is really difficult.  There are grade inflation problems everywhere, of course, that make it really difficult to keep C meaning satisfactory, B meaning good, and A meaning excellent.  And preparation is a problem.  Students who coasted through their high school English classes with creative projects and oral presentations are stunned to get to post-secondary school and discover that they have no idea of how to approach formal essay writing.  And it takes a lot out of a person to be the gatekeeper in the first-year literature class saying that yes, your ideas are good, but no, that’s not quite enough.

I internalize too much of their own anguish — that’s part of it.  When does that wear off?

the five stages of grading

Everyone is familiar with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her stage model of coping with grief popularly known as the five stages of grief. What you may not know is that Kübler-Ross actually developed her theory as a graduate student, basing her conception of the process of loss on the experiences one goes through over a grading weekend.

In coping with grading, it’s important for graduate students and young professors to know that they are not alone and that this process takes time.  Not everyone goes through every stage or processes the reality of grading in this order, but everyone experiences some version of at least two of these steps.

Denial.  At this stage, the instructor is unwilling to acknowledge the size of the task ahead of him or her. An instructor in denial may be heard to say things like, “It’s not really that many essays, when you think about it.” An instructor in denial will grossly overestimate his or her potential assignment-per-hour output. Denial at the syllabus-creation stage of course development can lead to tears. Denial can also manifest itself as avoidance, where grading is put aside in favour of vastly more important activities like cleaning the fridge, baking, working out, or writing elaborate blog posts about the stages of grading.

Anger.  Usually anger begins once the instructor starts grading.  The first few papers are likely to excite the grader, but as a steady stream of errors trickles in, the instructor may become disillusioned. Commonly heard at this stage: “But we covered this in class!  A lot!” “Wait, what does this even mean?” “Redundant!  This is redundant!” Instructors at this stage of the process are likely to have unnecessarily large reactions to relatively small frustrations; for example, in one case an instructor screamed into a pillow upon discovering that every student in the class was still using “they” as a singular pronoun.

Bargaining. This stage usually begins as an earnest attempt to buckle down and grade.  The instructor might say, “If I grade five papers, I can watch one episode of House,” or, “For every page I grade, I get to eat a piece of candy.”  This process starts well, but as the instructor progresses the amount of work required to achieve the reward generally becomes smaller and smaller, until the instructor is checking Facebook after every sentence he or she grades.

Depression. At some point in a marking weekend, the instructor will come to realize that in spite of his or her best intentions, the papers won’t be marked in time for the next class. For the idealistic young instructor, this is also usually the moment he or she realizes that the assignments themselves are not particularly strong.  These realizations can lead to feelings of failure, spiralling into reality TV watchathons or video game blitzes instead of grading.  Ultimately, though, recognizing one’s limitations is a healthy part of the process that leads directly to the final stage.

Acceptance/Resignation. At some point, the instructor comes to term with the reality that the papers must be graded. This reality is usually acknowledged the afternoon before the instructor wishes to return the papers, leading to an all-night grading blitz. At some point and by some miracle, however, it all gets done, and the instructor is primed and ready to start to the process over again when the next major assignment comes in.

This blog post brought to you from somewhere under a pile of essays.