Grading Papers

It must be that time of the semester (no, no, Michelle, not that time): people are talking about grading student papers. So I’ll just say: me too, and I’m happy to have turned them around and gotten them back to the students. Within a week, too — pretty good. It does feel like it takes forever, and a forever of sustained effort at that, and it’s really hard intellectual work, I think, to tell students all the things that you think contributed to the quality of the final version of the paper while at the same time avoiding the discourse of “justifying” a grade, and — more importantly, and much more difficult — attempting to generalize some lessons in terms of technique that students might apply to future papers, papers which themselves may perform very different rhetorical tasks than the one you’re grading. And doing that over and over again for twenty-something students per section, multiplied by however many sections you’re teaching. Our program assigns five essays with four drafts each; conservatively assume three-page drafts, and that’s more than twelve hundred pages per section per semester just for the essays — not including the other writing many programs require (online bulletin board writing, journals, peer response writing, process writing, and so on).

But I think final drafts (we call them “publication versions” here and publish them in class magazines so the students can collectively consume the writing they’ve individually produced; to try and make the writing matter) are particularly tough because it’s the end of the process. There’s a knowledge that you’re shutting something down by assigning it a grade, and in a sense saying that there’s nothing more to be done with this essay. And the best part about teaching writing, for me, is always in seeing the way the writing changes between the drafts, the different things students try, the way they shape it. Do you remember that horribly pompous movie Oliver Stone made about The Doors? (Maybe it was appropriately horribly pompous, since they were a pretty horribly pompous band.) There was that moment in the movie when the band had just gotten together and they were jamming at somebody’s house, sounding sloppy and scattered and practically cacophonous, and then all the instruments slide into sync with one another and it’s “Light My Fire” sounding suddenly perfect and you can still hear each individual instrument doing what it’s doing but they’re all doing it together, the parts working with rather than against one another. That’s the kick I get out of reading students’ subsequent drafts; watching the disparate elements of their essays come together. And so when you give it a grade — well, that’s it. The music’s over; turn off the lights.

That’s why I think grading’s hard.

Grading Papers

10 thoughts on “Grading Papers

  • October 10, 2003 at 12:52 am

    How do you (personally) avoid the discourse of justifying a grade? I ask because I think the student needs to know why he or she got the grade he or she got, especially if it isn’t an A. How do you explain the grade without “justifying” it? I bet you’d hate the way I grade, with a specific-as-humanly-possible rubric of the criteria for each assignment. In my program, they, and by they I mean both the students and the departmental course coordinators, seem to favor that approach.

    I’m a big believer in demystifying the grading process, the criteria, the “what I’m looking for”-ness. Four drafts (!) per essay would certainly do it, but the rubric accomplishes it too. My students do one rough draft and one final draft, and I tell them they can always come to my office with a draft or email one to me and I’ll make a few global comments on it.

  • October 10, 2003 at 1:05 am

    I guess I’m using “justifying” in a rather restricted sense: my feeling is that the assignment’s criteria ought to be clear enough ahead of time, before the drafting even starts, that a student will know where she’s going and what the assignment is. If she understands the assignment, then my final comments don’t say why she got the score she got (I use a point system with a rubric for various essays) as much as they say, here’s how you can improve in the future. The “why” should be self-evident, especially if they’ve received comments from their classmates and from me on earlier drafts.

    “Justifying” to me means being explicit after the fact about why the essay received a certain grade. And I think if I’m being explicit after the fact, there are some before-the-fact problems with the way the assignment was posed, and I’ve been unfair.

    So I think we’re kinda in agreement. Yes/no?

  • October 10, 2003 at 1:07 am

    Oh, but Mike, it’s not necessarily the end. It’s only the end for you. Some of them will carry around the experience: the failure, the lesson learned, and this is only a step. A Step. Your role as a teacher has ended so you may not be privy to a future harmony but for many of your students, it will be there, and you will have played a part. (There’s my simple but honest contribution.)

    Oh, and I love that you mention me in the first line here but didn’t even link me! (Insert the sarcastic nodding emoticon that’s not been developed.) Of course, I’m horrible at keeping up with things these days so maybe linking isn’t good. I suppose if I’d refrained from posting, I could be the Mysterious Michelle (with a problem). ๐Ÿ˜‰

    But you know, I was moved by your piece about grading so I couldn’t not post. Especially since I never know what to say to all your Serious Stuff.

  • October 10, 2003 at 1:18 am

    To add to that: yeah, I lay out the criteria ahead of time, and am very specific about what the assignment should do, and how the points for the essay will break down. I’m quite aware of the arbitrariness that lurks at the heart of point-based grading systems, but I think that arbitrariness is a dangerous component of every grading system, and it seems to me that at least if you name a bunch of factors and give them numbers, you’re making yourself pay attention to that multiplicity of factors, rather than just doing the holistic gut check and saying, “Yeah, it was about B minus good.”

    “Four drafts” is a way of giving every aspect of the process a name: generative writing, when they’re just laying out a bunch of ideas of what they might write about, the way writers do when they scribble down notes; an early draft, something that puts those ideas in a loose order; a revision, or an attempt to overhaul those ideas, find the gaps and inconsistencies, make things fit and flow; and correctness work, polishing the surface of the writing.

    But as far as “if it isn’t an A” goes: to me, Fs and As are the things most requiring justification. An A is an honors grade, as is a B: students gotta justify that, not me. An A is what has to be remarked upon. C work is rather self-evident: you satisfactorily met the assignment’s requirements, and nothing more. No explanation needed.

  • October 10, 2003 at 1:23 am

    Oops. Actually, Michelle, I didn’t wanna link you cause it was kind of a teasing reference to your recent worries about time, and I thought “Hey, it might not be polite for me to joke publicly about her concerns.” So I was kinda shy about stepping on your toes, or I woulda totally linked it: but, yeah, I gave it some thought. So: my apologies, and when I’m trying to give you a hard time, I’ll definitely link you in the future. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Thanks for the perspective, BTW. It’s a good point, and I hope I might have that kind of effect on a student.

  • October 10, 2003 at 9:52 am

    “C work is rather self-evident: you satisfactorily met the assignment’s requirements, and nothing more. No explanation needed.”

    Good points about Fs and As as the hardest grades to explain. Here, we have a *lot* of complaining about grades, as in irate “Why did I get a C?! I deserved an A?!” emails and disgruntled office visits. I think in high school, the grading logic was, “You did what you were supposed to do, so you get an A.” That’s why I give out a rubric before the assignments are due–for the reason you said, so that it isn’t a “B- level good” mystified arbitrary judgment, but also to ward off all that anger.

  • October 10, 2003 at 1:00 pm

    I believe I understand what you mean in terms of “justifying” vs. “explaining”. The student who is typically interested in “justification” has sent me an angry e-mail after the semester is over, and has no intention of doing any extra work. A student seeking “explanation” wants to know what went wrong so they can do better next time. Four drafts is certainly a lot — I tip my hat to you for the effort that must involve. I personally began teaching in a writing center, so I feel I’m much better sitting down with a student one-on-one after the student already has a draft, and working with each student individually. That isn’t always practical or possible, of course.

    Something that has helped me this term is adopting a five-point quick-n-dirty grading scale for minor assignments — students who get a 4 or 5 don’t have to revise, and while I tell thatm that a 3 is more like a B and a 4 is like an A, I don’t often give out 5s. So a student who has to revise a B paper isn’t too put out.

  • October 10, 2003 at 3:34 pm

    Because my program uses a portfolio system for its basic writing and composition classes, I’m saved the misery of putting grades on individual papers during the semester, and thank god! I don’t think I could go back to it now. Not having to think about grades as I respond to drafts allows me to concentrate entirely on providing advice for revision rather than “justifying” or “explaining” a grade.

    Some students, of course, don’t like this, but most figure out pretty quickly that it is to their advantage to not receive grades early in the semester.

    Mike, four drafts!!! Are you writing comments on all four?? That’s insanity.

  • October 10, 2003 at 4:18 pm

    No, no, I don’t write comments on all four — you’re right, that would be insane. Like I said to Clancy, calling them individual drafts is more a way of giving names to individual parts of the process: the “first draft” is often just a bunch of unconnected ideas or some freewriting or other forms of generative writing, just getting a bunch of stuff down on paper, and then the “second draft” is probably more similar to what Clancy calls the “rough draft”, and usually where I’ll offer non-grading feedback; students then revise it, and that’s the “third draft”; the “fourth draft” consists entirely of surface-level corrections and polishing. So we just separate stuff out and give names to it; it’s probably a similar amount of work.

    And that “advice for revision” component is precisely what I’m talking about in terms of “stopping the process”: giving a paper a grade freezes the revision process and says, “no further” (which, of course, can sometimes be a relief, too). It says that there’s nothing more to be said about the paper itself that will produce useful revision: so, in comments on the final version, if I’m not abstracting advice for writing future papers based on how the paper in question turned out, then I’m either “justifying” or “explaining”, and it’s my hope that the advice I’ve provided on previous drafts obviates justification.

  • October 14, 2003 at 7:40 pm

    like I want it, and I don’t have the words. And rolling luggage I’ve written a few where the words are to that digital camera same point, but although I can hear music to set giftologies them to, it’s nothing solid, or it isn’t fully survival kit. Right. That’s weird for me.

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