Tuesday, December 04, 2012

On hating grading less

I realize this post is going to make all my fellow-academics hate me, or at least all those still buried under piles of student essays. But I've discovered that, under the right circumstances, I kinda enjoy grading papers.

I know! Grading is supposed to be the worst part of teaching. And mostly it is. But I seem to have finally figured out what I loathe most about grading; what I don't mind about grading; and what I find moderately pleasurable about grading. That's allowed me to structure my grading to maximize the satisfactions and minimize the agony.

So here's the deal: though the studentliness of student writing can be a drag--the fact that any given group will always display more or less the same collection of weaknesses, and that I have to make the same comments over and over again--I'm not really bothered by that when I don't get bogged down in it. It's the bogged-downness that I hate: I hate having a stack of essays sitting around for ages. I hate feeling behind in my grading and returning shit late. And I REALLY hate it when grading papers takes over my life for an entire weekend--or an entire week, or 10 days, or whatever. I hate it when it takes me three hours to grade three papers and I get lost in irritation at myself and at students just for doing the things that students do.

This semester, because I've been so busy, I haven't been able to grade in the spread-out manner that I usually attempt: four or six or eight papers a day. Instead, I've been grading sixteen or eighteen papers in one day (and if the class is bigger than that, I do the excess the night before or the morning after). I block out an entire day, with no other prep to do, and I sit down with the kitchen timer and crank 'em out in 20 minutes apiece. I may have music playing, but I don't listen to the radio, I don't have my laptop open, and I don't have my phone within reach. Every six papers or so, I take a break.

And with that combination of pressure and leisure (the papers must be returned tomorrow! but there's nothing else I have to do), I get good, focused work done. I don't get too exasperated with any one paper, because there's not time. I can clearly see what a given class needs more instruction on, and my grades are probably more consistent. The "done" pile grows steadily as I make a second pot of coffee and adjust the cat asleep with its head on my lap.

And then I'm done. I dance around the house and feel ridiculously pleased with myself. The next day I return the lot of 'em, and I'm blissfully free of papers for a week or maybe two.

*

Partly, I've just aligned my habits to my natural work preferences: I've always had a tendency toward immersion and completion, and I prefer doing things in sequence rather than in parallel, as the engineers say. But I suspect that the pleasure I take in immersive tasks has increased as my daily life has gained in distractions: focusing on just one thing, for hours at a time, has come to feel like a real luxury. The piddling bits and bobs of work that fill most my days--a meeting here, a lesson plan there; a student conference, some administrative paperwork--leave me feeling drained and exhausted and as if I've gotten nothing material done. It's nice to devote a day to highly concentrated intellectual labor, even if it's not my own work. And swooping in and getting shit done feels like a victory over chaos and disorder.

Readers: have you made peace with grading? And if so, how?

10 comments:

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Ha! I just got done writing a post about feeling paralyzed by all the crap I have to do. So no. I have not come to terms with my grading. I pretty much hate it, but these particular papers I'm avoiding I hate most because they are from my team-taught class where I have no agency at all. So these papers feel more like a punishment (for me and for them) than like a goal I was trying to get students to accomplish. It's very disheartening to have zero say in the assignments my students are undertaking (and that I'm grading!). Bah!!!

Comrade Physioprof said...

I am so fucken gladde I never have to grade anything.

CattyinQueens said...

I feel pretty similarly about grading--get them done and out of my head ASAP. the longer I take, the more they plague me, whether they should or not. This semester I have 2 composition sections and a distribution course with word-count specifications, so I feel like I'm doing it most of the time; if it's not papers, it's topic proposals or something similar, where I feel good about the guidance I'm able to offer, but exhausted and occasionally irritated by what students do.

I grade/comment on papers electronically, which means I spend more time on them than I should, despite having autocorrect set up with shorthand codes that expand into common comments. I type a lot because it's easy to type a lot.

All I can say is that I hope I don't have this same class combo ever again. I think I could get to a place where I enjoyed it if I wasn't doing it so often, and if my university weren't hell-bent on squeezing more students into each section every year. But, since all of these are unlikely, I probably need to keep looking for ways to be more efficient...

DDB said...

I've got a similar system. I take how many I have to grade, then divide them out more or less evenly over the course of how long I have to grade them (usually a week). I found that that really helped me keep sane and not feel overwhelmed by feeling I had to knock them all out in a day. I felt like I was always making incremental progress.

I also started not agonizing over them as much as I used to, and tried to keep to about an hour per 15 pages or so. I also tried to give them a lot of prep time and guidance as to how to structure scientific writing, and also got in the habit of calling them out on specific errors once, then not correcting them again, and expecting them to do actual revision. I've also had a lot of success with requiring them to do peer edits in addition to my edit before the final product. This may all seem quaint and obvious to you in the humanities, but we engineers tend to be a bit behind on these things. :-)

Bardiac said...

I haven't had a weekday without some sort of meeting or other since about the second week of September, so if I want a block of time without distractions, it's all weekend. Sucks to be me.

But I really like that you've figured out what works for you. I think for me, getting started makes the pile less intimidating, and also starting with something that I know will be reasonably strong helps. I tend to get bogged by mediocrity. (Real crap not so much, oddly.)

undine said...

Can I confess to feeling the same way? I line them up and go through them with a timer; the work gets done, and I'm happy about it. Grading the other way means 2 hours spent avoiding it + 2 hours grading + 2 hours grading the next day. This way: it gets done. Also, I strongly believe that the grades are more consistent this way, since there's a self-norming process that goes on.

Rather than hijack your comments thread, I think I will write a post about this, too--thanks!

livingacademically said...

I'm glad to see I'm not the only one with a timer. I usually spend about 20 minutes per 6 page paper. I read through the paper and make corrections and comments. I usually focus on a specific set of issues and not everything that is wrong. Also I make 4-5 piles that go from best to worst papers so by the end of grading the grade distribution is about done. And I think it's more fair.

Fie I feel you on the agony of grading papers on a topic not chosen by you. When I was a grad student and had to TA I was at the mercy of the professor. Some could structure papers and come up with interesting topics better than others. Now that I teach my own classes I generate topics and ways of analysis that I want to read about, which makes the whole ordeal of grading much more enjoyable.

Flavia said...

Fie, Catty, & Bardiac:

Yeah, it really does depend on your schedule--I can't pretend this system would be as successful (or make me as happy!) if I were teaching many more students than I currently am, or even if I were teaching comp this semester. So it's not a fail-safe, even for me.

DDB:

See, I actually think we don't have a similar system. That is, we're similar in that we've both figured out how not to let grading take over our lives, and we're both working to our strengths and preferences. . . but honestly? I couldn't stand to do two hours (or whatever) of essay-grading every day, even if I were able to use those two hours maximally efficiently. It stresses me out to have projects half-done. I think it's just a fundamental work-style difference: I have colleagues who, once the semester is over, grade in a leisurely fashion over a couple of weeks, while also working on their own stuff, until final grades are due. They love being able to just grade a few essays or exams a day. Me, I hate it. I'll do everything in my power to be TOTALLY DONE with my grading within 12hrs of my last final. Psychologically, I want that division between tasks before I can turn to my own work.

Undine & livingacademically:

Glad to know the gospel of the kitchen timer has spread far & wide!

Nitewriter said...

I found a great ebook that's made my grading take half as much time. I teach Eng comp (undergrad UGH!) and grad writing (also ugh for the most part). Grading used to take forever. What changed? Well first, never ever deal with PAPER. Everything must be submitted electronically. Then follow the steps in Grading Made Fast and Easy. I learned about this on a listserv. Everyone was talking about cutting down grading time - and you know, it works! Give it a try. I now grade 30 5-10 page comp essays in about 4-5 hours and that's with extensive individualized feedback on each. If you are willing to take papers electronically, you can really cut your grading time by half or more.

DDB said...

@NItewriter

That's interesting. I did switch to electronic submission of everything. Students submit via a shared folder omn Dropbox, and I read, grade, and comment via my iPad and PDF annotation software. I found that I didn't spend any more or less time on the actual grading than I did with paper. The biggest improvement was the convenience and lack of toting crap around.