My new metaphor for grading is climbing an electric fence. I used to say grading papers was like sticking your finger in an electric socket a number of times equal to the number of papers you need to mark, but that comparison implies too much choice. Once you collect student work you have to keep climbing until you’re over the fence and standing on the other side. You really can’t pause to decide if you want more.
Both metaphors involve electricity because, as any teacher will tell you, being locked with another mind on paper is an intense experience. Teachers may do nothing more important than helping students write, and wanting to do a good job contributes to the agony. When you have to guess what the writer means, when you have to complete circuits, when you must make thoughtful suggestions for revisions (which you may then also have to assess), you begin to feel like a masochist who never quite reaches the pleasure part.
Sometimes—foolishly—I complain to students about all the grading I must do. Their response is predictable. “Then don’t assign so much writing,” they say. The trouble, of course, is how to teach writing without having them write. Computers make it easier to compose, correct, and revise, but they don’t (yet) create essays. The labor of getting ideas down is the same, and no technological substitute (yet) transforms thoughts into coherent sentences, paragraphs, and compositions.
The same is true of grading. I can lean on rubrics. I can “track changes” on Word. I can create a catalog of frequent comments on Turnitin.com. Each might improve the feedback I offer, but none save time. The synapse between their thinking and my response gapes regardless. Student writers still present patchy thinking, trip into what I’ve suggested they avoid, and abandon exploring ideas just when they reach the interesting part.
I know writing is challenging. You have a picture in your mind of a finished product and can’t quite get there or, perhaps worse, the picture changes as it stretches toward new interests, new connections, new insights, new organization and phrasing. To use another metaphor, writing is building a bridge from one bank, a process filled with reconsidering and shoring up, all while you watch currents churning beneath you. Rarely do essays turn out as you expect and even more rarely do they turn out as you hope.
Yet, sympathizing doesn’t help me grade any faster. I stand before that fence, dreading the climb. Once I begin, I want it over but, until I begin, I wait for dedication and courage. My policy is to allow three or four class days to return student work, but, if that span doesn’t include a weekend, uh oh. A full day teaching doesn’t prepare me to sit before a stack of essays, and any diversion will draw me off. I’m avoiding papers right now… though, when is that not true?
In education, we are always after a better way. Seduced by project based learning, collaborative learning, authentic learning, outcome-based learning, quantifiable learning, differentiated learning, deep learning, experiential learning, technology-enhanced learning, empathetic learning, focused learning, mixed modality learning, brain-based learning—or whatever new learning will be uncovered this week—we look for entry, another means to reach students. Yet, no matter which method we choose, we serve them—our clients, our charges, our object, our learners.
And maybe it’s that necessity, finally, that makes marking papers so arduous. After more than 30 years teaching, I know what will happen when I turn this Sunday’s papers back. Some students will read comments closely and some will turn to the last page, but few will appreciate my aching eyes, my buzzing mind, my gratitude standing on solid ground again.
All of us will groan—students outwardly, and me inwardly—when the next assignment arrives, but, at least for a few seconds, I’d love them to know I’ve done something important.