Friday, December 12, 2008

Grading Blues

I'm grading exams and papers, one-handed, grumpily -- our institution has a bizarrely brief period between the end of final exams and the deadline for grade reporting: about 72 hours this semester -- and with my usual qualms.

I just don't like grading students. It seems wrong. Back when I was teaching Latin, I had fewer issues, somehow, and I can't think why: I suppose because it was the test I was grading, and not the student, and the test was right or wrong, so who cared -- I was only deciding if they had learned Latin , nothing else.

Now, however, when it ought to be the same deal -- that is, I ought to only be deciding if it's the History of the English Language they have learned; or if they can construct an argument with good points and support those points with sufficient evidence, and that ought to be all that matters --well, I find myself thinking, no wonder this fella can't, he's a soldier, he comes here from the base, he's been up all night, he knows he's about to be shipped to Iraq, how in shit can I grade him the same as these six other students, living at home with their parents, with no issues on their minds but whether their Tivos are working?

If it's wrong to harsh on my soldier student, well, what about my single mother student, working the third shift at Wal-Mart, her with her two kids and her food stamps and her junker car that keeps breaking down? She's missing classes because her kids are sick so much and because that car won't start and because she needs to take extra shifts when she gets offered them -- is it fair, really, to hold her to the same standards as that nineteen year old honor student whose mama does his laundry?

Or the kid back in the corner, that manic-depressive who can't get out of bed half the time...what about him?

Or even if I don't fret about any of that, if I only grade their tests qua tests -- do they know the work or don't they -- well, another big section of my grade deals with squishier issues: a quarter of the grade is based on whether the student has been in class; and if he has not, if he's missed more than five classes in a given semester, I start docking his final grade, three points per missed class. I don't do this out of petty viciousness, but because my classes are highly interactive. We do a lot of work in the room, discussion in the literature classes, analysis in the grammar classes and the comp classes, work that can't be recreated or made up or done by one's self, at home, with a textbook. I explain all this early on and repeat it, more than once, as we move through the semester -- though, if you're missing lots of class, you might miss these tiny lectures.

Anyway: is it justice to penalize students for what some of them have difficultly helping? If it's not, should I then penalize anyone? (I can't penalize some and not the others, obviously.) If I can't penalize anyone, then I'm back where I was -- who will come to class? We get half the students not showing up on any given day. (Never the same half.)

Here, at Crooked Timber, we've got a post semi-related to this topic -- examined the great question of grade inflation, which has always gotten up my yak.

Grades in general, though: grr.

Montessori schools, btw, do not grade at all. One of the things I like best about the approach.


Sarasvati Fautheree said...

72 hours? We get 48 here...

As for cutting them slack because of personal problems: Ok, Dela, don't take this personally, because i think you're a wonderful person, but--you have empathy. It's a possibly debilitating condition in this world, given the overwhelming majority of humans in every culture who are simply overwhelmed and under-resourced. Of course you want to cut them slack; of course you see how their lives are stressful, and traumatic, and overall shitty. But if you start cutting slack for that, you might as well give almost every student in the room a 100 right out of the gate, because they all have legitimate problems that get in the way. This is life. We struggle, and stress, and worry, and still might not get anywhere, and there's no real rhyme or reason, and we just have to take our lumps and keep on crawling for as long as we still have the strength to pull ourselves along. Or we can sit on the side of the road and expect everyone else to actually give a shit, and we can sit there until we rot. Those are our two choices. It never gets any better. They should learn that the world doesn't stop for them because they're having issues now, and they should go ahead and develop strategies and defenses to deal with that. Otherwise, their entire lives will be spent in one string of excuses after another, because something will ALWAYS come up. Trust me on this. I'm almost 27, and every year, for 26 years, something awful and traumatic has come up, and had to be dealt with, regardless.

Secondly, let me make the military argument. No one ever cut my happy ass a goddamned bit of slack, and i had all sorts of issues from car wrecks and living with an alcoholic who tried to kill his exwife to immense self hatred, suicide attempts, and childhood rape. And yet, here i am, succeeding, doing my shit on time and getting tougher and more capable because of it. From what I've heard around the department, most of the other grad students here who are succeeding and getting their shit done on time have also had issues, such as rape, attempted murder, alcoholic relatives, debilitating mental and physical illness, accidents of various kinds, the death of loved ones, etc. If you hold them to standards, yeah, they'll be stressed--like 99% of the rest of the world. They'll learn how to deal, or they won't, but if they do, they get stronger. Every person on the planet, with the possible exception of bitches like Paris Hilton, has some sort of post-traumatic issue, or current traumatic issue, or many instances of both, and yet we all manage somehow to keep on rolling. Does it suck to be in the authority seat, being the one who has to enforce standards and behaviors? Of course it does. We get that extra added benefit of being hated just for being in that position, and of guilt, and worry, and quandaries. But it has to be done.

Finally, if you don't grade, how will you ever motivate the mercenary little bastards to do anything? Mine don't even want to put their name on their papers unless they're getting bonus points for doing so. I would say, how would future employers know they can actually do the work for which they've been hired, but given what i've heard about grade inflation, that's pretty much already a moot point. Hence the rampant incompetence, rudeness, and entitlement we run into every day at every place of business we visit.


delagar said...

Yeah, I know you're right. It's such a corrupt system, though. The rich kids living with their mommas are the ones that get me: they're good students, some of them, and I'm fine with giving them the high grades, but it gets down my neck, how certain they are that they have earned those high grades, they did it all on their own, see?

Well, I do see that they have studied and worked on the academic work on their own, and I do (often) like these students; but frequently I want to bat them one: since sitting right next to them is this other guy, who's making rent and dealing with a 50 hour a week job and his PTSD and two kids and his wife who also works and she's got her own traumas and their car broke down and how is that playing field level?

Not to mention First Guy went to a private school and Second Guy dropped out of a very bad public school and went to work on the line at seventeen because his mom couldn't make the rent.

But yes: I know: we can only evaluate the work.

The world is broken, and we have to grade their essays.

It's a fine system.

Sarasvati Fautheree said...

Oh honey, that playing field isn't just's got great honking huge pits in it from all the shelling and carpet bombing...