Grading is…

It’s grading time.  Suddenly, doing anything other than reading exams takes on a new urgency.  A neglected research project must be attended to. The laundry really needs to be folded. Student recommendation letters must be drafted. Even reading a blog post or watching an instructional video about grading seems more appealing than grading itself:

OK.  It’s not really an instructional video.  It’s a hilarious sketch from a Canadian sit-com about an incompetent teacher. If you skipped it, go back and watch it now.  Or better yet, wait until you have graded at least half of your exams or papers and then watch it for comic relief.

Before saying anything further about grading, I want to be clear that real teachers and professors do not bring their papers and exams to bars and ask their friends to grade half of them!  Nor do we skip reading them altogether.  We actually read every single last word on every exam and paper. Which brings us to the question raised by the premise of this blog post, as well as the clip of Mr. D.  Why is grading so awful?  If you ask a random sample of professors, my unscientific guess is that over 90% will say that grading is the worst part of the job. Here is a brief survey of the reasons why, at least for this professor, grading is at best enervating and at worst utterly excruciating.

First, I am going to narrow the focus to exams only. I actually enjoy reading seminar papers. They are all different, and reflect a semester’s worth of interaction and progress.  While slapping a grade on them has the same unsatisfying aspects (described below) of doing so on exams, at least there is a sense that the end product– the original research paper–will have a life beyond the professor’s red pen.

This is not so for exams (or final take-home papers, which are really the same thing.) So here is an incomplete List of Reasons Why Grading Exams is Awful.

*Grading is boring. All the answers say the same thing! Of course they are supposed to.  In fact, it is a sign of a successful class if the majority of the answers say very close to the same thing.  So successful teaching results in monotony.  It is horrible to face this.

*Grading is sorting. If the students are very talented and studious (which most law students are) and the class has been as well taught as possible, then the optimal situation will be that the exams answers are at or above the threshold for having mastered the subject matter taught. That, at least, is my goal for every class I teach: for all of my students to reach a certain level of mastery with the subject matter.  But when we grade, we are not just checking for mastery. We are sorting the students from top to bottom of the class. Our audience for this sorting is very narrow. Many law students will get great jobs and have satisfying careers by gravitating toward aspects of the profession that suit their talents and personalities. A much smaller number will get jobs at elite law firms based in no small part on their grades.  Likewise, a very small number will get federal judicial clerkships based largely on their grades and class standing. So when I am sorting a large class of students from top to bottom, as opposed to evaluating whether they have mastered the material irrespective of where they fall relative to other students, my hidden bosses (elite firms and federal judges) are the ones cracking the whip. I am sorting for them. This forces me to acknowledge something I have spent all semester (and maybe a lifetime) avoiding: that despite my public interest and academic career path, I ended up working for the man.

*Grading is Not-Teaching. Most professors that I know truly love teaching.  Teaching is interacting with students, sparking curiosity and thought and, of course, conveying information and skills. By the time grading happens, the teaching is over. Students in large classes rarely learn anything in the aftermath of the exam. They may, if the exam is well crafted, learn something during the three hours they are sitting for it. But students will not learn much from receipt of the grade.  The small number of students who stop by to see their exam are doing so, understandably, for purely instrumental reasons. They want to know why they received the grade they did, and sometimes how they might improve their performance the next time. But they never want to sit with you for an hour or two and discuss how they might think differently about their response to question II.A., and plumb the depths of the subject matter for all that II.A. demanded and implied. So grading is a terrible anti-climax to teaching. Instead of joining with your students in the learning process, you are alone in your office or at home, reading the dry aftermath of what seemed (and was) so engaging at the time.

*Grading is arbitrary.  To be clear, grading is not arbitrary for the top and the bottom of any class. But for many of us, a defensible distinction between most of the grades in the middle of any group of exams is elusive. We try. We really do. And once, I had the happy occasion of having my own grading consistency confirmed by accident. Two copies of the same exam had been printed, which I did not realize. When I finished the second version of the same exam, I went back to check the previous papers because the wording struck me as very familiar.  Sure enough, a previous paper had the same exam number.  The numerical grades I had given the two were identical. This might have absolved all of my guilt about the imprecision of grading for ever more. But I know better; that was a lucky break.  To be sure, the arbitrariness of the grades in the middle can be mitigated by institutional measures, such as eliminating a published top-to-bottom class rank, and moving from numerical grades to letter grades. My law school has done both, and these changes have lessened considerably the anguish of grading. So maybe it is a hangover from the previous era, but even with these helpful adjustments, I can’t shake the sense of indefensibility for the distinctions I make.  This wouldn’t matter so much if grading were leading to more teaching (see Grading is Not-Teaching above), or if grading had nothing to do with sorting (see Grading is Sorting above.)

*Grading is lonely. That’s why Mr. D. took his exams to a bar. That’s why some of us sit with stacks of papers in coffee shops. Writing can also be lonely. But at least we are alone with our own thoughts, and not the thoughts catalogued above about the solitary and unsatisfying end-product of a semester’s worth of work.

*Grading is goodbye. Because most teachers love teaching, there is something sad about our last communique to our students consisting of a mark on a transcript.  Grading is farewell, and an unsatisfying one at that.

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One Response to Grading is…

  1. Alessandra Mignolli says:

    I love this one, Sarah! And I completely agree on everything, I can just add that at least you do that only once a semester, I every month, with students I don’t even know, and with very little time left to my own research and writing! It’s frustrating!
    best
    Alessandra

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