Thursday, January 6, 2011

Grading like parenting???

I suppose it goes without saying that leaves never really begin or end in quite so neat a way as the human resources people would like to imagine: "Dear Dr. Theology Mom:  Your leave has been approved from January 3rd to March 15th.  After that time, you will be returning to modified duties as follows...."

Yeah, well.  Leaving is a bit hard to do, especially when grades were due only 15 days ago and the change-of-grade deadline for last semester rapidly approaches.  Unlike Philosophy PhD Husband, I seem to get hit hard with grade protests and a "grades hard" comment or two generally show up on my evaluations each semester.  I'm not sure how that can be, since I wouldn't say my grading average is all that different from the school's as a whole - around a B-. 

Some of my colleagues think it must be the courses I teach.  The first few semesters I was here, I taught a course in marriage and family, which has/had a reputation of being a "gut" class where everyone gets an A; then last semester I taught a medical ethics course where everyone was a pre-med major who "needed" the A to get into medical school.  They were an exceptionally bright bunch, which explains why a  large majority earned A-s.  Still, full As, to me, denote a really high level of excellence.  I don't feel like I can give an A just because someone is going to medical school.  (And, does an A- in a religion class REALLY hurt their chances to get into med school? Someone come along and correct me on that...)

A friend of mine quips, "You don't need to pay me to teach, but you can't pay me enough to grade."  That's a sentiment that nearly every academic I know shares.

I wonder why: people who are not, in the least, procrastinators when it comes to writing book reviews procrastinate when it comes to grades (and that's saying quite a lot since book reviews are one of the things people put off all the time); colleagues start groaning and grumbling the moment the grading for a semester starts (around the third week) and then it never lets up; people trade jokes about end-of-semester grading (just throw the pile of papers off a stairwell and grade according to where they land...), much like undertakers and doctors have a bit of morgue humor going, out of necessity.

I used to think maybe it was because grading involved making judgements, and maybe people don't like judging.  But THAT can't be quite right, at least in the world of academia.  We make judgements all the time - we learned how to make strong reactionary judgements in graduate school ("Well, that author has everything totally wrong."  And just as a caveat, I think most of us have to learn to be less judgemental the further from grad school we get - especially just around the time a first book review of a book we ourselves wrote comes out, and we feel all the injustices of harsh words...)

My current theory is that grading, especially in the humanities where paper writing isn't nicely quantifiable with multiple choice answers and math problems, is like parenting and that's why we don't like it.  Grading involves not only making judgements, but trying to help people learn to do better.  This is a task made quite difficult by them, at an age when they believe they are perfect and have the most amazing thoughts that even their professors have NEVER ever thought of.  It involves telling them when they've done something wrong, like plagiarize.  It involves disappointing people who put in a lot of work but who nevertheless do not deserve an A on the output - perhaps a bit like my 3 year old who cajoles me for candy because she tried really hard to eat 2 pieces of broccoli on her plate.

But whereas the parenting I do with my kids has many rewards and I see SOME progress eventually because of the longevity of parenting (my 3 year old is finally, finally telling us when she has to go potty...), those rewards are VERY very far and few between with college students.  We only see them a few hours a week and usually only for a semester; most of them don't come visit during office hours; we read final drafts of papers that make it clear they haven't even looked at the comments made on the rough draft.  We try to tell them that good writing reflects good thinking, when they want to believe that if they've done the standard 5-paragraph essay it should be an A because all the elements are there. And in the end, all we have to show for the hard work of grading is the students knocking at the door demanding to know why they have __________ grade.

In other words - grading is a process of moral formation of our students - and that takes a lot more time than just the semester in which we have them.  The hope, I guess, is that the university community as a whole is able to foster this kind of awareness over four or five years.  One professor may not hit  point home, but five or seven would.

Anyway, this just goes to show why grading questions leak over to my leave.  Grading takes time.


  1. So true--and I think I see a correlation in my students between responding to feedback well and . . . well, other markers of having been parented well.

    I put a lot of time into giving constructive feedback, for which well-balanced, relatively mature students are pretty darn grateful. Some other students simply don't connect bad grades or (helpfully) critical feedback with the opportunity to improve.

  2. Sarah - I think you're on to something there about good parenting and the grade connection.

    On comments: every time I hand a paper back, I always have at least one student come up to me and demand to know why he/she got a particular grade. I always ask, "Did you read through my comments?" And of course, I know they haven't because they haven't had time to do so (I hand papers back at the end of class). So they sheepishly say, "No," and I say, "I'll be happy to discuss your paper with you more, but why don't you look at the comments and then we can talk some." So yeah, I think there's a decided lack of connection between bad grades and critical feedback. A course I taught online last summer made this so laughably obvious - I kept giving this one student Cs and Ds, and she kept giving me papers that had the exact same problems, which I commented on extensively. I figured she must not have cared much about the grade?

  3. I know little about grading. The only experience was as Pediatric resident we had to grade the medical students. Our chief of pediatrics said no third year student could get an A because A implies that he or she knows all there is to know about peds, and even he didn't know all there is to know about peds. We would argue that an A should be for some one who knew all a third year student should know. In the end he usually won, but with an occasional compromise. Any how, I enjoyed your column especially the part about writing book reviews and wonder if you would be willing to write a review of Messengers in Denim and post it on Amazon or better yet, send it to the newspaper? Just wondering, anything you can do to "keep busy" during your leave would be appreciated! (I hope you can spare the "harsh judgments") Thanks, Par