Grading on My Nerves

November 18, 2003

I am an embedded observer in the decline of Western civilization. At least, that was the distinct sensation that came over me earlier today, while working my way through a pile of student papers.

I have never been keen on grading. I still remember my shock as a graduate instructor reading my first stack of papers. Someone actually handed in something this bad? Must it receive a passing grade, simply because it arrived on time? Others before me, I suspect, strived toward perfection on every assignment, then became instructors, only to discover the vast sea of student mediocrity.

Even so, at the other research institutions where I taught before arriving on this regional campus of a major state university, student papers were different. The typical batch contained a far larger proportion of talent and merit, and a far less demoralizing proportion of illiterate and semiliterate scribbling. Essential to a grader's morale is that occasional breathtaking paper that proves conclusively that excellence is attainable and expectations can be met. Those are the papers that sustain hope in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I don't get many now.

Autumn is especially rough. Amid the bright leaves and crisp air, the return to school is bracing. But once the grading phase of my courses begins, I remember that fall is when I teach mostly introductory-level courses to students who, in many cases, will not make it past one term of university life. Last year, I was forced to fail 20 percent of the students in a class of 40. "This isn't education," I told my dean. "It's triage." His reply: Nothing can be done. At an open-enrollment state institution, anyone who graduates from high school can take a whirl at university. After a term or two, many realize they aren't mature or prepared enough. A good number of them put in zero effort and seem to expect as little in return. A colleague who departed a chic private high school to teach here is astonished that she can dole out undesirable grades without consequence. "They don't come to your office," she said. "Their parents don't call."

On our campus, the average ACT score is 20.5. The range stretches, improbably, from a bare 13 to a respectable 32 (the maximum is 36). At the main campus in our system, the average score is 25. At a highly selective institution, the average would be a notch further up. In short, my students have the lowest scores among four-year university students. The pool here is closer to the general mill of high-school graduates than instructors at selective institutions ever see.

When I was first trying to find my bearings as an instructor, I read an elegant memoir of teaching by Wayne Booth, who taught English at the University of Chicago. His diary of his students' progress and seminar experiences was humane, but would, if replicated by me, seem absurdly precious. Instead of tales of college girls' intellectual coming of age, I would record such stories as the 50-something student of mine this term who, having missed four classes straight, told me it was because she had been evicted from her home. The first night she drank wine coolers. The other days she was moving to a new place.

Besides the humiliations of poverty and class, another simple fact intrudes here: High schools no longer prepare most students to express ideas coherently or follow accepted English, let alone carry on serious intellectual work. My students can read carefully, when they do the reading. They ask good questions about lectures, showing attentiveness and curiosity. They discuss ideas and texts capably. Their weak spot is writing. The task falls to me -- in courses ostensibly about specified topics, not composition -- to patch up these leaky vessels.

Some of my colleagues, I notice, take a pass on this challenge. Their introductory-level courses feature a series of multiple-choice tests. They apparently haven't the patience to read essays, and automatic tabulators all but eliminate the time they spend on grading. This bothers me. I hold that a university education ought to include a significant writing component, that student writing deserves substantial professorial comment, that every student can become a better writer with practice, and that this is the last effective chance for them to get practice and feedback. If not us, who?

I hold this conviction without being able to extend much confidence to any particular set of student essays. The prospect of working through the stack of papers sitting next to me right now, for example, is enough to send me into fits of distraction. Writing this column is one stalling tactic among many that I have invented. I have a powerful aptitude for evasion, delay, and self-protection when faced with the chore of grading.

In graduate school I knew a professor who poured herself a generous glass of cabernet sauvignon before sitting down to grade papers. I would follow suit myself, except somnolence would be the result. My approach is far less satisfactory. I turn irritable. I grade restlessly. I start one paper, get through a page, then turn to the next paper in the stack, hoping for something better. No sooner do I start the next paper than I discover its grave weaknesses and move on to another.

Eventually, I abandon this hopscotch of aversion and work through the pile in a more deliberate way. When I finish a paper, I pick up some published item as a reward to myself, a reminder that somewhere else in the world, there is writing worth reading. My first batch of papers this term was so bad that I suddenly vowed to read the entire Bible, cover to cover. I made it to Abraham and Isaac. I may finish it yet.

I have been known to procrastinate all weekend, to the point where I must wake up at 4 a.m. on Monday morning in order to finish the papers by the appointed hour. Once I get down to brass tacks, however, I am methodical. I make extensive comments in green ink on every paper -- a reflection of my belief that better writing comes with recognition of audience, an impression reinforced by readers' comments. I strive, in my marginal notation, not to be harsh or cruel, but rather suggestive and helpful.

I urge students to take a position on the assigned text's validity or merit, not just summarize it. I encourage them to put their thesis somewhere near the outset of the paper, not in the middle or at the end. I demand that they pay closer attention to grammar and spelling. (Many of my students believe that the following set of words, for example, qualifies as a sentence: "A state of equality.") I recommend, where Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and various other useful guides are available free.

Reports have it that I am a tough grader. This seems to mean that I do not hand out A's like there is no tomorrow, not that I haven't considered it. A more lenient hand would undoubtedly boost my evaluation scores, good as they are. There is an ethical quandary, moreover, in the issue of whether to grade by conviction or on a relative scale. A scale of conviction holds students to a universal bar of excellence; a relative scale or "curve" judges them against their immediate peers. This dilemma is real. Is it reasonable to expect students in a backwater to rise to supreme heights? Shouldn't they be judged relative to their campus? Why should I be tight with the A's, if most students at Ivy League universities get them, as reports indicate? In the end, however, I have decided to award no paper a high grade if its excellence does not actually have my complete confidence. I judge by standard, not pool. That makes me "tough."

Sometimes, the vagaries of grading do result in self-doubt. One student was so grateful for his B recently that I wondered if I had been too easy on him. In another case, I wondered after the fact if I'd been consistent in giving one student a C+ while another got a B-. Subtle differences of gradation on humanities papers are hardly fast and firm. It is impossible to draw up absolute criteria that would tip an essay one way or the other in marginal cases. However, major differences of grading do reflect very different levels of quality. On the whole, I am confident that my grades are meaningful and fair. Grades are earned -- not given.

Interior vacillations of mind and spirit are inevitable in any grader with professional dedication and a conscience. All that can be done in the darkest hours before the dawn is to apply intellectual standards as best one can -- and hope for the rare student who rises to the occasion.

Astonishingly, it does happen once in a while. The other day I walked into class to overhear a group of students comparing my comments on their first papers. They were earnest, almost sweetly so. They vowed to improve their writing the next time around. Maybe that will be the batch I've been waiting for.

Max Clio is the pseudonym of an associate professor of history on a regional campus of a major Midwestern research university. He welcomes letters sent to