Are You Locked in Grading Jail?

Jail Cell

Earlier this year, ProfHacker Natalie wrote a post questioning use of the phrase “back to the salt mines” in reference to people starting a new semester.  At the time, her post reminded me of another phrase I hear a lot: “grading jail.”  It’s pretty common, especially this time of year, to see people on Twitter or Facebook leaving updates like “Trapped this weekend in grading jail” or “Spending the next few hours in grading jail.”  I’ll be honest.  At first, I would often roll my eyes when I read such things.  In my (self-righteous) view, grading is a normal part of academic life, and those who feel trapped in one of the most ordinary parts of academic life should perhaps look at other careers.

Yes, I thought that, but then I started to get over myself a bit.  Grading is stressful.  I have been teaching for almost twenty years, so I have a grading pattern and style that works for me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes get stressed, too.  For me, the stress comes when I have to grade work by a student who has a history of challenging everything I say or do.  Or I feel it when I’ve already been in contact with an adviser, coach, or parent concerned that their student is about to lose a scholarship or get moved off of academic probation and into outright expulsion.  Grading is not always easy.

So, last week, I threw out a question on Facebook and Twitter asking people why grading is stressful for them, and most of the responses fell into two groups.  By far, the major stress factor for a lot of people is time.  They want to return essays and other work back within a week or so but also want to leave substantial, meaningful comments.  The two goals can often conflict.  This issue was repeated in different ways by many people.  Some feel like time constraints force them to focus on global issues rather than smaller ones.  Others worry that they are not giving students all of the feedback they need, but they know that too much can overwhelm some students, causing them to shut down.  Balance is easier said than done.

Another group of comments noted frustration with what one person called the “facade of objectivity.”  Grading, for some people, feels false in that it is an act that carries great authority and finality but is actually incredibly subjective and not what many of us want our students to focus on.  But some students, for reasons that run the gamut from legitimate to illegitimate, care only about the letter or number that caps off an essay or exam.  Grading then becomes the elephant in the room that we want to ignore, or at least shift focus away from, but it’s an elephant that just won’t leave.

What about you?  What is it about grading that makes you feel occasionally imprisoned? Let us know in the comments, and we might use those thoughts as inspiration for future ProfHacker posts on how to make grading less stressful for us all.  Some people already gave me ideas for what to do, which I am saving for another post.  For now, I would just like us to discuss, when you feel locked in grading jail, what is it that makes you feel that way?

Thanks to Mike Edwards, Mike Garcia, Mandy Jansen, Kelly Ritter, Luisa Rodriguez, and Donna Strickland for offering  feedback on Facebook, and @jennifernbrown, @kvonhard, @lizgloyn, @pilgrimheretic, and @wrightallison for offering feedback on Twitter.  If I missed anyone or misrepresented anyone, it is solely my doing, and I do apologize.

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickruser Casey Serin]

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