March 5, 2015

Grading

What I enjoyed the most being a professor was teaching. Being in the classroom, engaging with the students, pursuing collaboratively ideas and lines of argument, seeing the students discover their voices and doing what I could to help with that.

What I enjoyed the least about being a professor was grading. Even more than the pressure to publish. To not put too fine a point on it, but I hated grading. When I had a stack of papers to grade, I would go to the local Starbucks and some other cafe, fill myself with caffeine and sugar, and plow through the essays. 15-20 minutes per 5 page essay. If I had a stack of 20 essays, that's five to six hours. And more if I tried to not give the same set of hackneyed comments on paper after paper.

I was lucky to be at a small liberal arts colleges, where, compared to big universities, I didn't have that many papers to grade. I taught five courses a year. Two intro courses, with about 25 students in each. A couple of mid-level courses, with anywhere from 10-25 students in them. And a seminar with 6-12 students. So maybe a 100-125 students a year. Not bad. A semester is 13 weeks, and I had roughly 4-5 papers in each class. Since I wanted students to have the opportunity to write a fair bit, they had essays due every three weeks or so. Teaching 2 or 3 classes a semester, that ends up meaning grading every week or every other week. There were no teaching assistants, and so the grading was up to me.

However, what I disliked the most about grading wasn't the time, or reading similar essays over and over again. My current job is a bit repetitive, and I don't mind it. I can handle repetitive work; doing the same thing over and over again. No, what bothered me about the grading was the question which nagged me at the back of my mind every time I picked up an essay to grade: Am I being unfair in the criteria I am using to grade this paper? There are three aspects to this worry. A) What criteria am I using to grade? B) What justifies the criteria? And C) Can that criteria really be applied neutrally to all the students in the class?



Regarding (A): What am I basing the grade on? Is it whether the essay is meeting a standard which every student ought to be aspiring to, or is it based on how much effort the student was putting in and how much she was learning and improving? My instinct was to always grade based on the latter. As someone who didn't identify much with academic philosophy and its assumption of neutral, universal standards, I was loathe to impose such standards on the students. When grading a paper there was hovering in my mind a sense of what a good version of that paper looks like, and often times while grading I would get lost in reflection about what exactly that hovering ideal was and why I thought it was the ideal. Given my earlier experiment with non-traditional writing in philosophy, I couldn't help but look at that hovering ideal with some suspicion.

Regarding (B): Even if I settle on the criteria by which the paper is to be graded, what is the source of that criteria? Is it just that it happens to be the criteria I endorse as the professor? That is too weak, since it ignores the responsibility I have to the students to teach them in a way which they can take with them to other classes and into the world. The justification of the criteria must be communal in some sense. So what community grounds the criteria? Is it what the philosophy profession as a whole endorses? No, because there is no such thing that the philosophy profession as a whole endorses. Is it the community of professors who think like me? But that would be unfair to students in the class who might prefer the criteria of some other community of professors. Besides, if this is what grounds the criteria, that should be made clear to the students, instead of making it seem to them like I am applying universally accepted standards. Yet, such a declaration would be met by the students with confusion, since they want to be introduced to philosophy, not just to philosophy as defined by this or that sect. Then it is the community of the department I am a part of? But this has all the same problems as the previous option.

Regarding (C): Granted the criteria and its source, could I still apply it in a uniform way in the class? Imagine a student reading Kant and wondering why in the class we are reading mainly Western male authors. Imagine as she thinks this, she gets focused on this question, and not so much on writing the essay on the Categorical Imperative. Now imagine another student who doesn't have any such concerns, and so focuses on her essay and writing it the way that is closer to the ideal in my mind. Could I then use the same criteria in grading the papers of these two students? Is that ok, or would it be unfair to the first student by not engaging with her overall thinking about Kant and what was bothering her? Once this kind of question would occur to me, it was a slippery slope. For I don't much about the lives of the students, and so have no idea for the nuances of the contexts of their lives within which they write the essays. Without knowing that kind of context, how could I evaluate what they wrote? The only way would be to take the essay itself as a product separate, and separable, from the students' lives. But, then, did they not come to this college to get a liberal arts education, one where they will engaged in the core of who they are as people, and not just as one more among a group? What does it mean to grade the essays in a liberal arts education context? Could the grades even be taken seriously at all?

I concluded no, they can't be taken seriously. As a result, I didn't put much stock in the grades I gave out. Mainly I graded on effort. If the student put in a genuine effort, then it was a B, unless they radically misunderstood the reading they were writing on. From a B, there were four step highers: B+, A-, A, A+. I used these to distinguish between essays which were ok to really good, using some combination of the criteria that resonated with me and which seemed to me to track some professional norms. The most frequent grades I gave out were B+ and A-.

Was this an instance of grade inflation? Not in the sense that I gave everyone a B or higher. Some students got lower grades, but very rarely when it seemed to me they were neither putting in effort nor they engaged with me when I try to reach out to them. But it is inflation in the sense that my benchmark for a good effort was a B, not a C or C-. I didn't start with the idea that the student had to impress me to get above a C, but had the mindset that the student had to lose the high B by being more then usually disinterested.

Often grading would send me into bouts of depression and confusion. The students seemed so hopeful, so innocent, as if they trusted that there was a method to all the madness, that there was some objective unity holding together their comparative evaluations and that their teachers were holding them to that objective standard. My department and the profession in general reenforced the sense of orderly and objective evaluations which are the basis of the grades, as if the whole system was through and through meritocratic. I didn't believe that was true of journal publishing or even how jobs got distributed, which mostly had a fair amount of luck and non-philosophical causes. Grading seemed no different. Only with the comments I put on the papers I was trying to give a veneer of objectivity, which I myself didn't believe in, and which I was myself struggling with.

Sometimes I wanted to tell the students what I really thought about grades, and how I didn't put any stock in them. But I stopped, worrying what good it would do for one person to say this, while the general system affirms the opposite to the students. Did I really want to break the illusion of the students? Did I want that on my conscience? And what is the point of breaking it, for what other system can I offer them instead? To make myself seem like a maverick in any sense seemed disingenuous. It would give some students a sense of empowerment and revolution in the moment, but, after all, and in any case, they need these grades for their after college lives. While I was immersed in my job as an academic, could I pretend that I was somehow standing outside the whole system and talk to them as if I was simply stating the objective truth that grades don't mean much? No, I didn't think so. Because it is not just about capturing some objective fact about grading, but it is also an issue of commitment. As long as I was an academic, that means I am committing myself to the general frames of evaluation in academia. I can argue for changes from within the system, but I couldn't pretend to stand outside of it all and dismiss it all as confused. The students deserved a chance to identify with their education, and I didn't want to dismiss that just because I was having a hard time identifying with academia. 

Each time I graded an essay, that was the main question reverberating within me: Am I committed to this grade I am giving? If I was committed to it, then how come I wasn't trying to get my own work published? It seemed I couldn't be committed to the grade I was giving without being committed to my colleagues evaluations of my work, since the latter is the foundation of the former. I am able to grade papers only because my colleagues evaluated me as being capable of being a professor. And yet, I didn't feel I could commit to the academic structures as they were, that at least for me that was not the future. Still, how could I commit to the grades when I wasn't sure of the answers to issues such as (A)-(C) above? I didn't know.

Sometimes I miss the excitement of the classroom: talking to the students, having a group discussion, following a line of thought together. One thing I don't miss is the grading. 


2 comments:

  1. Teaching can be a very rewarding experience as, whatever the official reason that convenes us, we are in a human situation of communication and exchange. Grading seems not to be such a situation, but your discussion shows that this appearance of objective observation and evaluation is deceptive. For me grading has two sides: consensus and communication. Sometimes it seems to me that my real function is to grade, that any teaching I do is subservient to the grade, that noone really cares about my subject (I teach English in a French technical high school). On that view, I am a glorified (or perhaps more precisely inglorious) grading machine. My way out of that imprisoning impression is to feel that grading is communicating, both with each student and with the class as a whole. And also with my colleagues, whether they have the same students or not. After a few years of teaching I feel I am familiar with a wide range of students and of classes, and I try to see the singularity of each person and to relate to that, even in the unilateral aspects of grading (although handing in a paper or exam script is itself a communicative act, and not just an administrative one). So my grades serve to communicate with the other teachers and the administration, to reassure them that all is well or to alert them to something problematic arising in my interactions with students and classes. I like it best when the exam is oral, and even more when I can give the mark directly to the student at the end and dialogue a little about the whole communicative performance. For me the criteria are fuzzy (A); the justification is administrative and professional, but also specific to the classroom interactions (B); and even when the criteria are stated clearly, their application remains fuzzy, neither fully objective or impersonal nor entirely subjective or arbitrary. So while I commit to the grade in that I am ready to defend it (although I am willing to modify it after discussion) I don't reify the grade. Speaking absolutely I would say that being in the classroom is not in itself more real or more authentic than sitting alone grading. Yet very often it feels that way, perhaps because of the circumstances. I most like grading when I am sitting in a room with colleagues who are grading too, and I can exchange impressions with them or ask them to give their opinion (on a word or a sentence or a whole paper). Then I am not just conforming to a consensual process that I have learnt slowly and imperfectly, but I am actively constructing a (partial) consensus with others.

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  2. fwiw: I have similar doubts about objectivity, but draw different conclusions.

    On (A): I am a big believer in grading for quality of product, not effort. Grading for effort would make me feel like a moralistic busybody. For one thing, assessing effort seems impracticable, if not impossible in principle. (The student struggling through a family crisis puts in as much effort or more effort as the one who goes assiduously to the library, right?) More importantly, I do not feel it is my place to judge my students; it is only my place to judge their work. Insofar as a grade is based on work, it is ipso facto something a student has reason to take less personally.

    However, I do not think this require that the standards by which I grade must necessarily be "neutral and universal." It only requires they be non-idiosyncratic enough (a) for students to generally be able to identify and conform to them easily, (b) to provide an accurate sense of what it is like to try to do philosophy well, and (c) to reward reading, writing, and reasoning skills that will be useful outside of academia. Common standards in academic philosophy meet these conditions, even if they don't capture Platonic intellectual ideals equally authoritative for everyone, regardless of their particular concerns or backgrounds.

    I think the larger issue is that if you look at grading less moralistically, it is easier to justify how you grade to your students. I still try very hard to relate to my students respectfully, and to engage them "in the core of who they are as people." But I feel that the best way to do this is to introduce them to bodies of knowledge and forms of thought that facilitate such engagement, rather than interpose _myself_ as someone with whom they must engage.

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