The Pain Of Autonomy

In a stack of papers called Grading.

  • Mar
  • 01
  • 2006

Talking with a friend today about grades, the issue of writing came up. We landed on an obvious topic for two English teachers.

It’s easy to fall into the trap, not realizing that what you see as a breath of fresh air in a stack full of dullard papers really isn’t all that fabulous when compared to competent writing. It’s only a breath of fresh air when compared to all the other horrible papers you have the misfortune of having to grade that night.

Perhaps you don’t have any competent writing on this particular subject and you are willing to grasp onto the tiny piece of writing that passes as understanding in a paper that is otherwise plain. But that small speck of thought appears to you as large as Montana; absence makes the heart grow fonder and the other 12 papers you’ve read so far have been woefully absent of much insightful thought. Or any thought, for that matter. You’ll even settle for someone spelling the main character’s name correctly or properly underlining the title of the novel at this point.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that you have three stacks of papers written on the same topic to wade through. That third stack of papers is far less interesting to you than the first stack. By the third time through the papers, you’ve heard all the arguments and are sick of the logical fallacies that students are oblivious to. In fact, some of them might start to make you angry.

A paper that was an 80% when you first read it quickly becomes a 70% simply because of the number of papers you’ve read in the meantime. The names have changed, but the song remains the same, putting forth the same obvious observations and mundane commentary. If you are more honest in your grading now that you are dead to the excitement of what you realize is surface-level understanding or even regurgitation of your lecture, then you’ve inflated the grades of all the papers that came before this. If you were more honest at the beginning of the grading, then equity has left the building.

With the immense degree of autonomy that comes with the job, a very attractive feature and a perk that brings many people to the fold of teaching, how can you be sure that an A in your class is the same as an A in someone else’s class? How can you even be sure that you know what an A is? Your concept of an A is formed by the quality of students you’ve come in contact with and it is possible that most of your students have been less than brilliant in writing. So maybe what you see as an A is really just a C, merely what one would expect a student to be able to compose, but nothing to get too excited about.

Is it right to evaluate papers based on comparisons in a vacuum? Is it right to evaluate papers based on comparisons to the other papers you’ve been exposed to in a given year? Yes, you bring with you the previous years of teaching and those years inform your decisions about what strong writing is. That seems a very vague way of evaluating papers, though. Should it be that subjective, open to such wide interpretation? But if writing is an art, can it be objective? Do you kill the art by trying to turn it into a science? It sure is easier to grade that way, though, isn’t it?

So how do you make sure that grades are uniform? Not just within all of your classes, but across the entire campus? district? state? public school system?

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