Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Making Grading Fun

Most college professors would say that the single worst part of our job is grading. I don't actually think this is true: the single worst part of our job is nasty, petty academic politics. That part of our job wouldn't exist at all in an ideal world, whereas even in an ideal world we would still need to evaluate the work of our students - though in an ideal world, I don't think we'd be GRADING their work, writing that fateful A or B+ or B/B- on the bottom of the page, but making constructive and encouraging comments to help our students learn. But even in an ideal world it might feel like a bit of a slog to be trudging through that stack of papers awaiting attention on our desks.

Here at DePauw teaching this children's literature class, I have finally found a way of making grading fun. Some of the conditions for this are not easily reproducible: teach subject matter that you love to a small class of highly motivated students who already come into the class loving the subject matter as much as you do.  I don't know if I'll ever in my life have these conditions as amply met as I have here.  But the other strategies I've found are strategies I could use almost anywhere.

First is to follow the best advice on grading I've ever received, from a former graduate student: "Assign papers that you yourself would enjoy reading." This means for me NOT assigning the identical paper topic to everyone with no latitude for individual choice and imagination. For this class I've let my students choose what to write about. For each paper they have a choice of three or four texts to analyze, and I give them for each text six or seven prompts to start their thinking - but they can also write on a text-related topic of their own or tailor my prompts to their individual interests. So I'll have a sociology student writing about social stratification in Harry Potter; I'll have an English major writing an elegant essay on the construction of the idea of home in Peter Pan; I'll have a football player (yes!) writing about the voice of the wicked queen's mirror as the voice of patriarchy in Snow White.  Each essay is different, so I read each one eagerly to see what I will find.

Second is to read drafts ahead of time so that the papers I get to grade are at a far higher level than they would be otherwise. I won't take drafts home with me to read: that would be like grading the papers twice - the horror! Instead, I offer generous office hours where I meet with students one on one to talk through paper ideas, outlines, and drafts. I am a fast reader, so in five minutes I can tell a student what she needs to do to frame her paper in such a way to answer the feared "So what?" question from the reader - how to state her thesis more clearly and crisply - which objections to her own position/reading she needs to consider. The downside of this is that the grades get too high, but I don't mind giving good grades to students who have written exquisite papers. And then when I sit down to grade I have the pleasure of writing in the margins, "Good point!" "Excellent analysis!" "Brilliant observation!"

The final strategy is to do the grading in a pleasant environment with a comforting beverage at hand. I got through quite a few papers in this last batch at the airport bar at DIA as I awaited my flight from Denver back to Indianapolis.  How I love sitting in an airport bar!  I did others sitting at home in the glow of the newly set up Christmas tree with a mug of my favorite Swiss Miss hot chocolate beside me.

So this semester I can honestly say I have enjoyed grading my students' papers. And a delicious set of final essays is still to come....

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