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Tossing the Red Pen

March 9, 2014

I’ve long had an interest in education.  I don’t know if I’m prime material for an educator, but the idea grabs me nonetheless.  This semester, I’ve been presented with an opportunity which places me on the outskirts of the educational complex.  I’ve been working as a grader for a course on modern philosophy, as part of the department’s experiment with undergraduate graders.

I won’t go into too much detail regarding this engagement, both for brevity and to respect students’ privacy.  I will, however, discuss what I’ve discovered about my attitudes towards grading, and what I’ve done about them.

To put it bluntly: I’m a mean grader.  Some people are mean drunks, some people are mean drivers, but I’m a mean grader.  By that I don’t mean I give out arbitrarily poor marks (I don’t), but that my internal monologue turns nasty when I sit down to grade something.

I remember opening the Blue Books for the first modern philosophy exam, and thinking not-very-nice things about the student whose work I was grading: Stay on topic, God damn it!  That’s not what Descartes was arguing!  Enough with the cutesy margin comments!  It took some restraint to not transcribe this internal frustration onto their responses.

Honestly, this should not have surprised me.  Last semester I read poetry submissions for the campus literary magazine, The Oakland Review.  Most submissions were, well, not very good, and it eventually got to the point where a giant “X” through the text proved sufficient commentary.  And that’s when I had the resolve to even write something down, instead of just saying, “That sucked,” and moving on.

The thing is: this meanness is just not productive.  (Or professional, but that goes without saying.)  Sure, it feels great in the moment, but once anger takes over, actual analysis just doesn’t happen.  After all, if a poem or essay drives you to hair-pulling with just a cursory glance, what rational person would want to find out exactly what’s wrong with it?  That sure as hell doesn’t work when the objective is to finely grade student work.

How does one overcome this impulse?  The first step, I found, was to think of the context in which the student wrote.  Students had 80 minutes to answer 4 questions, which comes out to 20 minutes per question.  That’s not very much time at all, when you get down to it.  For comparison’s sake, the (soon-to-be-optional) SAT Essay section gives test-takers 25 minutes.  

I’ve always said that no one has ever written a good essay on the SAT, and those are general, easy-to-understand prompts.  Why should I expect anyone to write something intelligent about Locke’s account of primary and secondary qualities when given 20% less time?  It’s just unrealistic.

The second step, after considering the context of the writing, is to remember the context of the student.  I’m a creative writing major, and I have a bad tendency to view all writing through that prism.  But not everyone has my mindset or priorities.  Hell, when I took a class with this professor last semester, I was the token English major.  Most of the students are from scientific backgrounds, and so don’t write many humanities-style essays.  Why should I expect to spontaneously master that format?

I don’t mean to say that writing quality, either in terms of argument or style, shouldn’t factor into grading.  Given equal content quality, a better written exam will get a better grade–but not drastically so.  It’s just more important that the students show an understanding of the material.  If students can explain Descartes’ argument in the first meditation, that’s great.  If they can do that and write well, that’s a bonus.  No reason to get angry.

Except for cutesy margin comments.  Those are inexcusable.

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