How to grade papers
13 March 2013
“Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” — some brilliant person from history
Actually, compared to grading student papers, writing is easy. You want blood oozing out of your pores? Try grading.
Just recently we received a plaintive letter from one of our avid readers:
I am grading my students’ papers. Is it possible I could die?
Never fear, Agonized. I have advice!
1. Let’s get this over with already: the problem of procrastination. Watch this video:
…but only watch it once, because otherwise you’d be guilty of procrastination. Also: do not allow yourself to do anything else, even those things you ordinarily hate doing (cleaning the house; emptying the litter box) which now suddenly look awesome because they are not grading.
2. Let yourself indulge in your oral fixation of choice. I grade papers while consuming an bottomless pot of tea, glasses of water, and a bowl of almonds. I have an entire drawer full of non-drowsy herbal teas for this purpose alone. (Favorites: Good Earth Herbal Sweet and Spicy; Peet’s Hibiscus C Blend.) Why, you can consider a long day of grading to double as a kind of flush of the toxins in your system if you drink enough of this stuff.
Note: Beware of caffeine. It does not help to finish grading if your hands start shaking and/or you find yourself wondering if your heart is beating too fast, and whether you need to visit the emergency room.
Exceptions to my oral fixation rule: all fixations that would actually be nice and helpful, like cigarettes and alcohol. Also street drugs. DO NOT ABUSE NARCOTICS WHILE GRADING. Alcohol only works for approximately 30 minutes as you go through the very first paper; after that it ruins you (i.e., me) for the entire evening.
On my wish list: some kind of prescription drug that removes the pain/distractions from grading. Preferably (but not necessarily) legal.
Higher up on my wish list: a grading Rumplestiltskin (attention such individuals who come in the night to finish all this on my behalf: I have no problem offering up my first-born child).
3. Sit down in your designated grading area, far away from any device that can offer you electronic/internet escape from the horrors about to ruin your day.
How long it will take to grade one longish paper if you ignore your devices: 45 min to 1 hour
How long it takes to grade one longish paper if you do not ignore the Internet: 4+ hours
Unable to realize the full tranquilizing brilliance of this helpful design? Yeah, me neither. So I opt for a hoodie. Yes, that’s right. I close the door to my office, pull up the hood on my hoodie, and settle in, as if I am a horse with blinders on.
Warning: anyone else in the house will mock you, sitting there miserably with your hoodie up. Try very hard not to feel shame for your weaknesses.
5. Start with low expectations, no matter what.
My trick is to start with a paper by a student who I think might do okay. NOT my favorite student. Definitely not the dumbest student. If the first 4 sentences do not leave me wanting to shoot myself, I consider this a major triumph.
On the other hand, I once asked a student if he had a spam-bot write his unintelligible paper.
6. Offer yourself rewards for completing a good day’s work in grading.
Like alcohol. But only after a significant number of essays have been completed.
Do not promise yourself a horrible reward like cleaning the cat litter, which will not look fun at all if you can have a nice glass of wine (or three).
Common Pitfalls in Grading
1. Do not let yourself think, “Next time I will grade these papers the minute they arrive rather than wait till the last possible second before I have to return them!” You are lying to yourself. Again.
2. Do not let yourself think, “These papers are awful. Therefore I must be a terrible teacher/ person.” This is the gateway to the hopeless pit of grading paralysis.
Related: do not let yourself think, “These papers are so awful because higher education is being destroyed by the United States’ lack of investment in education overall, by parents’ emphasis on education as purely instrumental, by students’ poor attention spans …” and so on.
Also: do not start taking notes on the op-ed you plan to write on these subjects.
3. Do not let yourself get angry at the students. I know they deserve it. (Oh, sweet Jesus, how they deserve it.) But it will only make you want to post snarky things on Facebook and/or send snarky emails to your professor friends.
What is worst? the factual errors, the utter ignorance (“I suspect Samli is not a Jew because she is raising a pig for Christmas and Jews don’t eat pigs”), the nails-on-chalkboard grammatical clunkers (“After the investigation, her and Geertz traveled to Bali”), or the overall inability to develop strong and logical arguments? Kill me now!
4. Do not start grading and then think to yourself, “Hey, why don’t I write a silly blog post about how to grade papers?”