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:

Dear Feminéma,

I am grading my students’ papers. Is it possible I could die?

Sincerely, Agonized

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

4. Just shutting off devices is not good enough; you need additional restraint. Let me recommend one possibility, designed by erstwhile American inventor Benjamin Rush for teachers everywhere:rushtranquilizer

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?”

[Fuck me.]

12 Responses to “How to grade papers”

  1. Becky Says:

    I have never had to grade papers, but I have had similar activities that made my head feel like it was exploding. This entire post is priceless and hilarious! I am sincere. I laughed out loud over coffee this morning. So, in your angst, you have once again served others. Thank you.
    As for drugs, there are some that help with focus that are OTC. My partner and I find Alpha GPC, PS 100, and Rhodiola quite helpful. Look them up. They are not in the league of NZT-48, but helpful.

    • Didion Says:

      OMG, actual drug advice! this is why blogging is so incredibly valuable.

      Grading papers is a particular circle of hell; all one can do is survive it. And write about the misery.

  2. Servetus Says:

    Severely guilty of 1-3 under “common pitfalls.” And somewhat guilty of 4. Sigh.

  3. Didion Says:

    I know whereof I speak. Clearly severely guilt of all 4 myself.

  4. Didion Says:

    Also: I may or may not have had you in mind while writing a goodly portion of this, Dear Friend.

  5. Dark Iris Says:

    Didion, your posts so cheer me. I feel terrible that I am reveling in someone else’s misery, but you approach our shared hell with such wit and grace.

    Am currently sitting here lying to myself about grading. I have never been able to grade papers except at the 11th hour, when I no longer have any choice. Right now is technically our “spring break,” and I am facing 30 papers. Or more like NOT facing them. Have done math and know I will be grading approximately 750 pages of awfulness in this one class alone. Just back from SCMS and good feelings have been swept away by dread and gloom. How does one start this onerous task??

    I am taking all your tips to heart, and may now finally have time to contribute to my long silent blog 😉 Saw Stoker and lots to discuss.

    • Didion Says:

      Stoker! it hasn’t come to my city just yet.

      I’d rather limit myself to the least amount of misery possible, even if it means one or two horrible days. And the sad fact is, that usually happens right before I need to return them. Sigh.

  6. eteokretan Says:

    Turning off AirPort helps a lot for me. I’ll click the Firefox icon almost instinctively, but it won’t connect to anything. I have tried to train myself to hear the computer scolding me, “Get. Back. To. Work.” But it’s hard to hear that over my cursing.

    • Didion Says:

      There are still things I can do with an unwired computer that are more fun than grading. I’m incorrigible.

  7. BabyRaptor Says:


    I’m not a teacher, just lowly tech support, but I could apply these to my piles of call write-ups! Love it.

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