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.]

Well count me intrigued. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, has written a book that seeks to foster a widespread conversation about the problem of the glass ceiling — and thereby develop a grassroots movement to change it.

Her book, Lean In, will be released March 11. Wonder if I can get a review copy?

The NYT article about it is skeptical; it ponders whether Sandberg places too much emphasis on women’s own stutter-steps and self-actualization rather than on the multiple institutional reasons women fall behind in pay and promotions. All the more interesting.

Winter moment, with cat

21 February 2013

2013-02-22 08.28.08I am reading for class and sitting on the sofa, and the kitty moves under the blanket such that she is snuggled up between me and the cushions. It’s just cold enough that we both appreciate the extra warmth.

Every once in a while she will pop her nose out from under the blanket and show her big hazel eyes (yes, they are actually hazel). Or one of her white paws will emerge to half-play with my elbow as I take notes.

All I can think is how much I need to remember this when I hate my job. Because what other job allows me to work while having a quiet winter moment with the cat?

Starting roundabout November 15, all I can fantasize about is dedicating a full day to reading a novel and maybe making a batch of holiday cookies. Instead, my classes ended this week and I am now staring down the gun barrel of all the committee work I agreed to do. Instead of reading deliciously long 19th-c. novels over break, that is.

In addition to grading all those bluebooks, coming up with final grades, and dealing with a couple of problem-child students, I will spend my time doing the following:

  • reading the last of three dissertations and writing assessments of all of them for a meeting 1 hour away, and taking place at 8am Tuesday
  • reading 80 assistant professor applications with writing samples of 25 pgs each in time for a search committee on Wednesday
  • reading a book manuscript for a press
  • writing a book review for a journal, because if I don’t finish it my head will roll
  • …and further down the to-do list: reading 3 dissertation chapters by 2 grad students desperate to finish their degrees next semester

You see? And I thought the semester was “over.”barchestertowers

Which makes it all the more heartbreaking that I still spend a good deal of my time these days fantasizing about how I’ll spend winter break lying on a sofa. Here’s how it goes: in my fantasy I am reading not a dissertation but the Anthony Trollope novel Barchester Towers (because is there anything better than a 19th-c. novel that reads like a house on fire?), and then I flip on the telly to watch the epic, 160-minute film Ran by Akira Kurisawa (1985). And for blog research I have the new book Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan.

Naturally, in my fantasy I also revive my recently-abandoned regimens of exercising, cooking actual food, and getting enough sleep.

And oh yeah, my own research/writing. Snort.

Lesson to the ladies: make a list of all the extra work you’re doing, and keep it on the wall next to your desk. Then ask yourself, can I do this AND all my teaching AND give myself time to read Barchester Towers. Why? Because the 1983 BBC miniseries Barchester Chronicles has a young, hot Alan Rickman as the officious Rev. Slope, which to me says MUST SEE. !!!!!

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Grad school nostalgia

2 December 2012

When I was searching for a job, one of my harried advisors said, “I don’t know why you want a job. Grad school is great. And jobs are so much work. You have no idea.”

I fumed. Well, it sure would be nice to have health insurance that isn’t oriented purely to health catastrophes, and a car that isn’t on the brink of collapse, and more than $64.25 in my bank account.

Yet here I am, ten years later, thinking, “I don’t know why you grad students want jobs. Grad school is great.”

I will never, ever say that aloud to anyone, for I remember too well the financial precariousness of grad school. But shit. You have no idea.

If I want to return my students’ papers by Tuesday, I must grade 14 per day.

14 is a lot. 14 a day can take 14 hours if you let it. Even if you whittle it down to 30 minutes per paper — which is whizz-bang in my experience — that’s still 28 hours spread over the next four days during which I do not shop for groceries, do my laundry, prep for next week’s classes, answer email, make myself some kind of nutritious food, watch a movie, or have a nice afternoon on the deck with a novel. 28 hours of fierce, concentrated attention and holding back one’s temper.

So, naturally, my immediate response is to start doing other things. It’s equivalent to the sound of the alarm in the morning — even if I’m already awake, I think, “But I want to get more sleep!”

Here’s how that looks: if I keep hitting the figurative snooze button, on Sunday night I will think, “Tomorrow I need to grade 56 papers.”

Grading the first one is always the worst. Sometimes I even go through a stack and think, I’ll grade Antoinette’s first, because she’s an excellent student and has surely produced good work here. And then I start reading and beat my head against the wall.

Another solution is to pour yourself a glass of wine and start reading. That old stereotype of finding coffee stains on one’s work is a myth; in reality one finds red wine stains.

What I really need to remember is that I’m the one who blithely believed, back in August, that scheduling papers due in both my classes was not a terrible idea. Yes: I have done this to myself.

I have a new junior colleague who has recently moved to town, so I work up a small cocktail party to bring her together with some other people I’ve wanted to get to know. Nothing fancy — sort of last-minute and casual and all, but with some good sangria and cheeses and friendly women.

My new colleague emails me back this morning. “Sounds great! The only thing is transportation — you see, I don’t have a car.”

I stare at this email for a good while.

Is she really suggesting I come pick her up? Am I a bitch for thinking I don’t need to spend the 30 minutes before the party driving across town and back? The guilt reflex pokes me in the gut.

At first I remember being in her position myself — a new job, didn’t know anyone, and deathly poor. Back in those days we didn’t get our first paycheck til October 1, so us new professors amassed breathtaking credit card debt on top of the debts we already had from grad school. Maybe she, too, is that poor.

Then I remember she’s not coming straight from grad school, but from Private University where she had a one-year position. Not that one year of that salary would have eliminated school debt, but a year of it plus having no car expenses surely would have taken the edge off.

I email back proposing she catch a cab, and tell her I’ll drive her home afterward — a sort of compromise. Public transportation in our city is sporadic and inefficient, while cabs are plentiful.

She replies: “I’m very sorry to miss your gathering, but I’m sure I’ll meet you next week.”

In short, she has told me that unless I pick her up beforehand and drop her home laterin addition to throwing a cocktail party, she will not attend. Her transportation is my problem.

It’s not just that this makes me want to sit her down and give her a lecture on professionalism and collegiality like the bossy mid-career scholar I am.

The worst thing is that I feel crappy. I feel prickly and taken for granted — and above all guilty and somewhat gobsmacked by her behavior. Guilty enough to let it fester, but confirmed enough not to change my mind about it.

And I think: sometimes the biggest roadblocks in feminism consist of those micro-conflicts between one woman and the next — conflicts over how to behave, how to treat one another.

You are not the colleague I want, we say to each other via email. You aren’t behaving as I think you ought to, as my behavior has clearly called forth from you.

And we arrive at the impasse.