Grading Versus Responding

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This post first appeared on May 4, 2015.

When I was finishing my PhD in creative writing, my boyfriend was a rhetorician.  He was a bit older, and a professor (not mine). I was very influenced by him. He taught me how to close-read, how to make Stromboli, how to play tennis, and how to interact properly with a cat.  All new to me.  I was enthralled. Except for one thing. Instead of “grading papers” he always said “responding to student work.”

As we were both teaching full course loads, we talked about teaching every day, at every meal, and in the evenings on our walks. So, I said “grading” a lot and he said, all the time, “responding,” and it irritated me.  Obviously, by “grading” I meant reading, writing comments, reflecting, and then assigning a grade. His term seemed tedious, and perjorative, and complicating unnecessarily a simple thing. Grading.

Ultimately, we became collaborators instead of romantic partners, and ultimately, I stopped using the word “grading.” He’d written many articles and a terrific book on all the different ways teachers comment on student work—and when we began analyzing the comments creative writing teachers make on student work (with everyone’s permission), I slowly but profoundly came to see our collective endeavor as So Much More Than Grading.

Response.  The word means answer or reply and I found that when I wrote comments on my students’ writing, I was much more focused on a relational and empathic conversation with them than I was on an evaluation. I spent my comments playing back what they had written, and suggesting places where they could go further, write deeper, say more. I mentioned exactly what I wanted to know more about. I absolutely said what I felt the strengths were and listed the two or three areas they’d want to focus on. In revising that particular piece, yes, but more importantly, what to focus on as a developing writer.  These “assessments” required a lot of discernment and I liked that process, a lot.  It sure wasn’t “grading.” I was in conversation with my students; we were on the page together.

So, as I read more deeply into the pedagogical literature on teaching writing and response (Rick Straub, Wendy Bishop, Patrick Bizarro, Andrea Lunsford), and worked on the project analyzing what we say to our students in the creative writing classroom, I gradually changed my language.

“Do you have a lot of grading to do?” I’m asked frequently this time of year. Well, no. Kind of. The grading—figuring out which letter grade to assign the students based on how well their work displayed what we set out to learn this semester—isn’t what takes up my time. It’s reading and responding meaningfully to their pages. Maybe the distinction seems picayune. But what used to irritate me has become a profoundly important distinction.

In this age of STEM, with rapidly declining enrollments in the Humanities, it’s more important than ever that we articulate what it is we do, why it’s necessary, and exactly how it matters. (I highly recommend Peter Meinke’s article, “Double Major.”)

Our students will likely have jobs where giving and receiving responses to work in progress is a crucial part of success. Not grading. In fact, delaying evaluation and judgment in order to learn how to build rapport, work in a group, and think more creatively is essential. At the end of the term, we’re not grading. We’re discerning, with empathy, and I call that response.

About the Author
Heather Sellers (PhD, Florida State University) is professor of English at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate creative writing in children's literature, poetry, and non-fiction. She won the student-chosen professor of the year award at Hope College, where she gave the commencement address. Her textbook for the multi-genre course is The Practice of Creative Writing, which will appear next year in its third edition. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Fiction, she's published two books on creating an inspiring and happy writing life, Page after Page and Chapter after Chapter, as well as a children's book, two books of poetry and three chapbooks, along with Georgia Under Water, a collection of short stories. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The London Daily Telegraph, Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, O,the Oprah Magazine, and The Sun, as well as Prairie Schooner and Alaska Quarterly Review. She's currently at work on a new manuscript of poems and a novel for younger readers, set in Florida, her home state. She’s an avid cyclist and kayaker.