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Grading Vows

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This blog was originally posted on November 25, 2014.

I have many writing students, and I assign each one of them writing—a lot of writing, both critical and creative pieces—for each class. So, I read a lot of student work.  And this time of the semester all my vows are tested. My vow to keep my daily writing practice going. My vow to sleep and eat well and exercise daily—that’s pretty much over now that it’s late November. My vow to be present for my students, to be a good colleague. My vow to live a life centered around kindness, awareness, and meaning.

I have three strategies—which may or may not work for you—to keep from feeling overly stressed about reading so much student work, especially towards the end of the term, when getting behind, getting off track with other projects and neglecting the fun and fulfilling parts of life is most likely.

Strategy 1

I read 1/3 of the papers that come in the day they come in.  I stay in my office after each class period and spend at least an hour reading for each class. I get home late, but I get home free. I don’t carry student work around with me. I feel like a pile of student writing, left untended, mushrooms into something larger. [Full disclosure: I am teaching creative writing. I feel very, very lucky to have the job I have. I get to choose the assignments, their length, and schedule the due dates. Most people aren’t in that position, so I want to be careful here.  However, I taught comp for many, many years and always I try to associate, deeply, reading student work with pleasurable things.] I read in my office, and I have made that space beautiful by making sure I always have in my space

  1. Fresh flowers
  2. A diffuser spewing lavender oil molecules into the air
  3. Soft light
  4. Soft music.
  5. Access to hot tea.

Strategy 2

I schedule, in my calendar, blocks of time for doing the rest of the reading and then I don’t talk about grading papers before, during, or after those scheduled blocks of time. Ever. Not one word. Not ever. I simply refuse to talk about this part of my life.  I talk about what my students are up to that’s surprising to me. I talk about what we are reading in class, and what I am learning as a writer from the readings, or from my students. If I talk about grading, I feel like I’m complaining and then I also feel like I am spending time in a negative place—like I’m stretching out the task to be a huge part of my life.  It’s time consuming, and important, but it’s not the center of my life. I like to hear other people’s creative strategies for improving teaching so I try to steer conversations about the tedious parts of teaching toward interesting elements, creative solutions, and, hopefully, humor.

Strategy 3

I made friends outside of academia and I hang out with them during my social time. People outside of academia have great strategies for managing workload, increasing efficiency, and approaching the parts of the job that are most challenging and I love to listen to how they talk about work. They are so not interested in my grading woes that, once again, I’m not spending my time in that slough.  I learned a different way of relating to work conversations by listening to those in other fields and it gave me a fresh perspective that I really needed.

At first, when I made my vow to not talk about grading papers, I felt a little weird and lonely. I worried my colleagues would think I was lazy or unfocused. When there’d be a gripe session in the halls  and I didn’t join in, at first I felt like I wasn’t really being part of the team.

It seems like it would be super annoying to enter the conversation, rubrics in hand, smiling, papers all graded and scores neatly entered in the gradebook.  So, I restrain myself.  But if you want to talk about teaching, and response strategies to creative writing, and what we’re learning from researchers about what happens in peer response groups, my door is open. Please come in. Even during this busy time of year, I’d love to talk!

My office is pretty. I did yoga this morning.  End of the semester, and hanging in!  Do come by.

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Heather,

I enjoyed reading this post.  You have some wise strategies for dealing with paper grading and avoiding developing a negative outlook.  I tend to procrastinate, so your idea of grading a third of the papers on the day they are submitted is a good one.  I write a lot on each paper, and that makes my grading go slowly.  I gather from your post that you use rubrics.  Do you also make a number of individual comments on essays?  If so, how do you limit your comments so that you do not get bogged down in writing them out?   I hope you will please excuse these questions if they violate your rule about discussing grading.

I teach my course by “course concepts” and each week, we add another set of course concepts.  Students’ works are responsible for demonstrating the course concepts for that week, and bringing along what we have been practicing up to that lesson. It’s a “yes” “sort of” or “no” situation.  I list the concepts they’ve demonstrated, and draw arrows; I list the ones they haven’t achieved, and circle the corresponding soft spots. If moved, I write more. I write fast and large and occasionally use a rubric. I don’t call it grading. I call it responding. I don’t grade the student creative work; I do grade their participation, and their responses to readings, live events, annotations, etc.  I hope that helps. Please let me if you have further questions or comment.

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.