21 March 2011

Teaching Tip #4: Maintaining Sanity While Grading

Given the slow news day on Friday, it might be time for a return of the Teaching Tip.

For those who missed it, a York University Teaching Assistant was caught making disparaging remarks about students on Facebook and then apologized. Various people were sought for comment, or perhaps merely invented, since there is the standard union line (TAs are overworked), the standard entitled undergraduate (I demand better customer service and an ego-stroke), the standard disgruntled graduate student (it's not just TAs, it's Professors and Deans too), the standard department line (we accept the TA's apology and have full faith in her abilities - meaning the TA is either getting a pedagogical and PR refresher or will be shifted to non-teaching duties in the future) and no comment from the TA in question.

This TA is not the first, or last, to complain about grading. Why? Because grading is painful. No one enjoys it.

I thought it would be a good opportunity to offer another Teaching Tip that will help you avoid some of the pain that is grading. First, a few cold hard facts about the Bell Curve and its applicability to undergraduate writing.
  1. I've read about 1000 final exams.
    1. Of the 1000 or so essay answers I've read on final exams I'd venture a guess that about one of those students actually said something anywhere near brilliant. I'm talking smart enough to make me stop and think about how good a paper this would be if the student had time and energy to do the research to make a truly compelling argument. Although I could be misremembering and overestimating, since grading is one big blur of colourful marking pens and paper cuts.
    2. There have been a couple hundred students who think they've invented the wheel in their essay response, but they are in fact giving what amounts to a boiler plate A-response. They take the evidence they've been given in class and the readings, critically assess it the way you've trained them and come to one of the three precise answers you were expecting when you wrote the question. It's tough breaking the news to these students that thousands of students before them, at universities all around the world, have had the same 'brilliant' insight before them, which is why it's 'only' an A and not an A+.
    3. Every so often, say about five times a year, you'll come across a student who finds a shocking way of misinterpreting everything you've taught them. No amount of excellence in teaching can avoid this disaster, and there's no way to actually predict how widely a student can miss the mark. You know you will see these types of responses, but there's no way to anticipate what you're going to see. These can range from the student who sits down and can't write a single word about the class, to the application of a conspiracy theory that has nothing to do with your course, to things I can't imagine, but I'm sure I will see in the future.
    4. There are, however, a few very predictable ways that students will go a little bit off the rails. Those D, C and B papers are the same every year. Hundreds and hundreds of students who don't quite grasp the concept of critical thinking, or who misconstrue the evidence or who manage to accomplish both (without going completely off the rails like the students in point 3 above). When I started teaching I wanted to believe that really good teaching could avoid this, I'm growing more skeptical.
  2. The same points apply to papers and reports as above with slight modifications.
    1. Because they have more time, you'll see a few more students who approach brilliance. They have a really novel idea, they've had time to do some preliminary research, and they are able to write well enough to persuade you. You see yourself in them, or at least you see yourself as you imagine you were as an undergraduate. You write a comment at the end of their paper that they should apply to graduate school and use this paper to derive a research proposal.
    2. Because students have more time, it doesn't mean they'll use it. Essays written the night before are usually terrible. They don't use spell check, they don't proof-read, they don't ask anyone else to edit their paper, they use Wikipedia and random Google-search finds, and they haven't actually reflected on their 'research' or their preliminary 'thesis.' None of this makes for pleasant reading, especially after you've put so much effort into telling them NOT to do this, and showing them how to avoid making these common mistakes.
Deep down, students know when they've written crap, or submitted something that isn't their best work. However, it doesn't avoid the fact that they will want to blame you, the grader of their work, when the result is not what they dreamed (straight A-pluses). It's a sucky position to be in. We all want our students to be brilliant A+ students; we want to go to the university and tell administration that we've finally had a class that obliterates the Bell Curve. Nothing would make us happier, especially if we take a bunch of underachieving students and get the best out of them. Then we wake up.

And when we wake up to the cold realities of the brilliance-absurdity spectrum here's a few ways to deal with it.
  1. Accept that grading is painful. It really and truly is.
    1. You aren't going to see very many outstanding responses. Approximately once every 1000 students someone will come along who blows away your expectations of brilliance, and this raises the bar, to a degree, for the next person to come along and say something even more intelligent (the same way new published research will change how you teach and what you accept and expect).
    2. You'll see lots of students who are just as smart as you, but seem to think, like you did, that they are special, and not just another one of the 15-25% of university students who get 'it.' The trick is encouraging them, without making them overconfident.
    3. The rest of the students won't get 'it' to varying degrees, and this will frustrate you. Why are they in university? Why is your teaching having no effect? Why will the university allow these students to graduate and why are you participating in this practice? Why did a high school shuffle these students off to university? What is wrong with the world?
  2. Once you've accepted that grading is painful, and that you are going to see responses that match the Bell Curve (more or less), then you have to figure out how to differentiate between the papers efficiently and fairly.
    1. If, somehow, no one gets 'it,' then you'll have to reflect on your expectations, the questions, your teaching, etc. Twenty-five or more students can't all be wrong, and the only common denominator is you (a group of less than twenty-five students can all be wrong, however).
    2. If you're grading exams, don't expect to see brilliance. Expect to see sleep-deprived, caffeine-driven, slightly-confused responses. Be happy when the smart ones get 'it.'
    3. If you're grading essays, expect a range of intelligence from the ones who are actually conscientious about their work; expect all-nighter drivel from the majority. Never be surprised by their short-sighted attempts to fool you with plagiarism (some students actually believe they can outsmart you - a few of them can, but it's never the ones who plagiarise).
  3. No matter how predictably painful grading is, never vent about it in an unprofessional way (this goes for any job that you want to keep).
    1. No Tweets.
    2. No Blogs.
    3. No Facebook posts if you have a public profile, or you are friends with your students (that's a whole other can of worms), or if one or more of your graduate student friends might rat you out.
    4. No complaining on public transit, or a cafeteria, or over post-grading celebratory drinks at a public house.
    5. It's probably better to avoid complaining completely, but it feels wrong bottling it up, so here's a few places it is okay to vent.
      1. With your therapist.
      2. In the comfort of your own home with your family, assuming you have done the appropriate sweep for wiretaps.
        1. But don't vent too much or for too long; your loved ones love you, but there is a limit to how much venting they want to be subjected to before you become a self-absorbed buzz-kill. Everyone has a different threshold.
      3. By exchanging a knowing nod or sympathetic word with fellow graders.
        1. TA1 - "What are you doing this week, TA2?"
        2. TA2 - "Grrrrading."
        3. TA1 - "My condolences." <nods> "I had to grrrrade last week."
        4. TA2 - <nods> "I'm glad to see you are getting over the pain, TA1."
      4. By adopting a pseudonym and going to the media. No wait, I'm thinking of government or corporate informants and legitimate threats to national security. The Bell Curve is not a threat to national security.
  4. If you reach that point when you think you are going to explode, take a break. Get a chocolate bar. Take a walk around the block. Visit your nearest primal scream chamber. Do whatever it takes, without publicly venting, to clear your head and come back to the grading with a clear mind so that you can continue to be fair to the students. It's not their fault they fit the Bell Curve nor is it their fault that this is making you feel like a teaching failure.
It boils down to professionalism and statistics. I can't do anything about statistics, because I'm not the Prime Minister. This leaves professionalism. We all have slightly different interpretations of professionalism, and most of us have trouble living up to our own idealized definition, so take what you like from this Teaching Tip and ignore the rest. The key to surviving in teaching, or anything else, is putting in an honest effort at the job and trying to improve continually. If and when you screw up, own it, learn from it, and move on.

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