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Grading In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction

December 28, 2012, 4:45 pm

If you are my age, you remember a time, years ago, when some wag of a colleague would distribute a mimeographed list of verbal “boners” found in that semester’s student papers. Some of these could be verbalized, and still retain their maximum impact, but most required the visual media we then had at our disposal.  Student boners, which would now be called bloopers for obvious reasons, usually involved a homynym, a misspelling, an ungrammatical twist or a peculiar metaphor. You had to see it to get the full yuck. One blooper that I recall vividly from my TA days was a response to a short answer exam question for the nineteenth century U.S. History final, “Identify and state the significance of  the reaper.” Answer: “The raper was a machine that performed the work of ten men.”

Humiliating students in their absence is, of course, a symptom of very intelligent, highly verbal and very resentful group of people trying to amuse themselves during bouts of grading, an activity many of us despise. Strangely, making fun of students while grading is usually perceived by other professionals as harmless fun. It’s an academic version of  ”Kids Say The Darndest Things,” a regular feature of the middlebrow Cold War TV show Art Linkletter’s Houseparty in which small children were served up by their parents to be ridiculed on a national broadcast.

Needless to say, the digital world has changed the means by which faculty, as a group, delight themselves with the unintended witticisms and hilariously incorrect information in student papers, the lame excuses and the complaints about grades. These things moved from the Xerox page to email, to a mean-spirited website called Rate My Students and to individual blogs.  They are also now a feature of Facebook, along with status updates where people complain about how horrible grading is and how their students so much did not get it.

Making fun of student work reaches its zenith at the end of the semester, a moment when neither student or teacher has an ounce of interest left in the course itself. One can only imagine (hope?) that students are in their dorms and on their Facebooks making fun of their professors too. And yet — is this really what coursework should be about? Should this be the outcome of all our hard work — and theirs?

It was in my early years as a blogger that I realized the true perils of proffies using their students as fodder for a comedy routine, so I don’t do it (especially on Facebook, which is notoriously leaky unless you review your privacy settings every month or so.)

One  of my quirks is that I do not dislike grading, in part because I want to see how the story ends — in other words, where did the student end up after all this? This year I also had a new thought, as I read my own papers, and also peeked at pitiful Facebook status updates by colleagues grading across the land:

Why do we assign students papers that we don’t actually want to read?

This led me to a second question:

If we don’t want to read the papers we assign, why would our students have any interest in writing them?

Then I came to yet another question:

Do the students not sense this lack of interest in their writing by many of their teachers, and might this not have something to do with the indifference they themselves sometimes display to the quality of their own work? 

And finally, I thought, if what we are seeing here is a national game of “garbage in, garbage out,” then:

Could this be one of the constellation of reasons that students plagiarize and purchase papers? I mean, given the choice between baking a cake and buying one for someone who doesn’t give s damn about cake, would you bake or buy?

I would buy. Unless I thought I would be caught, and then I would bake. Grudgingly. And I wouldn’t worry about filling in all the cracks with icing.

I have kept these thoughts to myself until today, when I read Cathy N. Davidson’s essay, “Why Students Today Complain About Grades—and How We Can Fix It.” (HASTAC, 12/27/2012). Grading, Davidson agrees, is “the most demoralizing part of being an educator today.” As much as teachers want that scintillating connection to ideas, students have gotten to our classrooms in the first place by learning that grades really do count more than anything. “No wonder they fight for a good one!” Davidson writes.

(In case you have any misconceptions that it is only unprepared and unintelligent students who fight unfairly for the good grade, read English prof Kevin Kopelson‘s Confessions of a Plagiarist, Counterpath Press, 2012. Alternatively, you can follow Margaret Soltan, the Ida Tarbell of high-level academic cheating, at University Diaries.)

For all the blah, blah, blah in the national edusphere about the need for  cultural literacy and critical thinking, student success = a high GPA, and a student can’t get that GPA without being tested and graded on assignments, produced via grading rubrics, that have changed very little over the past half century. As Davidson points out, students have learned the lesson well — it’s the grades that matter, not the work:

So don’t blame the next eighteen year old who calls, knocks on your door, or emails to boost that B- to an A-. He’s been taught his whole life how to get the good final score that equals educational success. Why should he be able to forget that lesson just because it’s a seminar and the grades are based on essays requiring eloquence, persuasive rhetoric, critical thinking, and analytical skills? If he has absorbed the educational philosophy of our nation that grade achievement constitutes educational success, then whining for an A- makes him . . . what? Well, eloquent, rhetorically persuasive, and a final critical and analytic thinker. Right? Doesn’t he now have the grade on his transcript to prove it?

Students don’t have choices, but we do: read the rest of the post for a few hints. As you are imagining your syllabi for the spring semester, think of assignments that allow your students to write about things they really care about. Imagine some ways to help them participate in the evaluation process. And while we’re at it: why do they have to write all the time? What are the sophisticated ways they know how to express themselves that might make for a more interesting assignment?

Do yourself a favor: don’t assign papers or exams that you don’t want to read. Worry less about grade inflation than about your own role in creating assignments that give students very little scope or encouragement for revealing what they really think about. If you are bored reading their papers and final exams, consider this:  you may have bored them first.

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