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Grading Papers

For the last three weeks I’ve been grading papers and other assignments nonstop. The way I figure it, one more week and I should be caught up! Some anthropologists identify primarily as researchers while for others their activism comes first. I think of myself primarily as a teacher, but there’s still no way around it: I hate grading.

There are two things to hate about grading: it’s tedious and it’s unfair. On top of this one might even question whether its an effective way of evaluating student performance in the first place.

On this last note I seem to be in the minority. In high school I was a bright student who didn’t have to try very hard to get by even when my equally bright peers were ultra-competitive. As a result I graduated outside the top 20% of my class. While my peers were headed off to MIT, Caltech, Harvard, and West Point I earned a free ride to a school without grades, New College.

At New College I fell in love with learning and discovered anthropology. In small classes I was nurtured to be an independent and self-motivated student. Everything was graded pass/fail with written evaluations. Fortunately not having a GPA didn’t keep me out of grad school. At UNC my graduate courses were all graded as High Pass, Pass, or Fail. It fit my personality but also worked to my disadvantage. I lost out on a Ford Fellowship when a reviewer noted that my transcript had so many courses marked Pass, and since there were also some High Passes a regular Pass must be equivalent to a B. Therefore I was a B student.

To a certain degree I have had to unlearn this culture of gradeless scholarship in order to teach traditional college students. My students still perceive me as unconventional, but I’ve toned that way down in the years since I first began. If there is one lesson I’ve learned from leading a gradeless life it is this: the vast majority students want to be graded. They crave it. They are satisfied only when you rank them in a coherent order and, for the most part, they aren’t interested in whatever “thoughtful” comments you might make about their essays.

So I’ve stopped holding myself to the standard of my former professors and now think of grading as a task to be dispatched with as quickly and fairly (ie, consistently) as possible. After all, they had the advantage of teaching tiny liberal arts college classes. I can’t afford to commit that level of care with my large classes. Thus I have developed the following technique.

Early in my career I would leave careful notes on all my students’ essays. Grammar and spelling was corrected, assumptions were challenged, tangents were suggested, and then a hand-written paragraph wrapped up my opinion of their work. A lot of this was boiler plate language, but it was a very time consuming process. Maybe 3-4 short papers could be graded in a hour.

Then one day as class was dismissed I observed students throwing away their graded papers on their way out the door. For the majority of them my precious notes were a waste and you know what? That’s fine. They are not going to be anthropologists. In all likelihood they’ll never write another essay outside of college. Instead of teaching them to write like anthropologists I’d rather start them on the journey (and it is an iterative process, for all of us) of trying to think like one. That process is something in the course itself and not necessarily conveyed by evaluating their work.

Yet an anthropology course must have some writing assignments. Therefore adapting to my students’ behavior is a necessity. Here is what I do. I make students opt-in to receiving comments. If you want me to mark up your paper and critique your writing then turn in a hard copy at the start of class. If you just want the grade then you can send it to me as an attachment in an email. The form has no bearing on the grade. The only difference is that one gets comments and a grade, while the other just gets the grade. I’ve been running this system for the past 3 years and it is an effective compromise.

Approximately 20-33% of the class will turn in a hard copy, this tremendously reduces the need to write comments and speeds up the grading process. This self-selected set includes both skilled writers and writers in need of improvement, but usually excludes the weakest writers. These I can grade at a rate of about 4-5 per hour.

The majority of the class just wants the grade. I’m happy to oblige because I can grade the emailed assignments at rate of 10 per hour. The same criteria apply and the same pitfalls must be negotiated so that grading remains consistent. It’s merely quicker.


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