There are many things I love about my job, and I am going to blog about them in the days ahead. But first, some things I don’t like. I will start with an all-time favorite, grading papers. It is a truism, or should be, that the better a paper or assignment is, the less painful, and actually more enjoyable, this exercise is. It is fun to offer good news, in the form of check marks and “Yes!”es. What’s more (and I remember this from my days as a magazine editor), it is also fun to engage with a smart and good writer, in a joint effort to make his or her work as good as it can be.
But when the work is undistinguished or worse, the correcter’s job becomes more drudge-like and disagreeable, repeatedly pointing the same or similar solecisms, factual errors, gaps in logic, structural problems, repetitions, infelicities, etc., etc., while trying to give sincere credit or praise for the small number of things that have come out well, and making evenhanded suggestions for how a better job might be done the next time. At the low end of the scale, the thought is, “Where do I begin?” I remember that in dealing with hamhanded contributors to our magazine, my fellow blue-pencillers and I would sometimes want permission to scrawl on a piece of copy, “Be smarter! Write better!” But of course you can’t say that. On this low end of the scale, I feel I have to make an effort not to write too much, for fear of overwhelming the poor student with hostile dark marks that probably seem the equivalent of growling. It would be hard to learn from a paper that looks like this:
(That is George Orwell’s own editing of the first page of 1984.)
Right, so how much of my or my colleagues’ notations are actually read, other than the grade? I would guess not a lot, which is why I try to share my comments in individual conferences, whenever possible. My friend and tennis partner Gil Rose told me that when his wife, Nancy, was in college she had as a professor a famous writer. (I’m thinking maybe it was Delmore Schwartz, but I’m not sure–I’ll find out. Update: I just heard from Nancy and it was the poet Louis Simpson.) Anyway, in grading papers, this man would do the full Orwell treatment on the first couple of paragraphs then leave the rest of the work untouched, except for brief marginal comments regarding comment. I adapt this method on occasion, especially when the student repeatedly makes the same kind of mistakes.
When I get especially depressed about this, I dread even the act of making the marks on the paper with my pen, feeling it is dragging both student and me down to a place we don’t want to be.
You can tell I’m glad to be back from sabbatical.
But wait, here is some good news, courtesy of technology. The University of Delaware uses open-source software called Sakai, similar to the proprietary Blackboard or WebCT, by which, basically, you can make your class into a web site accessible by you and your students, and add various widgets. With one of them, students can submit their assignments online and the instructor can grade them online. This process has some of the quality of “Track Changes” on Microsoft Word. I can highlight passages, put in comments in any color I choose, cross out a word or phrase, even put in smiley faces. (Don’t worry, I haven’t done this one yet.) At the end I put a grade and it gets automatically recorded and, at the end of the semester, cyphered any way I want.
Make no mistake–this doesn’t make the exercise into a joyride. But I can grade while reclining in my leather chair; there is a lightness and a legibility about my markings that is a lot more pleasant–for me and, I would imagine, my students.