Between midterms and various essays, I’ve been doing a lot of grading over the past month. By “a lot,” I mean enough to make banging my head against a brick wall seem like a not so bad way to unwind by comparison. (Someone remind me to never again turn down the offer of having my own TA.) This is what comes with the territory though, right? Assigning grades to our students’ work is a part of what we do as educators. We evaluate, or “assess,” as the hot word seems to be right now. And yet, I’ve always had a curious relationship with grades going back to my own time as an undergraduate.
To put it succinctly, grades are weird. From a student’s perspective, you work on an assignment for x-amount of time, crafting your work to appeal to an audience of exactly one. Then, after a mysterious process takes place over the course of one or two weeks, you have that assignment handed back to you with a capital letter up top. Sometimes there are maybe a few scattered comments in red ink making the fruit of your hard labor look like it’s been stabbed repeatedly and is bleeding all over itself in agony. As an undergraduate, I had a bad habit of never looking at my own grades. I’d get assignments handed back to me at the end of class, and quickly shove them into my backpack without so much as a glance. It was out of sight, out of mind until the end of the semester.
Part of this habit was because I was always a firm believer that grades ultimately didn’t matter that much. They weren’t a reflection of anything other than an arbitrary and antiquated system for eliciting compliance with society’s standards. (Note: This level of insufferable self-righteousness is what happens when you take a Sociology class for the first time as an 18 year old.) If I’m being honest with myself, however, for as much righteous discontent as I had, part of my aversion to looking at my own grades was rooted in fear as well. I knew in my head that grades weren’t a reflection of my own self-worth, however my gut didn’t necessarily accept such a mature and rational understanding. The thought of having my work judged and reduced to a score by someone else was frankly terrifying. Even as a graduate student, that anxiety lingered and reared its head anytime my dissertation committee asked for an update on how my writing was coming along. Admittedly, not ever looking at my grades was a pretty dumb way to make it through college. And yet, by the grace of the goddess of fortune, somehow this strategy of coping with stress and anxiety never blew up in my face – not completely, anyway.
Now, as a first-year professor, I find myself on the opposite side of things. I find myself in the strange position of having to judge the work of others and of having my judgements be taken with a measure of authority. This is perhaps even more anxiety-inducing because now it’s not just about me. I have a responsibility to other people now. I feel wracked with guilt over every comment I write and score I give.
“Was this a fair essay question? Was I clear on my expectations? Am I expecting too much from them? Am I expecting too little from them? Who am I to judge anyone else’s writing? I’m still not entirely sure what my dissertation committee was thinking letting me pass? Why won’t my cat just be quiet and let me get all of this grading done? Is she trying to tell me I should go easier on this essay? Oh god, maybe this a sign I need to take a break. Where’s a brick wall for me to bang my head against and relax for a bit?”
My unique brand of neurosis aside, the problem that I’ve been grappling with is figuring out a way to evaluate my students without reifying (another concept I learned in that freshman Sociology class) a system that I still believe to be intrinsically flawed. I don’t want to just rubber stamp a letter onto my students’ work, give them a number, and call it a day. I want to help them become better writers and better thinkers. To be honest, I’m still not sure I’ve found a good way to do this. It is a struggle. The grading system as we know it has endured because, for all it’s flaws, it provides a degree of standardization and relative simplicity. However, I still plan to explore new methods of assessment, and I am also open to suggestions. If you are an educator, how do you navigate all of these challenges in your own grading? Do you share the anxiety of responsibility that I’ve found myself butting up against this school year?