The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"If you come to my office and ask me a loaded question like 'Dr. Hansen why did you give me an F on the paper?' ....I'll have to answer 'because I couldn't grade you any lower.'"...  ...Dr. Earl Hansen.

Commentary of the Day - May 17, 2010:  To Grade or Not to Grade: That Is the Assessment.   Guest commentary by Carolyn Foster Segal.

Topping The Chronicle of Higher Education’s list of most "e-mailed" articles for several weeks this spring was a piece on outsourcing grading (Audrey Williams June, "Some Papers Are Uploaded to Bangalore to Be Graded").  In the print edition of the Chronicle, where it first appeared, it ran on the front page, above the fold -- as it should have, for this was very big news.  Here at last was the key to happiness: one company and one professor coming together to live the life that other instructors have only dreamed of: teaching without the grading.  Can it be true?  Will the ultimate outcome of the age of assessment be freedom from grading?

The possibilities inherent in this radical step are staggering: for starters, think of how much more time faculty members will have for committee work and the creation of new documents on the state of education.

My own fantasy, which began shortly (two weeks -- which coincided with the collection of the first of seven writing assignments from my 56 students) after I became a graduate teaching fellow, was far more amateurish.  I envisioned a theme-grading machine that resembled my toaster oven.  I would simply place the paper on the browning tray, close up the oven door, and set the dial not to "toast" or "bake" but to "follow rubric."  A timer would ring when the paper was ready.

But alas, even while I indulged in this fantasy for years, I would always come back to the sobering realization that I would still have to read the papers.

I would still have to read each paper because I needed to know what my students were thinking (or not thinking).  Grading papers --reading those students essays and commenting on them -- is where a great deal of teaching goes on.  The biggest part of that lesson has less to do with any particular text than it has to do with encouraging students to see that writing is a way -- a powerful way -- of understanding.

This is not to say that I always approach this monumental task cheerfully.  Over the years, I have developed a set of rituals that precede the task of grading: these include sharpening pencils; assembling the texts that my students have written about; weeding flowerbeds or, depending on the season, shoveling snow; and, obsessively counting the number of papers lying in piles on my dining room table.  And I am always mindful not only of the fact that returning papers quickly is essential, but of two comments by full professors at the university where I worked as an adjunct in the writing program for five years.  The first comment had to do with the fact that the longer one teaches, the more difficult, not easier, grading becomes.  The second observation goes a long way toward explaining the first one.  When he read a paper, the then-director of the writing program told me, he read it in the context of every paper that he had read before it.

He was right, of course.  A new student essay on Sylvia Plath is more effective than Proust's cookie at conjuring up memories of papers past -- analyses not only of Plath's work but that of her double, Anne Sexton, along with essays on confessional poetry in general, and, while I'm at it, any literary critique of contemporary literature submitted within the last twenty years.  But the point is that the paper I'm holding today (after weeding the south flowerbed for the third time) is in fact new -- and it deserves my full attention.  That paper shows me not only what my student can do, but what we need to work on together.

2010, Carolyn Foster Segal.
Carolyn Foster Segal is a Professor of English at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA.

The Irascible Professor comments: Outsourcing grading really is nothing new.  Back in the day when the IP was taking introductory courses in chemistry and physics at U.C., Berkeley it always rankled him that the grading of his exams was outsourced.  This was long before the age of the Internet; and, the professors teaching these large lecture sections outsourced the grading not to Bangalore but to teaching assistants who were located conveniently down the hall so to speak from the professors' offices.  The classes in question typically had between 150 and 300 students in a given section, so it was understandable that the professors teaching these huge lecture sections needed help with the grading.  And, they did try to be fair about the process.  Typically, a four or five problem exam would be assigned to four or five teaching assistants for grading.  One TA would grade all responses to the first problem, another would grade all responses to the second problem, etc.  In this way some consistency in grading was achieved.  But the process still had the key shortcoming that still gives Carolyn Segal misgivings.  Namely, the professor never got to see the students' work.

The mathematics department at Berkeley at the time took a different tack towards introductory courses.  These courses typically were taught in a small section format entirely by teaching assistants who worked under the supervision of a faculty member.  The TA graded the homework, the midterm exams, and the common final exam that was given to all the sections meeting at a given time.  The drawback of this system was the uneven nature of the teaching.  Some TA's were excellent teachers, others were not so good, and a few were really bad.  But surprisingly, the IP found that on average the TAs weren't that bad as teachers.  Unlike the regular faculty members who had little time for students in freshman and sophomore classes, the TAs generally made themselves much more available.  And most importantly they had some feeling for a student's strengths and weaknesses, because they had graded the student's homework and exams themselves.

The IP was fortunate to have taught in a university where large introductory sections were a rarity.  This gave him the opportunity to personally grade each student's exams.  The process could be a challenge at times, just as Carolyn has noted, but the results were worth the effort for exactly the same reason.  We found out what we needed to work on together.


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2010 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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