Saturday, March 1, 2014

Kill Me Now: Grading Papers

I hate grading papers. I HATE it.  I'd rather clean my apartment with a toothbrush after I leased it out to a fraternity for Rush Week.

And, of course, I teach the subject with the most amount of grading: English. That alone affirms that I'm a masochist.

I know most of my problem is psychological, but when it's me against my psychology, I get bitch-slapped every time.
Recently, I collected 100, six-page research papers from my high school seniors. Rough draft research papers, which means that I'm going to have to make copious comments to guide them through their revisions.

Imagine having to read badly written 600 page novel on a subject you could care less about while writing on every single page why you don't like it.

Have I provided enough instruction for students to produce drafts that shouldn't need copious comments? Absolutely. I'll admit that I do not teach everything well (Siddhartha is always a crap-shoot; Emily Dickinson--never knew how just a few words could confuse me so much) but the research paper? I am a genius. My instructions include brilliant analogies, handouts with simplified instruction to maneuver MLA formatting, and color-coded examples to highlight each aspect of a quality research paper. I hold their hands through every step of researching, developing quality thesis statements, creating supportive arguments, and inserting relevant commentary. In class, I model, model, model; students practice, practice, practice.

But it never fails: most of the students' first drafts are shit. And not the type of shitty first drafts that Anne Lamott writes about.

This has been a rinse-repeat process for my entire 21-year teaching career.  And no, to all you non-teachers, I can't just not assign the research paper.  It is a standard upheld by all senior English teachers, the district office, and God himself.  I could sooner teach the writings of the Marquis de Sade than not teach the research paper.

Every year, I have a ritual preparation for onerous this annual onerous task. This includes buying a lot of chocolate and a few bottles of wine, making sure all of my yoga pants are clean, and sending out a mass email to my friends and family to not even think about calling, texting, emailing, or in any other way communicating with me for a week.

As if it only took me a week.  One of my colleagues gets hers back in a matter of days; the others, a week to 10 days. Me? I am always the last to return my papers.  In fact, by the time I do pass them back, the students have forgotten that they wrote them in the first place. For those of you non-teachers, it takes me anywhere between 20-30 minutes to grade one paper.  Granted, I am slow, but I provide an individualized plan on how to revise their drafts.

Every year I approach the papers with a positive attitude and a promise to get through these papers more quickly than the previous year.  My school is generous enough to allow me a couple grading days (they provide a substitute for my classes at not cost to my sick days), of which I take full advantage. But no matter how determined, how optimistic, how "prepared" I am to blast through these drafts, the pattern is always the same.

Day 1 (Tuesday):  I wake up at 6 a.m., get dressed -- jeans and a cute crew-neck top, light make-up, hair styled--fill my bag with papers and walk up to the local coffee shop.  I power through about eight papers, jotting down comments like "You are on the right track," "Consider doing some more research in __________," "Expand here," "Clarify?," and "remember to refer to that handout I gave you on MLA formatting."  I have lunch, walk back to my apartment, grade a few more papers, take some time to watch TV for an hour or so, grade a few more papers, walk to a local restaurant for a romantic dinner with my papers, come home, have a glass of wine and some chocolate, grade one or two more papers and then go to bed feeling productive.

My second "grading day" (Wednesday) is fairly similar, but I do get up a little later, watch a little more television in the afternoon, dinner is take-out. Two glasses of wine. My comments are a little less euphemistic: "Need more research," "Need to write more here," "Not sure what your point is here," and "Do you need another copy of the handout on MLA formatting?"

Then I must return to my normal teaching day, with maybe 1/3 of my papers graded.  The pressure begins to build. And I do not have 1/2 the energy I had in my 20s.  Shit, even in my 30s. I know that teaching is not the only exhausting job out there, but my workday is a lot like chaperoning a juvenile hall fieldtrip to Disneyland.  After work, I may get through four papers before I collapse from exhaustion.

Day 5 (a weekend day): I wake up at 9 a.m., do not get dressed, do not put on any semblance of make-up, hair is in a ponytail. I do not leave my apartment.  At this point, in addition to my comments in the tone of "You are not sticking with your thesis," "Where did information come from?," "Huh?," "The period goes outside the parenthesis," I am circling brown and red smudges on the paper and writing, "chocolate," and "wine ring."

By the second weekend, I have dedicated at least 25 hours of my free time to reading a bunch of papers that could have been titled "Captain Obvious" littered with errors and some nearly incomprehensible. I am sending texts of "kill me now," to my friends and family.

Day 12 (a weekend day): I wake up at 9 a.m., clean my apartment, do some laundry, go to the supermarket. While I am gone, my cats attack and play with my stack of papers.  I step on them as I haul groceries in from the car.  By 2ish, I sit down to grade my first paper. There are few, if any, positive comments.  I don't even bother to identify the "mystery stains." Some papers will be returned with torn edges and puncture marks from my cats channeling my angst.

Day 13: I might get to my first paper by 4 p.m.  My comments have been reduced to "I have no idea what you are writing about," "Now you are just being random," "Did you hear anything I've said in class in the last month?," and  "Did you even look at the MLA handout?" What I want to write is, "WTF?" and "A drunk monkey with a serious head-wound could write better than this." I am convinced that I spent more time reading it than they spent writing it.  There are more wine-rings than comments.

Last day of grading: I have around 8 papers left.  I don't change out of my pajamas, bathe, and the hair is still in the ponytail I put it in three days ago.  I don't even know what the mystery stains are on the papers. I don't even have to order take-out because my food haunts know to show up with a shitload of carbs and chocolate around mealtime.  I drink anymore wine and I'll have to join AA. I am thinking of pulling a Anna Nicole Smith--overdose and all. If fornicating with an elderly man will keep me from having to grade another paper, I am in.

Eventually, the papers are returned. Students rush me with questions about my comments to which I answer: "I don't know what I meant; I graded ONE HUNDRED papers." (See post after this one on my memory).  I go back to bathing, eating veggies, drinking water. And I vow, that next year, I'll be more efficient at grading the rough draft research papers.


  1. I was an English Secondary Ed major before I switched to business, and I did that semester where I went into a classroom as an aide and got to grade papers (not even for free-I paid tuition money to do it).

    All I remember was that by the end of the day, I would no longer know which spelling or usage was correct!

  2. Are the students able to figure out where their paper landed in the line? Nah. Teenagers wouldn't think like that...

  3. Next year, research paper rough drafts are graded by peer edit only!


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