Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Returning papers

Except for the fact that it removes a pile from my desk or bag, I hate returning papers, especially early on in first year writing classes.

Of the papers I turned back today, about half were failing. I'm just guessing, but most of our students have decent GPAs and class ranks out of high school, and they probably didn't fail many assignments. But if you turn in an essay talking all about how wonderful or crappy a reading was, without addressing the actual topic of the assignment, you've turned in a failing essay.

I get a strong sense that these students feel betrayed because they think I've judged them harshly. Partly this is because they think a grade on a paper is a personal judgment of their worth, though it's not at all from my point of view. And partly this is because writing classes tend to work a lot on a mentoring model, with instructors trying to encourage students and help them through the pre-writing process. It's a tough balance, the mentoring vs evaluation balance, but it has to be done in our educational model because I'm responsible for assigning grades. Still, watching them leave the room, looking down, unhappy, unwilling to meet my eyes, that's just hard.

Then there's also my disappointment. What did I miss that the students didn't address the assignment well? I know we put that up on the board as one of the things that would demonstrate competence for the assignment before their peer editing.

I got a feeling from one of the essays that one of the writers was trying to play me. I'm betting this young man has been taught to play the system well for a long time; he wrote a "heartfelt" whine about how difficult life is for women and how badly he feels for us. Even if I really felt it to be heartfelt (and I can't decide), it doesn't address the assignment! The point isn't to play to what you think I want to read!

I didn't read drafts of this assignment. Instead, I give students back a graded paper, respond to it as fully as I can as an argument and essay, and then give them the opportunity to revise for a totally different grade. (The revision policy encourages revision, yay, but also makes the tough grade less painful to for me write down.)

I did read drafts for those who came to office hours, sometimes several times. And as I was leaving, I heard one young man (who'd redrafted his essay completely after our first meeting, and then revised and added considerably after our second) remark that he thought his peer could do a lot with revision.

The upside is that getting a failing grade will provide some needed incentive for some students to actually take assignments seriously. It's easy in college, especially when you're starting off, to think that the same strategies that got you to college will get you through. If they do, then either you had great strategies and study habits, or you're not getting much of an education in college. The reality check of early grades can shake things up, especially when the student can replace the grade by revision. (Too bad it's not that easy to get a "do over" for other parts of life, eh?)

The sucky part about giving up emotional and comfort eating, especially chocolate, is that you've given up chocolate and comfort eating. That's hard to replace with something equally socially acceptable for office "consumption." I think I'll wander down the hall to see if someone wants to walk over to the coffee stand to get my fix.


  1. I think that everyone needs a professor like you are at least one time in their lives -- someone who sets out the assignment and grades it based on what the assignment was, not what the student decided it should be. You probably didn't miss anything in setting out the assignment or teaching what was required; too often, students in beginning classes feel that just by virtue of their presence they do not need to put in the time required to actually learn what is being taught! (I'm seeing this same attitude in medical students over and over and over....)

    Order me a decaf non-fat no-foam latte (it's my way to get calcium for those of you who are asking "Why bother?") and I'll meet you at the cafe :)


  2. Bardiac - I also don't collect drafts, and I also have a revision policy that allows students to revise for a completely different grade. Where we differ is that rather than assigning "F" grades, any paper that would receive an "F" gets an "R" - or required revision. If they do not revise, they will get a zero for the assignment. On the one hand, this still stings for students who "have never received anything but an A on a paper," BUT I think it also communicates that I'm not going to let you get away with failing work - especially when that work is failing because you just didn't respond to the assignment. So it's not that the "R" is less brutal than an "F" in a real way, but I think it does underscore the "revision" part of things and not the "failing work" part of things. Also, and this made me laugh, last year I heard one student say to another, who was upset at receiving his first R grade, "R is for Redemption" which I kind of liked.

  3. I totally identify with the difficulty of returning papers. I tell students utright how difficult it is to evaluate them and to give back that work. (Though I don't teach composition, or English.) I refuse to give back essays until the end of class, and I tell them to please refrain from opening up the papers and looking at their grades until they've gone. They think we're heartless beasts; in fact, many of us are so emotionally wrapped up in it, them.

  4. This topic fascinates me. My friend, a high school Spanish teacher, has an endless parade of parents who schedule meetings to talk to her about the grades she gives their children.

    "But Johnny is going to college next year," they say, "and that B will keep him from getting a scholarship."

    Not everybody is a straight A student. What fun would that be?

    I see this a lot among medical students, who all are used to excelling academically. When they get to med school, they aren't the smartest ones anymore. Now they are just average. You can see it really tear into their souls.

  5. P.S. - I just realized I'd mistakenly left you off my sidebar list of blogs all these months. I thought you were there. I read you via bloglines...sorry for the oversight!

  6. Thanks for the encouragement :)

    Artemis, one latte, coming up! (I remember when Starbucks was fairly new where I went to grad school, a prof being quite self-impressed that he'd already mastered the proper ordering etiquette. I still haven't, alas.)

    Dr C, I LOVE the idea of redemption. I've done "Must Revise" type marks at times, and go back and forth. I think sometimes they need to see the scary letter, I guess. But that may change again next semester.

    Hilaire, totally on the mark about waiting til the end of class. I usually ask them to wait a day before coming to talk to me about them, but I forgot this time.

    FD, we're all above average and stuff! It's bleeping Lake Woebegon! Only not. I imagine it's even worse for your friend teaching high school. And thanks for adding me; I've added you as well.