Sunday, April 08, 2007


Not bicycles for once. Student cycles.

We get a new influx of students every year; they start as first years, and if all goes well, graduate in four or five years with a good education, changed in important ways through our work.

Each semester has cycles, too. There's the introductory phase, when I'm trying to learn names, get classes going, introduce students to my expectations and class style, get a sense of them as people and students. Then there's the hard work phase, work in class, writing work, grading work. And finally, towards the end, for most students, there's a short time when they're really having fun in class, when they know what's expected and know enough of the material to do a higher level of intellectual work. Then there's the final work, papers, exams, whatever. And it's all over, and we start again with new classes.

Mostly, cycles are great. When good students graduate, I know there will be more good ones in the incoming class, and I look forward to getting to know them and doing my small part in their education. The rounding of the academic year has its pleasures, though grading is not one of them.

But cycles are also frustrating because students make the same basic mistakes endlessly, just different students. Okay, so we aren't supposed to talk about mistakes, but let me get away with it for a short moment.

At some point, most students hear certain things often enough and/or care enough that they know the basic academic writing conventions. But each semester, new students aren't there yet.

I feel like I've endlessly written

"Periods and commas go inside quotation marks." (at least in the US; if you're elsewhere, your conventions differ. But it's no more difficult to learn than which side of the street to drive on!)

"Italicize or Underline play titles."

"Use quotation marks for titles of short poems."

The fact that I'm grading stacks of 30+ papers at a time means that I'm writing the same thing over again, though not to the same student. So for the student, it's maybe new information. But for me it's hellish repetition.

And I know, there's a point at which marking conventional stuff just doesn't work, but I can't get myself past it with lit papers somehow.

I "know" my colleagues teach things like topic sentences in paragraph writing in our first year class. Okay, I hope they do. But I still feel like I have to endlessly talk about paragraph writing. I know it's a matter of practice and such, and that it's not something most people learn instantly when they hear it once, but I'm still frustrated.

In academic blogs, I think there's also a cycle. And now, with finals and such coming up for those of us on the semester system in the US, we're coming into the heights of grading whining. Ugh.


  1. I'm not teaching this semester, but those three endlessly-written comments are very, very familiar to me.

  2. I find myself wishing for a rubber stamp (or a whole set of them) to point out the punctuation and format issues you mention and a few other common errors. Here's what annoys me: even the most intelligent student may struggle to come up with an interesting thesis and support it with well-developed paragraphs made up of coherent sentences, but the format of the paper is the one thing any student ought to be able to get right. It's just not that difficult to double-space consistently or indent the first line of paragraphs or underline play titles or put the period after the in-text citation or use hanging indent in the Works Cited. So why do I have to keep reminding them of these things?

  3. I have one rubber stamp and it gives me great pleasure! It came out so much bigger than I expected it to be (2" x 3"!) and it says "Article title? Quotation marks. Book title? Italicize or underline."

    Since it's so enormous, I actually rarely use it. I don't think I use it enough for my students to realize that when I do it is out of great frustration.

    It makes a loud noise and a satisfying stamp on the papers. Sometimes that's just what I need to do.


  4. Timna,

    I have stamp-envy. I actually wanted a little herring stamp and a red ink pad for the longest time. Also, a they're, there, their stamp, and an it's/its stamp, but they would be too wordy.

    The fact that I'm grading stacks of 30+ papers at a time means that I'm writing the same thing over again, though not to the same student. So for the student, it's maybe new information. But for me it's hellish repetition.

    Ever catch yourself getting angry with the kids on the bottom of the stack for not learning from the 53 times you wrote "Please italicize" before you got to their paper?

    I have. I write myself very strict rubrics so I don't punish a guy for being at the bottom of the pile. But I do still get annoyed about mid-pile.

  5. timna - I WANT that stamp!

  6. This is one of the nice things about having students submit papers or rough drafts via email. I keep a separate document open with a list of various comments. Then I highlight the offending text, make a comment and paste those repetitive edits in from the other document. For things like active vs. passive voice, I often include links to a good website that address the issue.

  7. Anonymous5:27 AM

    Try using grading codes in the margins -- that's what I do. So "g" means a grammar mistake, "p" means punctuation, "a" and a "/" at the place in the sentence means "add a space," "f" means an American Sociological Association style format error in the citation, "inc sen" for incomplete sentence, and so on.

    Then, in WebCT, for every class I put a Word file with my grading codes in the "Class Policies" organizer. So they have to learn my codes.

    Since I grade using my calligraphy fountain pen - this saves a TON of ink. But there are always classes -- like my sociological theory course which has the most writing of any of my undergraduate courses -- where I feel I want to demand that students purchase ink cartridges -- sort of like a 'grading ink fee.'

    Try this out -- it has made my grading life so much easier!

  8. Oh, a stamp!

    A grading code thing would simplify my writing. Do your students actually look at it and figure things out, or no? Because from what I've read in comp lit, students don't learn well from grammar type corrections, in general, right? I can't imagine most of mine taking the extra step to check a code.

  9. Cleophila4:53 PM

    I discovered your blog while procrastinating marking a pile of papers in front of me; so while this comment comes a while after the post, I thought I'd drop a whine (tis the season, as you say).

    How is it that I love teaching writing -- talking about it, analyzing the process, giving the students strategies and techniques, etc., but turn into a miserable petulant teenager ("awwww, do I haaave to?") when I have to grade their work?

    Love the stamp idea: [HOW RELATED TO THESIS?] [NEW IDEA? NEW PARAGRAPH] [AWKWARD] [WORDY!] or, you know, when someone writes that _Utopia_ is a novel, a John McLaughlin-esque [WRONG!].

    I use a simple rubric of four terms: if a potential comment doesn't fall within the rubric, I think twice about writing it.

    I've also considered having the students submit by email to use the comment function (my handwriting is atrocious, so I'm sure they'd appreciate it), but, despite Bill Gates' best efforts, not every student uses Microsoft Word.

    Ultimately, though, as I sit here with both your post and the pile of papers in front of me, I realize that while I enjoy everything else about this work that is solitary -- the reading, research, the writing, the preparing for class -- I find this part -- staring down a pile of passive voice and dangling modifiers -- strangely isolating in a ho-hum, why me kind of way. . . though I couldn't tell you why.

    I reckon we should have grading bees -- get together and have a laff and make all those misplaced commas go down a little easier.

    For now, though, your post will do a lot to get me through the night. (thanks)

    Oh, and love the posts about the garden and who's at the suet and thistle feeders . . .