I gave my first year writing students their first graded paper today.
Let's just say that it wasn't universal cheers and happiness.
It's hard for students to get back a paper that didn't earn a high grade. It's uncomfortable, maybe embarrassing, frustrating, too.
Yes, some students don't put in the time or hard work to do a really good job, but I have to assume that most try and do put in some time and effort. It may not be as much time as I'd put in to do the same assignment, but it seems like a lot of time to first year students. And their sense of working hard on something may be different than mine, but their perception is that they worked hard. And then I hand them back the paper with a grade and a note.
It's especially bad when students won't look at me afterwards. But I know as bad as I feel, it's not really about me, and my feelings aren't the issue.
I try to get students to see that the grade isn't a judgment on them, but having earned my share of criticism, I know it always feels like it is. And it hurts.
I'm guessing it hurts doubly from a professor in a small class because there's a sort of friendliness we try to establish in a small class, but then the grading makes it clear that ours is a professional relationship, and not about friendship. The friendliness can feel forced and hypocritical, rather than a natural and valuable part of a professional relationship.
In my senior year as an undergrad, I took a class from one of the professors I most admire from my undergrad days. I vividly remember the day he handed back our papers because he talked to us about his disappointment with our writing, and about how important writing was. And I was deeply shamed, sitting there listen, though he spoke gently enough. And I was even more deeply relieved when I saw that my grade was actually pretty good, and hoped that his disappointment wasn't really focused on me.
One of my students came to talk to me in office hours about the paper, though, and I feel really good about that, and how s/he is approaching revision. I hope s/he is the first of many to come talk to me like that.