Monday, March 08, 2010

Stacks and Stacks

I don't pretend to be the best teacher ever, but my biggest problem as a teacher is procrastinating about grading. And it seems worse, way worse, when a stack reaches a certain number.

For example, a stack of 10 1-2 page journals, fifteen minutes.

A stack of 20, well, just looking at them slows me down. Then I stupidly count them. And then I start, and 15 minutes later, I count them again, and arrange the pile of graded ones neatly. And seven minutes later, I roll over to check my email. And an hour later, I finish up the last few.

A stack of 30? Just looking at them makes my brain want to curl up in a fetal position. I start reading, and then I look at something else, and read a few more, and finally I decide that I just have to write a blog post about my misery. Though, of course, truth be told, the misery of even a stack of 30 is less than the misery of a stack of 60. And even that is less than the misery of a flu. And so on.

When I was learning to teach, one of the things the comp folks tried to teach me was that if I wrote good assignments, I wouldn't mind grading them as much. But if I wrote assignments that inspired lousy papers (in other words, bad assignments), then I'd have made myself miserable. The thing is, even the best assignment begins to feel like a bad assignment after the 18th paper.

Think about it. Imagine you've given your promising young poets an assignment: everyone write a sonnet. It's a great assignment! Sonnets are short! You've got Sydney, Spenser, Shakespeare and Daniel all hanging out in the back of the room making rude comments at each other. And you've got Millay, Milton and Coleridge being studious in the front! What could go wrong? (And add your other favorite 23 sonnet writers, go ahead, just do it.)

Now imagine you get a stack of 30 sonnets. Pick your favorite 30 sonnets in the whole world. (Do most people have 30 favorites? I have maybe eight.) Now start grading and writing responses. (Okay, I could go all fantasy about what my response to Spenser's rhyminess would be, but that's just me. And seriously, don't you bet some comp teacher would tell Shakespeare to be less ambiguous about the gender of his beloved?)

And now you've gotten through five of them, and then twelve, and you're still faced with 18, and suddenly a glass of wine and stupid TV begins to seem a lot more interesting, doesn't it?

And that's sonnets. Explications of sonnets, no matter how well written, pale in comparison as far as reading pleasure. But they're really helpful for students to learn how to close read.

And so, there's that stack of papers. And then there's a stack of comp journals, with four more to go. And a stack of comp peer editing. And two stacks of single paragraphs from my lit classes.

Stacks and stacks, and I just need to plant my rear in the chair and NOT roll it towards the computer. I wonder what the weather's supposed to be like in Caracas tomorrow?


  1. Oh, and I have that stack of midterms staring at me :)

  2. I struggle with this as well. I have a stack of essays that I really need to get through, but it seems to take me forever to grade. It is awful because I know how much students hate to wait for papers, and now I have become that instructor.

  3. I don't know ANY teacher who enjoys grading. As much as I try to set daily goals (read five papers a day, etc.), I also procrastinate like a champ.

    I do assign a lot of writing, though, that I don't really "correct." When I assign journals, for example, I read them quickly to make sure the students have at least tried to do the assignment, and then give them the alloted points. I don't see any point of "correcting" process writing. After all, it's not like they're going to revise their journals.

    I've also devised a cool style/punctuation guide that allows me to put numbers next to grammar problems and let the students figure out the mistakes themselves. That way, I don't have to keep writing out grammar rules, and the students don't get distressed by all the marks on their papers.

    If you want a copy of this key, email me at I'm very happy to share it with all suffering graders out there.

  4. I like to grade at a cafe or outdoors (in spring/summer) with my favourite drink beside me. If I don't let myself sit outside on the grass, or go to a cafe at any other time than when I'm grading, it ALMOST starts making me look forward to it!

  5. As with Susan, I'm losing a staring match with my stack of 80 midterms. Bleargh!

    You're right that thirty or more of ANYTHING is daunting. Even the best assignment gets wearisome and when you discover a persistent problem, it's disheartening to know that there's a dozen or more still to tackle. Good luck with your piles!

  6. I hear you, I hear you, I hear you all. I try every time to convince myself that I can just do like 4 projects a day and then it won't be so bad -- but I end up in a grading marathon session right before I'd feel so bad about getting their projects back that I'd have to extend their next project deadline. It's true that better assignments helps, I think. I try to create such open assignments that students' papers can be really different -- then put the ones I bet will be pretty interesting pretty far down the pile. But really, grading just sucks. It's a weird system, because they hate writing them, we hate reading/grading them -- so what it is all for? Especially if we're trying to help students understand real reasons for writing.

    Sorry, I'm feeling cynical right now. But I loved the post AND the comments. I'm not alone. None of you are alone either. I hate grading!