Monday, September 29, 2008


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.


  1. A mentor can be a friend, right? But a mentor also gives feedback and criticism, which is really what a grade is.

    I hear your disappointment, though.

  2. Anonymous10:25 PM

    I hear this! Experiencing the exact same disappointment over here.

  3. one of the challenges a new college student faces is the shift in expectations from high school. many if not most students were able to handle the HS work easily, and they are accustomed to being viewed as "good students." now, they are in classes filled with similarly successful students -- and no longer stand out. plus, they need to work harder; the goals of college courses are different from HS.

    i think it is useful to keep stressing that the grades and feedback are designed to help them improve their writing, critical thinking, fund of knowledge. we all have areas of relative strengths and weaknesses, and learning to identify them and work with them will be important throughout their lives -- not only in the academic setting, either.

    your students may not remember the content of many particular classes in 20 or 30 years, but they will still be reading and writing. the improvements they can wring out of this class will still be serving them.

    my perspective is as a former english major, and the mom of a young college student. my daughter flunked her writing course last year -- which horrified her, as she is a decent writer, but one cannot skate if one oversleeps, does the work at the last minute, forgets assignments, doesn't talk to the teacher about how to improve, etc. she should feel bad about her performance. i think she'll do a lot better when she takes the class again this year.

  4. Oh, my: you capture the mix of feelings I, too, feel -- and see on the faces of my students.

    To uncouple the essay grade from the person, I *always* stress that these grades are provisional. I use a portfolio assessment method for essays, so we will be revising essays for a portfolio of our best work at the end of the semester.