Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Grading Desperation

I'm grading papers, and they're desperate sometimes, and I'm desperate, too.

I need to remind myself that when students are writing to learn, their writing shows it.  It's painful for both of us, I'm sure.

If you don't teach writing (or music), you might think that once someone has learned to write a basic sentence, s/he will always be able to produce a basic sentence.  But that's not how it works.  If a student is grappling with really difficult concepts or learning new material, and trying to write about the new stuff at the same time, basic sentence writing sort of goes to hell. 

You can take a perfectly able, wonderful, great student writer, and send them to grad school where they'll study Derrida, and while they're figuring out how to write about Derrida, their writing will go to hell.  It's not Derrida's fault, nor the students, that's just how writing is.

If I give my students a short writing assignment to tell me about their family or something, they'll all write pretty much in good sentences.  The sentences will work as sentences.  But ask them to learn about something really new and difficult and write about it, and most students will have trouble, and their sentences will demonstrate the trouble.

In an ideal world, the students would take that horrid draft and go to the writing center, come to my office hours, or just get really good help peer editing, and that would help them fix the sentence level problems.  But, since the students are still (at this level) learning about whatever the topic is, they find revision incredibly difficult.  The ones who visited my office a lot with this paper turned out really solid work, unsurprisingly.

But it's also really important to remember that writing about something you're learning is a great way to solidify the learning (just as trying to teach someone about something helps you learn it), so we can't just ask students to write only about stuff that's comfortable.

Still, reading and grading these makes me really want some cookies.


  1. Or a stiff drink. I've been reading essays, and they are so painful that I can only do about 4 before I have to bail. I have a terrible time separating content from the mechanics of writing, but how a student can submit a paper with citations and NOT do a biblio/works cited page... or write a coherent sentence that doesn't do violence to the ideas...

    I'm reaching for cookies & booze.

  2. The end of the term when putting things off comes back to bite students in the butt. That's why it's nice we have the summer to forget how badly some of their work disappointed us!

  3. passing the cookies and booze.

    for myself, i know that writing helps me understand, think through, refine new ideas and information. the process works for me; and it works even better after someone else has read my stuff and asked pointed questions, or made remarks.

    one of my roles is giving feedback to lawyers on their written work. this is not a demographic that is totally open to learning or to criticism, as one might guess. sometimes it works, though, and things are better in the universe as a result.

    (you will not even believe this, but my captcha is: evalls overtime.)

  4. Bardiac, to what extent do you reward the intellectual exploration and penalize the weak writing that is sometimes a byproduct of that exploration? I really struggle with this; I'd rather that they take risks and fall flat on their faces and actually be THINKING than that they write safe, boring papers. This is one reason that I don't use rubrics -- for me, sentence-level errors in a paper that is bad all around are different from sentence-level errors in a paper that's so interesting that the author couldn't come down from the clouds to address those errors. Maybe those two things shouldn't be different for me, but they feel different. But then I really struggle with putting a grade on the papers. (I've been having this problem with my AP Comp students, some of whom are doing great thinking but keep forgetting about apostrophes.)

  5. What Now?, That's a good question (or questions). I do use a rubric for some papers. It's one I've modified from our writing program person's. It's split in three. The first part is simple yes/no, and a paper has to get all "yes" to demonstrate competencey. You put the things you've really focused on there, thesis, citing sources, addressing the assignment, whatever you've really focused on enough to matter. And it's a short list. And then there are a couple questions with more varied answers: does the essay come up with challenging or interesting stuff, style, whatever. You use that to get at the difference between an A and a B, and so on. Then there's a short "what I found most interesting about the essay" part, and a "what you should work on for your next essay" part.

    As for the apostrophe thing: if a student makes one sort of proofreading error repeatedly, then I see that as one error. They haven't figured out apostrophes, and I'll mention it, and work with them on it, but it's just one error, and not a problem in addressing the assignment or something really important. I really only worry about proofreading in grade terms if I can't understand the sentences as sentences to the point that I can't understand the paper. And that's very, very rare with my students. (I also make sure to do a proofreading exercise before my students turn in most papers.)