Next time you complain about grading…

The politics of marking essays

It’s essay season. And you know it because students are suddenly very focused, and everywhere academics are tweeting and groaning about marking papers. I get it. I will have a hundred or so first year papers to grade in a little over a week, so I’m right there with you.

But let’s be precise. We’re not complaining about grading per se. In fact, and this is what I want to argue right now, we love grading (or we ought to), and what we dislike is the labour model. When else are you so able to get inside a student’s thoughts? When else will you most have their ear than when you are commenting on their own efforts. How many other times during the semester do you give a student half an hour of your best attention? This is, my friends, the pinnacle of the teaching relationship. Isn’t that what we want when we have our own writing peer-reviewed? A sympathetic reader, who gives their best attention?

But that’s not what we feel about marking. Because we have sixty, or seventy, or a hundred different students to work with. Because all those grades are expected back within a time frame that means you have to mark numerous papers on any given day. Because we may be frustrated by the fact that in a whole semester, we’ve had little chance to actually focus on the mechanics of good writing and good argument. Because we’ve been so anxious to “cover the material” that students have had to try and achieve “depth” while you’ve flown by on the semester express.

If that’s something of what you feel, then don’t take it out on the student. Those feelings are all flags. Flags that we need to slow, take a breath, and think about what we do when we teach. Flags that the dividing up of labour and classes and students is neither to your advantage nor to the students. What we dislike is this labour model. What we need to express is our dissatisfaction with it. What we need to show is how things can be different.

And things can be different. Here’s my way of tackling these things.

Firstly, I show delight in grading. They have my ear, and I have theirs. We are working together for understanding. Students genuinely want and love to learn, if you let them. I tell them that I truly want to see what they have to say.

[Edit: Ok, ‘delight’ is not quite right here. I don’t mean an emotional state of finding fulfilment in marking. What I mean is, this is the telos of teaching: evaluating what they’ve learning. Express that you want to see them succeed, because that’s the purpose of your work. There’s a lot to say here about form of assessment – but we’ll have to deal with that another time.]

Next, I share my experience with them. I explain to students my labour situation. I explain to them my contract hours and conditions, and how teaching time is divided into segments, with allocated time for each student. I make them aware of the labour that happens to bring about their education, and how to get the most out of the conditions that they encounter.

Coverage is the enemy of learning. We need to change the curriculum, to learn things deeply, rather than fleetingly. Slow it down.

In grading, give your best attention to their work. I can critically read and write about one 30 page journal article a day, more or less. If that’s the case, then I’m not going to be able to grade more than about the same amount of papers. Maybe a little more, conceding that student papers aren’t at that level, and repetition does speed up some aspects. That means staggering grading across multiple days.

Now here’s the rub. Effective feedback requires a reasonable turnaround time between submission and return to students. A University is being irresponsible if its teaching model means that can’t be achieved. If it can’t be achieved, the university is not really recognising its students properly. And really, what that is about is the market-orientation that dictates that more students is better. Better because it enables greater economic efficiency. That teaching must bow to the pressures of mass production of graduates.

We need to show that the mass-growth-efficiency model of education is hollow. There is plenty of research that shows it to be so. But who’s ear do we have? Our grumbling about marking is in fact an inarticulate protest about where our workplaces are heading.




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