8 Approaches to the Papers/Grading Dillemma

If you’re any kind of an academic, or spend anytime with anyone who is, the end of a semester comes with the neurotic repetition of an essential truth: we hate grading papers. But the time to think about what to about that comes at the planning stage, so I thought I’d do a January post about this eternal question.

A while back, Rebecca Shuman had a piece on Slate that proposed a simple solution: stop doing it. Stop giving papers, stop grading them. Like a lot of her pieces, it was a combination of a solid insight with broad generalization and pure-Slate contrarian click-bait. I like the impulse at the core of it: if something isn’t working, maybe we should not do it any more. But there’s also the very-Slate like impulse that everyone out there is doing one conventional thing mindlessly, and only you are brave enough to call them out. The truth is, there a lots of professors out there with creative approaches to teaching writing and to using writing in a range of classes, and there’s also a very interesting literature out there on it. Partly to clarify my own thinking, and partly because I think this might be useful to other folks, I put together a list of some of what I think I’ve figured out after teaching composition, creative writing and literature for fifteen years. Some might apply more to folks teaching in one discipline more than others, and it’s probably impossible to do all these things in every class, but it’s probably possible to use some of them in any class.

It’s tricky to talk about attribution of teaching ideas and lesson plans – ideally we should all be talking about these things and circulating them such that it’s impossible to claim total ownership. But, because so many people are convinced almost all writing about teaching is without merit (an odd position for teachers to take, to say the least), I want to note some writers and thinkers who have been helpful to me with this, though in some cases I encountered their work indirectly. These include Ken Bain (whose What the Best College Teachers Do is an invaluable resource), John Dewey, Peter Elbow, Donald Barthomae, James Moffat, Mina Shaughnessy, lots of essays from Radical Teacher and Rethinking Schools, and countless colleagues at multiple universities, especially at NYU and LaGuardia Community College.

1) Spend more time designing your writing assignments and less time grading them. Write your writing assignments BEFORE your reading list/syllabus. Lots of people talk about “minimal marking” but often we miss the first half of this equation, or it falls by the wayside as we get into crunch time. Very often I’ve looked at a piece of student writing, wondered where it could have gone wrong, only to realize the student has done exactly what I asked them to do – and that that was the problem. Ken Bain is very good on this. When you’re designing a course, start by thinking about what you want students to be able to do, and the assignments should come from that. Create a syllabus and reading list that will allow you to do this.

2) Try to give students “real” rather than “fake” problems to solve.  Have them create knowledge rather than simply reporting it. Ken Bain is also very good on this, and to me it’s at the heart of what Dewey means when he talks about his belief that education must be, not preparation for experience, but must itself be an experience. This can mean a number of different things: in a composition class where we read Terkel’s Working, students interviewed people they knew about their working lives. Colleagues in sociology have guided students through ethnographies of their own neighborhoods and proposed changes to the urban landscape of their own college, applying what they have learned from urban theorists.  Not so incidentally, this is also the best way to prevent plagiarism. If you ask students to write about light and dark imagery in Romeo and Juliet, I won’t say you *deserve* plagiarized papers, exactly, but let’s just say it’s a foreseeable outcome. Some of my LaGuardia colleagues do a brilliant project where students edit wikipedia entries. Not only can’t they plagiarize, as one of them noted on FB, the students can note with pride that they will be the ones getting plagiarized.

3) Think about and identify what you think good writing is in your field, and what kind of writing makes the most sense for them based on the kind of class and level. You probably didn’t write an honest to god academic paper until grad school – does it make sense to give undergrads that task and be upset when they fail at it? Is a simplified version of this the best approach? Would a book review make more sense?  A literature review? A letter to a friend about what they’re doing in the class? If you’re in English, do you think of “creative” assignments – the ones you and your students have fun with – rewriting a classic poem in a contemporary vein, rewriting a scene from Shakespeare as a Western, say – as something they do on the side but they shouldn’t get much credit for? Do you think of it as a reward for “mastering the basics?” Rethink those assumptions. Memorizing a poem and writing a reflection about it might show as much understanding/engagement of the text as a standard essay prompt – why not recognize it as such.


4) Rotate assignments and due dates between students.  A lot of professors asks students to take responsibility for presenting or starting the discussion of a certain reading. In my experience it’s rarer to take the next step, to connect this to writing. Having them connect written and spoken work is likely to improve the quality of both, spaces out your grading, and lets students work around their schedules.

5) Think about staging, cumulative assignments, and portfolios as well as revision.  We say that writing is a process and revision is a process but our schedule often makes this an afterthought.  If it’s important, we should bake it into the time, talk about it and spend time on it in class. If students have a meaningful chance to return to the work, all those comments you write on them feel like less of a waste.

6) Make student writing a text in the class and make student writing public. Whether they workshop or you bring in sample essays or share them on line, it only makes sense that students have examples of what they’re being asked to do. If they have some sense of a public audience, whether through a blog or through their work in class, they’re more likely to take it seriously than if they know it’s going to you and then to a drawer. Even better are truly public projects like ones where they have a chance to present at a student conference, have some publication submission goal, or the wikipedia project I mentioned above. Relatedly, I heard a great presentation by some poets at a conference on collaborative student writing, and I’d love to work with that,  though I haven’t yet.

7) Learn to read student writing as a teacher – not an editor.  Your job isn’t to correct this for publication – it’s to help the student. This is minimal marking, but it’s not just that. You’re not really marking a manuscript at all, you’re talking to a person. Think about what you think they need to hear. David Bartholomae talks about a student paper in a Basic Writing class on Sartre that was in the traditional sense incomprehensible. It had sentences like this: “To elaborate on the subject matter. the principle of existentialism is logic, but stupid in itself.”* Obviously, to mark the fragments here or send the student to a grammar book would be beside the point. As Bartholomae notes, he in a sense had to learn to read student writing like that. In this case, he argues, the student had a coherent point that they knew how to communicate: fuck you and your assignment. How to respond to that was the real question. We have to read student writing as a communication, not product. This goes at more advanced levels too: Bartholomae also tells a story about the most important comment he got on his graduate school writing, when he was being overly verbose and pompous, as beginning graduate students are want to do. The comment? “Please don’t do that again.” He knew what it meant.

8) Contract Grading.  In many of my classes, I have taken at least half of Shuman’s advise: I don’t grade papers. I do give them, (though many don’t look like traditional “papers). I give comments, and then I grade the portfolios at the end of the semester which I combine with participation grades. I started this in Creative Writing classes to avoid the “who says my story is a B? Do I change the end to get an A” problem but I’ve expanded it. In my experience, it makes students work harder, not less hard, and they’re more open to read and take in comments if there’s not a grade attached. (Understandable! If I got a rejection and comments when I’ve submitted something, I wouldn’t really want to read the comments.)

So those are some ideas. Like I said, you can’t really do all of them all the time, but they’re worth considering. And if you think you have so much content you really don’t have time to think about it, or to talk to your students about writing, then yes, maybe you should consider something other than writing as a means to evaluate them.

* From David Bartholomae, Writing on the Margins: Essays on Composition and Teaching. Bedford St. Martins, 2005.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *