An obsessive consistency

I suppose most good teachers wonder if they’re reading and grading students’ work consistently and fairly. Because I allow students to rewrite the first papers of the term (and all failing papers) I have a kind of opportunity to check myself on that. Many rewrites are perfunctory or spotty, so regularly I’m rereading the same stuff I read the first time. With seventy or so papers to read at once I certainly don’t remember each one, so functionally I’m reading it anew. And although I require the original version to be attached to the rewrite, I do not automatically check it over before I start reading the new version.

I’m working through a stack of rewritten papers right now, and just had a not infrequent Aha moment: I wrote a comment in the margin of one then, curious, checked the original. Beside the exact same sentence there was the exact same comment, in the exact same wording. I’m feeling pretty consistent right now.

This begs the question whether I’m just consistently biased, which I will admit is true. I am biased toward what I consider ‘good’ papers, and I have embedded those biases in explicit assessment criteria in the syllabus and grading rubric. It also more disturbingly raises the question whether I am wasting my and the students’ time commenting on the papers, or commenting in the way I do. In the sense that the students feel attended to and accept the legitimacy of the grade, I think the comments do their job. But I’d like them to be guides to better performance, which in these cases has clearly not paid off. In other cases it does, as I can also see from the rewrites; and where it doesn’t, it seems to be the students who are used to lots of grammatical red ink and baffled by questions about the actual content of their essays. So there, the comments may not pay off directly, but contribute in a small way to developing a new habit of mind about the communicative functions of writing. Or so I’d like to think.

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2 Comments

  1. Once heard Mark D. Jordan insist that, when faced with the choice between working on something scholarly, political and interventionist or grading a stack of freshman papers, the temptation is to think that the papers are more or less in the way, but in fact, the more important task — from the point of view of making any difference — is probably the grading.

    Suspect he is right, in spite of the frequency with which the devotion is rebuffed.

  2. Thanks for that HAT, I do think it does some good sometimes and that’s sustaining. It also melts my brain, as I realized the other evening when I went to put my contacts in for some tennis and woke up five minutes later brushing my teeth….

    I had not heard of Jordan, but googled him up and took a look at his group blog. Looks like terrific stuff if a more humane and inclusive Christianity is among one’s interests.

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