Why I Hate Grading

(EDIT: I keep meaning to give some link-love to a friend’s new blog, If Truth Were a Tomboy, but then forgetting to, so here – go read it)

I hate grading.

(this post is partly inspired by reading the comments here, and partly by the fact I’m in the middle of grading right now)

It’s not because it’s hard. Sometimes it is, because it combines the wearying, mechanical repetition that stops you getting mentally engaged, with the challenge of synthesising features of a complex written object, which stops you from coasting through on auto-pilot. And when it is hard I dislike it for that reason, but that’s not why I hate it.

I hate it because it makes me feel dishonest. When grading student work, whether I like it or not, I’m participating in the manufacture of authority on a number of levels.

Firstly, the authority of certain texts. Why should they wrack their brains learning what this dead man meant? It’s not enough that he’s smart and has interesting things to say – thousands of people were, and the students are being forced to learn about a particular few, because they’re the ones it would be embarassing not to have heard of, in certain conversations. And they have that status because everyone else has been taught them, because their teachers were taught them, etc.

Secondly, the authority of certain styles and methods. I have to correct people on their format, their writing style, their correct use of symbolic notation, etc. And it is genuinely necessary to do this, not because certain sorts of notation are objectively better but because if they don’t know how to use them, people won’t take them seriously.

But I think the message such corrections send out is ‘this way of putting things is objectively superior’. Even if I don’t say that, even if I deny it, that’s what the brain learns if it’s punished for not fitting them.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I’m reinforcing the authority of the grading process. I have to try and trick my students into thinking that grading is a reliable procedure, and that each numerical grade reflects a set of judgements that could be publically explained and justified.

It really isn’t. It’s a ‘judgement’ in the sense that it involves processing large quantities of subtle information without being able to distinguish all of the pieces of information. As far as I can tell, rubrics with ‘5 sections and 5 sub-sections in each’, supposedly meant to let you calculate a mark in a transparent, reliable way, just disguise and intensify the subjectivity of that judgement.

And I don’t think that’s a bad thing, in itself. It’s just an argument for focusing less on grades and more on comments, discussions, etc. As anyone will tell you, I have absolutely no problem telling people what they’re doing wrong, or how they should improve. I just hate having to back it up with “and that’s why you got a 78 and not an 80, possibly changing some number in your future life that will stop you getting a job.”

I mean, imagine trying to have a seminar discussion where each comment was immediately assigned a mark out of 10 by the chair. It would be the worst possible way to encourage lively debate.

Anyway. That’s why I hate grading.

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8 Responses to Why I Hate Grading

  1. Jana Banana says:

    The longer I TA the more stressed out I get about grading. Any good TA, I think, should get massively stressed about it from time to time. You and I are both academically accomplished, and know the “importance” of grades and how contingent one’s prospects can be on them. I get especially anxious when I have a wannabe medical student come to see me with a grade grievance (let’s say, as is usually the case, she received a ‘B’ or ‘B+’) who is obviously (and with good reason ) stressed about her performance how it will affect her future. I read the paper over with extra care, yet even if I feel the grade is ‘justified’, it’s being so still feels, I dunno….contingent…on standards I sometimes question. At least, I question whether these standards should have such authority given the important they can play in effectively opening or closing doors to students.

  2. One of your students says:

    As one of your students, I appreciate that you are both highly knowledgeable, and, unlike many academics, capable of teaching what you know. But if you detest grading as you say you do, why not take the time to work with your students and show us what we need to do beyond engaging in philosophical thought to achieve those good grades, as absurd as that is? You know as well as I do that philosophy courses at UofT need to focus more on the content of our engagement with philosophical arguments and less on the formatting and 5-paragraph structure of our essays. As students we play the game because that’s the only way to win; we cannot change the system. But you are on the other side, you’re the grader – be the change you wish to see, Luke.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      I’m not quite sure what you’re suggesting I should do. I don’t claim to be a perfect TA, but I do my best to be available to students in person and over email; usually I find that fewer people come to see me than I make time for. Asking why I don’t “take the time to work with my students” suggests that you think I’m cutting corners somewhere; could you be more concrete about where this time is needed?

  3. Another one of your students says:

    Luke, I don’t think you’re cutting corners. I’m sorry we don’t come to your office hours, I would come if I could think of an interesting enough question to ask!

  4. A fellow grader says:

    I hate grading so much I googled “I hate grading” and stumbled upon your blog. Your line about rubrics disguising and intensifying the subjectivity of grading is right one. I think I’ll print it out and tape it to the wall!

  5. MagdaDH says:

    I am probably completely out of my depth here, but if you hate grading, and would (as I seem to understand) prefer to give a descriptive feedback to your students, why won’t you do just that? Do you HAVE to actually give them numerical grades? Can’t you just implement a pass/fail process based let’s say on attendance or something obviously arbitrary like a taste in shoes? Or maybe a self-grading session post feedback?

    • Daniel says:

      Formal education is a decades-long process for most people. Unfortunately, like an economic system, it’s not very easy to introduce mediating reforms to it because that would require both simultaneous reforms at all levels and re-naturalizing the students in all levels of the current system.
      A new kind of education system, like a Freirean or Vygotskinian would require a basis of change in society before it became feasible to implement.

  6. Daniel says:

    It may be possible to introduce some Freirean concepts into class, such as the continual social contract of the students agreeing/not to the educational requests of the teacher. I dunno though; teachers who have tried experience problems on all sides from the practice and from systematic discouragement of the institution.

    His most famous book is: Pedagogy of the Oppressed, an absolute essential for anyone interested in remaking education. I’d also recommend reading Vygotski. Dewey is also recommended, after the previous two.

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