(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.