Red marks in the margins: a professor's take on the evolutionary art of grading

I DON'T MIND RESPONDING to the English papers my community college students turn in, but I resent having to grade them.

Grades always seem like someone else's imprecise idea or crazy yardstick, not mine. My commenting on a paper, on the other hand, is personal, part of my relationship with my students. I mean it to be conversational, and sometimes my students take it that way, and then it's like passing notes in the back row.

I confess that I don't remember what any elementary, junior high, or high school teacher ever wrote on my papers. What my college teachers wrote on my papers, however, did matter to me, maybe because I had less regular contact with them, maybe because I was scarcely conscious before I was 17, but most probably because by the end of my freshman year I had transferred within the University of California, Santa Barbara, to a program - the College of Creative Studies - that did not give grades.

The only requirement for admission to the literature major, as the provost (and great critic) Marvin Mudrick liked to say, was that we be bookworms. Over the next three years I occasionally took classes in other programs at the university, but I got over caring about grades. I only cared about the comments my teachers made.

Professor Mudrick often wrote only one or two words at the end of the paper: evaluative judgments. My classmates and I didn't complain. That was enough for us. (I should add that many of his evaluations came in the classroom, when he would read aloud the essay or story and talk about it. We therefore had less need for marks on the paper.) I had thus a few blissful years with teachers who treated my writing as if I was or could be a grown-up, and who took me seriously enough to take my writing seriously. They liked or disliked my papers, and they were to the point in saying so and why. Grades - who needed them?

I did, because soon after, as a graduate student, I began teaching the freshman English course. I discovered that the hardest part of marking papers was not that instantaneous realization of the grade: A! B-! C+! It was trying to justify it. My comments kept getting longer, but not better. I would write and write, explaining to my student or, worse, arguing with myself, about why, for example, it was a B and not a B+.

Everybody was confused about why I hadn't criticized a previous essay as much as this one, and why that one had got a B, and this one, to which I'd responded with impatient, demanding questions, had received an A.

I escaped this quagmire only after one of my sensible friends asked why I even bothered justifying the grade.

I didn't care about grades, but if a student didn't like what I had come up with, she could come talk it over with me. I focused the comment on my response to the paper - that was all - and I felt better about and more sure of myself.

Now, if I liked something, I could just say that, and would hardly have to explain. My marginal comments and questions on particular sentences or paragraphs were usually longer than the end comments.

Later I figured out that if I didn't like a paper, there was no reason to beat it down or pretend to have a rubric that said this many sins made it a D or a C. Bad papers are dull papers; they make me irritated or depressed, so I tell the student how his paper has affected me (for example, "Why do you want to repeat what somebody else said when what they said was boring?").

I remind them that when I ask for their opinions and their experiences connected to those opinions, I would rather they didn't hold back, because I truly want to hear about their heartaches, tragedies, and vidas locas, the bases for their sometimes disconcerting and surprising views. Many of my students have immigrated recently from third-world countries or arrived on our beachfront campus from notorious corners of New York City; they have lived novels, and I'm happy to read such writing - raw, rough, and fresh as it usually is.

I believe in forgiving grammatical mistakes and punctuation errors, just as I was forgiven (or at most gently chided) as an undergraduate. My teachers hadn't criticized me for ignorance; I had been forgiven that and been encouraged to learn, and I have tried to be as generous to my students as my teachers were to me. I point out all the errors (and of course there are many), but I try not to scold the students and I never threaten them with lowered grades. I was only punished with disappointment and disapproval for real sins, like rudeness, know-it-allness, thoughtlessness, meanness, shallowness.

Because even as a tenured professor I continue to be stuck with grading, I tell my students that an A paper is one that makes me forget that I'm doing this for a living. B's give me some pleasure, but I know I'm working. C's are all work. D's are agony. I truly don't give F's, except for plagiarism.

My argument against grading rubrics, even any of my own concoction, is that I can't decide what I'm going to like beforehand - to do so is not to read but to scan, to confirm my own prejudices. Isn't that what we dissuade our students from doing? We tell them to be responsive, to keep their minds open. Therefore my only rule, whether I like or don't like a paper, is that my primary response has to be my primary message to the student.

Bob Blaisdell teaches English at Kingsborough Community College, City University of New York in Brooklyn. He edited "Tolstoy as Teacher: Leo Tolstoy's Writings on Education."

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