An Ongoing Question

I was struck by the phrasing in Peter Elbow’s piece of how giving grades is “cheaper” than writing detailed comments. I find I like this term because of the double meaning: less expensive and lower quality. As he argues, just assigning grades is lower quality for the students because it doesn’t provide an explanation of strengths and weaknesses. But it is less expensive for the instructor. And as adjuncts, the notion of expenses is especially relevant: writing comments is done on free time, as in literally free–unpaid. Assigning grades takes less time and energy, therefore amounts to less unpaid labor. Although, as the readings collectively point out, grading is deceptively easy. It does require less actual labor, but it is a really complex and involved process that still requires a lot of considerations on the instructor’s part: how do the grades I give out reflect on me as an instructor? How will my students feel about their grades, and to what extent does that affect my grading process? What am I valuing in my students’ work with this grade? What is the line I’m drawing for high and low quality work? Being an adjunct and operating within premade guidelines is also an intersecting issue w/r/t grading. His suggestions for devaluing grades (only grading a final portfolio, evaluating work only through a grid system, “contract” grading) are interesting, but I don’t know the extent to which I could employ them, as I have inherited not only a syllabus but also the parameters for evaluating and grading student work.

In the “Dialogue on Grade Inflation,” Michael Bernard-Donals gets at this as well–the non-tenure track teacher who feels/appears like a “more well-informed peer” who doesn’t necessarily feel they have the authority to be a tough grader, which is certainly how I find myself feeling about giving out grades. A lot about grading seems situational, context-based, and highly changeable, which conflicts with what we, as students first and then as instructors, assume to be true about grades–that, like Brian Huot says in the conversation on grade inflation, they are objective and that their value is obvious and knowable. But of course, how could one grade objectively when grading is so much about interpretation? And what grades are meant to objectively measure seems and feels a little slippery to me–skill? revision? ideas? technical proficiency? some combination? The readings pose the question of what grades measure as well. In “The Jonas Incident,” the question of ethics arises, especially the intersection in an assignment between ethics and mechanics, and similarly, in the conversation on inflation, the question of grading only the “language used to convey” a student’s experience or also interrogating the “structure of the experience.” It felt to me like there wasn’t an answer to the looming question of grades–how they work, what they measure, how to understand their value, and how to lessen their power over both students and teachers. And appropriately, I (obviously) don’t have a single, cohesive response to this week’s readings, but that’s maybe appropriate considering this tone that seemed to connect them–the tone of unfinishedness and uncertainty, of an ongoing question with only “crude and impure” possible solutions.

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3 Responses to An Ongoing Question

  1. Nick Earhart says:

    I’m glad you brought up the money issue, since it seems so significant to the adjunct experience. I’m in grad school and have committed this year to simply learning the ropes, so at the moment I’m fine with putting in extra effort, experimenting trial-and-error on different types of evaluation. However, I can already sense the frustration of the adjunct’s bottom line: The better job you do, the less you get paid. That’s obviously hyperbole, and I think over-preparing has its own drawbacks. I just wonder at the complexity of the institutional equation—the position of the teacher between the administration and the classroom, the way responsibilities move in both directions. Add in the pressures of time and finances, and the question of grading becomes ever thornier. It’s fascinating from a theory perspective how much adjuncts have to intuitively manage, but practically speaking, it’s a handful. I liked* Elbow’s suggestion about evaluation-free zones, as it seems a strategy that checks a number of boxes at once. I’m curious how a range of approaches can be calibrated to a) encourage student curiosity and confidence, b) provide clear, thoughtful evaluative feedback, and c) accommodate administrative realities—the “official transcript” and such, the college version of the “permanent record,” that mythical motivator that may or may not exist.

    * I can’t hear this word now without thinking of Facebook, so maybe some fine-tuning is required to reinstate its meaning.

  2. Sarah says:

    It seems to me you both, Frankie and Nick, have drawn out a really important tension between the Elbow reading’s emphasis on evaluation and the labour question addressed to some extent in the Bernard-Donals piece. (I think this is also in between the lines of Kristi’s post as well.) Frankie, it sounds also like you’re struggling as a new instructor to feel the authority and justification in giving out grades yoursel. I definitely have felt this way in the past, and this semester, I am feeling some version of it again as I try to teach someone else’s syllabus and assignments with goals that are invisible, foreign, and generally unknown to me. I thought, then, I’d share an experience as my comment that might spark some discussion.

    In the three years or so I taught in Australia, the university where I worked introduced a new online marking system for core courses (the ones that the entire year of a degree takes). The program is called ReView. For each assignment, the course coordinator created the specific criteria, each related to a learning goal of the course and the degree, and weighted each. For example, originality of thought would be 25% while spelling and grammar would be 10%. For each student, we would mark each criteria and the program would calculate the final mark. It was intended to eliminated some amount of subjectivity and unify the marking across say, 22 sections of the course. There were also automatic comments one could use, both for an overall comment box and specific to each criteria. I always wrote my own using the vocabulary from my classroom. While this couldn’t translate the same way to the kind of courses we’re teaching here at Queens, it could be interesting to discuss the pros and cons of such a system. It was intended to mitigate the fact that despite being paid higher rates for the hours in the classroom, adjunct contracts were structured to pay $40/hr for 65 minutes per student over the course of the semester for grading, administrative work (including email!), AND preparation time. That means at the lowest rate of pay, one is paid for just over an hour of work per student for the whole semester–way less than any of us spent. Yet, what is being missed?

    To close my very long comment, I will just quickly contribute to the debate Frankie and Nick raised. While I spend a good amount of time responding to drafting work, conferencing, and fielding email questions about papers, and I WANT to as an instructor, how do we also factor in that many of us are still full time students? Where does the value balance? I write as someone taking 14 PhD level credits.

  3. Daisy Atterbury says:

    Frankie’s post addressed a number of topics I flagged as I was reading through this week’s essays, and I’m happy to see a discussion taking place in the post and comments. I’m in the process of grading my students’ first essay assignments as we speak, so this conversation as been particularly timely for me. I found it very useful to read about Elbow’s efforts to parse out the difference between ‘evaluating’ and ‘ranking’ papers, and I found it reassuring to read an essay that echoed many of my own concerns about quantitative evaluation of writing. I find myself reflecting back on grading practices that motivated me and discouraged me in my career as a student, and without exception, I found that lower grades always demotivated me to the point of “checking out” or “turning off” a subject, while higher grades and/or comments-based evaluation spoke to me and motivated me to pursue learning on my own. As Elbow (and Frankie, Nick and Sarah) point out, such comments-based evaluations can be costly (time/labor) for any instructor, but hits particularly hard for adjunct instructors and graduate student teachers. Like Sarah, I’ve found that being both an attentive teacher and PhD student requires addressing the “value balance.” Because, where does the value balance? It doesn’t. And let’s not forget about the added “costs” (in terms of time/energy) in being an activist, friend, writer, curator, family member, mentor, tutor, voter, tax-payer, gendered person, POC, … the list goes on, and the question of how to create a sustainable life is bound up in this question of how to respond to students as an instructor who is constantly negotiating priorities.

    Elbow’s suggestions to build in class time for alternative reward/feedback systems appears to be a very useful suggestion: I’ve been trying to implement this as I go along, and with Elbow’s insights, I’d like to start making use of more assignments that allow students to share writing out loud in class, to “publish” writing in class forums (blogs, tumblrs) or magazines (Elbow), and to submit work to student magazines in the university. I’m motivated as a teacher by the thought that I can shift evaluation from labor-intensive commenting outside of class to in-class feedback. (Peer review is another tool I see discussed frequently – I don’t have a clear sense as to whether instructors and students find peer review particularly useful, unless students giving feedback are provided with clear instruction and incentive for providing useful feedback.) All in all, I think Elbow helped me to see that if I can create an atmosphere in which students feel as though they are writing for an audience beyond themselves and the professor, and can connect this to the notion that their persuasive and analytical skills are applicable beyond the essay assignment, I’ll be able to provide much less, but much more targeted feedback.

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