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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