Thursday, December 2, 2010

Grading Guilt

Well, I did not get the essays back to all of my classes this week. Sigh. This makes me anxious, and I hate dealing with the aggro responses of students who are anxious and whiny about not getting their essays back yet --- especially the ones who think they are being cute but are really coming across somewhere between obnoxious and threatening. So this means I don't have a weekend to catch up on life before I get the final set of drafts. Ugh.

And while deciding not to do a grading marathon made life easier in certain ways, it didn't lighten my to-do load much. And I am teaching a set of readings and a type of essay that I don't really have prior experience with, and prepping some sort of brainstorming/peer review worksheet for it sucked up a lot of my time and energy. I just can't half-ass teaching prep when it means a potential shitty class is on the line. Sigh. I wish I could. And the past few days have involved me snapping at my students because the lesson plan wasn't going quite as well as it should and on top of that they were being totally disruptive assholes. I'm torn about whether to scrap this last essay sequence and try a different set of readings in the crappy anthology next semester or try to tweak them into something more workable. On the one hand, more work, but on the other hand, I might get a sequence together that I don't hate and that doesn't suck to teach. And I'm just worn out and grumpy by the end of the semester anyway.

You know, when I taught at a place that did portfolios I didn't like it, especially because all the TAs/lecturers had to meet and pass or fail each others' student portfolios in a multi-day grading anxiety nightmare, but looking at that now, I do like the way I kinda stopped teaching new stuff after Thanksgiving and just taught portfolio revision instead. It was easier to plan, and you could throw in some pretty easy days (today we pick which of your essays you will revise!), although I don't remember how I managed to squeeze in four essays and portfolio revision. So maybe it would be worth trying again somewhere else.

Here, however, we don't do portfolios, but an in-class final and evaluate those. Blearrrrrrgh! So one of the things I've been thinking about the past couple days is what sort of short little article I could grab to have them respond to it in a final exam's amount of time. I do not like this system. I know it's to test students in an unplagiarizable environment, and I guess that there's a problem here that students get so much "help" and do so much guided revision to get passing essays that they are still unable to write a coherent sentence or complete an in-class essay without help, but still. Ugh. I've spent the entire semester trying to break my students of writing glib, seemingly presentable, yet completely stream-of-consciousness unsourced essays, which they can already do. (I presume because of all the timed essay tests from the SAT and No Child Left Behind?) This assignment will just undo all the training I did.

And all you profs in other departments will regret it when you get my students producing an essay on, say, the causes of the civil war, that starts off by asserting a lot of common wisdom that they already knew, never once refers to any of the textbooks, veers off into a discussion of the student's favorite cat and closes by returning to some of the causes introduced in the beginning, but this time directly contradicting the earlier assertions! Ahhhhhh! See, a portfolio project, maybe one where they have to go find a good outside source or two as part of the revision process, would reinforce the principles I have been teaching all semester: how to organize, how to revise, how to construct a logical and consistent argument, how to back up one's claims with support from other texts instead of pulling random generalizations out of one's ass, how to introduce and analyze that support properly. And the students have learned a bunch --- although I haven't gotten them beyond a very basic argument to an actual sophisticated argument --- but I fear that a timed in-class essay will bring out all their old bad habits. Sigh.

So I have to plan that --- pick an article, write some instructions, consider how much I'm going to nag them to do some brainstorming and outlining before writing (do I put that explicitly in the instructions?) and how much practice/prep I want to do for it next week. Meh. I mean, I have tons and tons and tons of other stuff to do, too (go back to job apps? piles of grading? making the lit final for stripey class? laundry?) --- but if you have any suggestions for how to reconcile my pedagogical goals with the department's goals and requirements, please have at it.


Bardiac said...

Will there be a specific departmental prompt given the day the essay's written, or is there one given ahead of time?

If the former, I would spend time in class brainstorming possible exam questions (which they should do before exams in general), and then doing some brainstorming about how they might answer one or another of those questions.

If they get the question ahead of time, then I'd recommend that they do a bubble map or something ahead of time.

Sapience said...

It sounds like you get to write your own final exam? If that's the case, can you turn the final into something resembling a mini portfolio project? For example, they are required to bring in their last graded paper to the final exam, choose a section that works and explain why, and choose a section that they think should be revised and explain how they would revise it.

Bardiac said...

Oh, I LIKE Sapience's idea!

Sisyphus said...

Sapience is right; I get to pick my prompt. However, I'm worried that while I will get good reflection on their writing process, the essays they write won't have recognizable essay structure, and there is a dept rubric (so, basically enforcing the 5-paragraph essay, I feel). So I've decided to pull an article off the internet roughly related to some of our readings.

P said...

Not that it matters, but I've done something similar to what Bardiac describes for larger lecture classes and it's worked wonders. Students break into groups and work together to identify a passage (usually from a novel) that they find worthy of a written response (what I call commentaries).

Once all groups have selected a passage, each group reads their selected passage to the class as a whole. Then, as a class, after all passages have been read, we discuss some (not all) of the selected passages. In this stage we discuss (1) why the passage would (or would not) generate insightful writing and (2) what that writing might look like on the exam.

At the end of class I tell them that one of the student-selected passages will be on the exam (and I always choose one of the passages we didn't have time to discuss (but which we did identify).

I imagine you could tweak this to fit the types of stuff your doing in your own classes.

Also: NO GUILT ALLOWED (my motto these days).

Leslie M-B said... students producing an essay on, say, the causes of the civil war, that starts off by asserting a lot of common wisdom that they already knew, never once refers to any of the textbooks, veers off into a discussion of the student's favorite cat and closes by returning to some of the causes introduced in the beginning, but this time directly contradicting the earlier assertions!

I just read several such "research" papers, and yes, that was painful.

To avoid that kind of pain on final exams, I give my students three possible essay questions in advance of the test. I put two of these questions on the test, and the students write in response to one of them. The midterm takes the same form, and I coach them extensively on how to write this kind of essay. The short-form essay, coupled with my expectation that students rely on course readings to provide evidence in support of their arguments, seems to work well for them, and it's much easier for me to grade.

I think folks in all disciplines need to take responsibility for showing students how to craft an argument and support it with evidence. When we segregate such training to composition and miscellaneous humanities classes, we're setting our students up for failure--and ourselves for some very painful grading.