on grades

bookshelf, via Public Domain

bookshelf, via Public Domain

You’re no fool. You know that part of my job as a professor is to grade. It can also be the least fun part.

That isn’t because of how time-consuming it is, or how tedious it is to do things like this.

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Sample student essay.

It’s also not because of things like this. (Proofread, guys. Come on.)

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Disclaimer: this was a reading course.

Simply, it’s my fear that a lot of students just want the A.

Don’t get me wrong. I wanted the A, too. I also took it the wrong way, sometimes, when professors corrected my work. That was until I had one professor who completely changed my life.

Ironically, she was a history professor. I took the course as an elective during my senior year. “I can tell you’re an English major. You’re an excellent and talented writer,” she wrote in pencil on top of my 40-page research draft (complete with over one hundred citations). “You could go far. But this needs some work.”

And then she broke down every single mistake on all forty pages.

When I saw the amount of pencil marks, my eyes bugged out of my head. I am very lucky that schoolwork has always come reasonably easily to me, and I had never seen the kind of feedback with which she’d gifted me. Not even from my favorite creative writing professor.

My mistakes? I was over-citing. I didn’t properly define who my sources were. (Instead of writing “UCLA psychology professor J. Jones demonstrates…” for example, I was just writing “J. Jones demonstrates,” which does not explain why a source is an expert.) I needed to double my thesis statement up and then break it down more appropriately. In a 40-page space, I wasn’t used to doing that.  I also touched on several points without really thinking about my audience, and what might need more explanation.

I still got an A for for the draft. And then I absorbed the feedback as much as possible so that I would never see those kinds of mistakes again. I wound up working with said professor and publishing my paper at Oxford University. (I’m not doing this to shamelessly plug – I’m doing it to prove how working for your education can reap a million rewards. Patience, grasshoppers.)

For several years, I taught an English Composition course. One essay that we focused on surrounded the pressures that college students faced in the 1970s. In the essay, entitled “College Pressures,” author William Zinsser writes about his fears surrounding learning. He explains:

“There will be plenty of time to change jobs, change careers, change whole attitudes and approaches. They [students] don’t want to hear such liberating news. They want a map — right now — that they can follow unswervingly to career security, financial security, social security…”

This part of the essay makes me cringe, because I don’t want it to be true. I want my students to learn that there is no such map. Education might be the path to these wonderful things, but there’s a little thing called life that can get in the way.

Don’t get me wrong. I completely agree that grades have their place. They’re particularly important for: 

  • those trying to head to upper-level programs, high schoolers heading college for the first time, medical fields, etc.
  • self-worth
  • a concrete justification of learning (and/or value)
  • reinforcement for children to do well in school
  • a lesson in following directions

But.

The main thing that I want my students to do is walk away with more knowledge than they had before. They are there to edify themselves; they are there to get a degree, which will hopefully land them in a better place for their careers. (I do not know the stats on GPA and job interviews, but I do know that job interview questions are swerving away from GPA and toward how people react to certain questions. That and their Facebook photos, of course.)

Recently, I asked a group of students how grade-focused they are. (I have written about how impressed I am by this innovative university in general.) I was pleasantly surprised by how many of them mentioned feedback. Feedback is the key in learning. Having a degree in hand is an overwhelming feeling of success, but having a deeper understanding of the world around you — or of humankind, or how computers work, or whatever it may be — can and should be easily more rewarding.

As a side note for creative writing: in my experience, a lot of those grades will focused on following directions, objectives, whether or not students stuck to word count, and presence or absence of proofreading errors. Judging others’ work is so subjective. Writing is an art form, as we know. I can’t grade Sally’s painting of a Honeycrisp apple better than Lisa’s painting of a Red Delicious apple because I like Honeycrisps better. (Replace Honeycrisp with literary fiction and Red Delicious with romance, and you’ll get the gist.) I can point out where Lisa needs to address her comma splices and where Sally’s work doesn’t flow, though. And if Joe just painted a plate of apple slices, that style is okay, too – as long as he understands that they came from one whole apple in the first place. (Lost? Slices are sentence fragments. Stylistic and effective if you’re Cormac McCarthy – but the rules must be understood to be broken.)

I wish that I had learned the lesson a long time ago — before I left college might have been nice — that an educational enrichment is the point of a degree, rather than the stress, nail biting, and liquid imbibing that can come along with grade stress. But I’ll let Zinsser sum it all up for you:

“What I wish for all students is some release from the clammy grip of the future. I wish them a chance to savor each segment of their education as an experience in itself and not as a grim preparation for the next step. I wish them the right to experiment, to trip and fall, to learn that defeat is as instructive as victory and is not the end of the world.” (Full text here.)

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