Grading: A Confession and Cry for Help

This post is part confession and part cry for help: when I sit down to grade my students’ essays, I am paralyzed. This paralysis does not stem from anxiety about being unfair or not knowing how to assign points; the feeling is that I do not know how to help them.

I think part of the problem is that I have never had a writing mentor. My professors throughout undergrad, master’s degree, and now PhD have been amazing and I know that I will graduate from Berkeley feeling well trained in pretty much every way. But I can’t remember a single teacher in my entire post-high school life who has sat down with me and said: “Let’s work on your writing” or “I have these suggestions for your writing.” Comments on papers or proposals, when given, are entirely based on content. This mirrors my experience in the one freshman writing class I was required to take. During the office hour meeting after submitting our diagnostic essays, I was told by my instructor (a PhD student, as I am now): “The mechanics are fine, but I’m left with the feeling there’s no “you” there; there’s no clear voice, you don’t know what you want to say, etc.” So her comments to me throughout the semester were focused on that….

I think another part of the problem is simply time. My professors don’t give very many comments because they don’t have time; I in turn never feel I have enough time to spend on reading carefully, really giving each essay its due. And the paralysis of course does not help with this….

Another facet of this is that I think my own way of learning how to write was very feeling-and-imitation oriented. I was read to as a child and I loved to read. This grew more intense as I got older and weirder (for the Texas suburbs) and the world of books often felt so much more interesting than the world around me. My own writing method is intuitive: I sit down to write and words fall out of me and I let me lead me. All this to say: when I read my students’ work, I often know when something “feels” good or interesting and right and when it doesn’t. But I usually can’t really explain why in a clear way and often end up offering what feels like a very vague comment: “your thesis would be stronger if x…” And of course the thesis would be stronger if the student were to do “x” but it never feels like what’s the root of the issue, which I can’t quite seem to put a name to….

Finally, I think this paralysis stems from the weird genre that is the 10-15 page end-of-semester final research paper (which I recall we talked about in the summer). It’s easier for me to comment on a colleague’s chapter or journal article or conference paper or non-fiction essay than it is a student essay. The students themselves recognize this: we don’t read 10-15 page end-of-term papers together in class and so they don’t have a good feel for the genre either.

So: the feeling persists that I don’t know how to help them or what would really be helpful for them. This is not a feeling that I like. I am hoping our conversation tomorrow will shift something for me 🙂 Thank you for reading!