Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Why does it take so long for you to grade my paper, Mr. Morris?

From time to time, I have to answer this question from a student. It isn’t always worded this way. Sometimes the student is more polite; sometimes the student is not. And I do understand the oftentimes crippling desire to know, not whether one has done well or poorly, but just to know the results of a test or a paper.
Few students really want my feedback. Many say they do, but most don’t. They want the score. For some, it is as if they cannot move on with life until they get it.
I say this also knowing that each semester I have a larger percentage of students who do not even bother to look at their scores, much less feedback. But for now, I want to focus on those that want that number. A number that they often read as having some sort of meaning I did not intend. But that problem also is for another time.
Some students are rather, shall we say, self-absorbed, and some students have very little willingness to use actual reasoning. They argue that since I put deadlines on them, I should have a deadline for returning their work. Some of these students, when reminded that I may have as many as 150 students to grade work from, fail to see the relevance to their lives. Again, that feeling that they need to know the score is so strong, that they are blind to rational argument. And math.
I could list the usual reasons that I rarely can return a set of papers the very next class period. But I won’t. It would not be helpful. However, I thought I should list, in no particular order, a few answers to the question that seem to have been added recently.
  • Plagiarism, part I. While I have more tools at my disposal to catch cheaters, I have more people cheating, and I cannot just check the papers of those I suspect of getting unauthorized help. In addition, depending on the course and the circumstances, I need to take different actions with plagiarism, so that I am not just some sort of academic policeman, but still teaching. That means I have to spend time not only checking for plagiarism, but determining whether the incident is a matter of real dishonesty, or a matter of ignorance, or somewhere in between.  Wilful ignorance is a very strong force.
  • Plagiarism, part II. As noted before, I have more students cheating. For some assignments, I now need to check every single student in the class, not just those papers that look hinky. At least once a year now, I find a student who has plagiarized that no one would suspect of wrongdoing. In addition, I have found students who cheat on minor assignments as well as major ones. For example, in my American Literature class, I routinely find answers on reading quizzes have been taken from some site on the web, when reading the story might well have been easier. In the past couple of days, I have caught two students who submitted plagiarized posts to online discussion boards, an assignment that requires very little work to pass.
  • I have a life too. While many a teacher, years ago, would eat a quick bite at dinner and disappear to a quiet room to grade stacks of papers while the rest of the family relaxed, or would bring a sheaf of tests to soccer practices and ballet rehearsals, many of us teachers have decided to actually be more involved in the lives of our children, and spend a few minutes each day with our spouses. So call me a hypocrite when I lament that the world spends too much time watching television. Some days, the only time I am going to get to sit next to my wife is during an episode of Law and Order, Criminal Intent. And guess what? Many of us go to church, join clubs, play sports, and even hassle our siblings on Facebook.
  • We did not go to school to learn how to write numbers in boxes. That means our jobs require more of us than looking through the paper than marking or typing a couple of digits that will inflate your self-esteem (another topic for another time). Especially that paper you spent a whole two hours writing. Most of us do more than ramble stuff you don’t plan to remember for three hours a week. We go to meetings, workshops, and sometimes classes of our own. We talk to others in the profession. We make plans and tweak them so that we can do our jobs even better.
  • Plagiarism, part III. When I catch someone cheating, I have to do something about it. Call it an odd tick in my nervous personality. But I actually have to write something to the student involved. I can’t just say, “Here’s an F for cheating. See ya next semester!” For legal reasons, I have to show how I know the material doesn’t belong to the student. I also may have to provide my own boss with something in writing in case that student wishes to take his or her cheating to a high level and go over my head. All that takes time, so the one student who doesn’t write his own paper or who gets her test answers from sources outside the proper channels of study is taking that time from the rest of the class who chose to suck it up and do the best they could with whatever they managed to learn.
  • Email. Sometimes I try to convince myself to schedule email reading times, so that it doesn’t interrupt other parts of my job. But since many of my classes are online, and all my courses have some sort of online component, and since it is 2011, not 1911, I feel I must read and answer every email sent to me by every student. That is how we communicate. And I’d say that nine times out of ten it is what I would call “reasonable communication.” A student asks a question or makes a simple request, and I respond, hopefully with something that helps that student. After all, that is what I am here for, right? But that tenth person uses email for a multitude of personal attacks, complaints about the reading or the due dates, arguments about how I can’t really grade an opinion because an opinion can’t be wrong, arguments about how lifting something from Wikipedia is not plagiarism, and so forth and such forth. Some students carry on lengthy, days long conversations with me. And heaven forbid I fail to answer the tenth student quickly enough to suit them.
  • Bad writing. Sometimes, even though I do not mark every single error in a paper, the writing is so devastatingly poor that I have to work very hard and long to decipher what is being said. I’ve instituted a five error rule where I stop reading papers with more than five sentence-level mistakes that a student (depending on level) should not make, and then return the essay to be revised before I will grade it. But that has only helped me a little bit (and actually requires a rather long set of instructions to be sent to the student). Much of the poor writing comes in emails. And those cheeky monkeys really want me to respond. Apparently, a note that says, “Your email is incomprehensible. Please rewrite it so that I’ll understand what you mean” is a blow to their self-esteem (another topic for another time).
Okay.  I haven’t listed everything, but enough for now. And sure, I could probably save myself a lot of time (and grief!) if I didn’t have the apparently silly notion that academic dishonesty is bad or if I just read papers and put grades on them (since most students don’t ever read what their teachers write anyway) or if I didn’t take my kids to soccer practice or if I didn’t kiss my wife. I could do that.
But then my students would be out in the workplace, and making babies, and running for office without at least one person telling them that despite their sterling qualities, there is room for improvement. And I’d have to get a job doing something that paid more and gave me time to really help the community: like serving on the school board.

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