It’s that time of year again: grading time. Are you one of those people discovering all of the scintillating articles online you missed during the semester? Or are you searching out and posting the best new memes about grading misery? (Have you seen the new one featuring Gollum?) You are likely familiar with the pithy phrase, “I teach for free, but I get paid to grade.” But why does grading so often summon the complete range of negative emotions in us? Why the general angst? I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ll venture some thoughts based on my own reflection.
Teaching is part of my identity. I consider myself a competent instructor. I enjoy feeling like I know my stuff, I can explain it well, and I’ve answered the underlying questions of my students. Because I’m passionate about clear writing, I’d really love others to be sold on its importance and benefits as well. I teach seminary students, and I want them to recognize that good writing matters, whether they end up writing sermons, curriculum, or emails.
But perhaps I want them to believe that writing matters in order to convince myself that my work matters, or even that I matter. Maybe it’s not only that I want students to write well because I care about them and their ministry, but that I also want validation for myself. By convincing students that writing well matters, it is easier to convince myself that teaching writing matters. When I grade mediocre (or worse) work, I often take it personally. Did I fail to teach well? Was I not engaging enough? Is my work not important? Why do students not value my course (or me)? When I’ve invested time and energy into my students, effortless work feels like an affront.
All of these reactions are much too personal. Students aren’t thinking of their professors’ feelings and identity issues as they write. God calls me to teach faithfully, to invest in students, and to care about their writing competence, especially as it allows them to lean into their specific ministry callings. But my own worth and identity do not hinge on the work of my students. It only takes stepping back to realize how ridiculous it is to tie my identity to my students’ success. I am frustrated when teacher bonuses are tied to student test scores in elementary and secondary schools because I know that the giftedness of a teacher does not always translate to test scores. I am irritated when tenure portfolios weigh student evaluations since I know how biased students can be toward their professors, regardless of the teaching involved. Likewise, student performance does not define me.
As if feelings of insecurity weren’t enough, I also experience guilt when I grade. When I sit down to a batch of papers, I realize that my resolve to have no favorite students is a farce. I am not as unbiased as I hope. I desire to be objective and to value each student equally, but grading confronts me with my own partiality. It’s so much more fun to grade excellent work! It’s not just good for my pride, but it’s also rewarding to see how students have learned to research, write, or think more carefully over a term. It’s a gift to read clear writing and developed arguments. Despite attempts to disguise names, I can narrow down excellent papers to a couple of students after only a few assignments. And I expect this excellence again and again. On the other hand, I have students who consistently underperform, and before I begin, I steel myself for the grammar mistakes, run-on sentences, and muddy thinking. I expect them to write poorly, and I expect to be disappointed.
And those expectations that I bring to the pile are accompanied by guilt. How dare I expect students to do poorly? And how does that expectation influence the grade, even with a rubric at hand?
Insecurity and guilt aren’t fun. But then there’s the anxiety grading brings to mind. I often worry about how students will react to their grades, and I over-empathize with my students when it comes to grading. The truth is, each student is different. Many are just trying to check my course off of their requirements so they can move on to coursework that better fits their passions. Others have so many commitments in their lives that a passing grade is all they really want. They’ve made a calculation and decided the bare minimum will get them what they need.
I can’t relate to this. I’ve never been satisfied with the bare minimum, no matter what my other commitments. And that’s true for many of those who teach and grade. We were the students engaging with the professors and the material, putting forth our best effort. We were the students our professors loved to grade.
Grading would be fun if we could please everyone. If all of our students cared about the course and did their best work, we’d enjoy giving them feedback, even if they needed to improve. If students considered grades an assessment to let them know where they needed to improve and where they were excelling, it might be easier to hand down grades. But grading sometimes brings out relational junk. Students don’t always respect the authority of the professor. Sometimes they demand grade changes, and no one really wants to fight over a grade. This worry about how students will feel if they get a less-than-stellar grade or how they will respond if it’s not what they expect makes it easy to put off the tricky task of grading well.
Given the insecurity, guilt, and anxiety I often experience when grading, what am I to do? Instead of gritting my teeth and rewarding myself with chocolate after each paragraph graded, I need to take a step back.
When I sit down to grade, I pause and ask God to help me reflect on what I’m bringing with me, asking for confidence in my calling to teach (and to grade) and requesting insight into my students and their work. I pray for freedom from bias and wisdom in my judgment. When I take a break, I pause again and pay attention to my own thoughts and emotions. Am I feeling discouraged? Frustrated? Prideful? God can help me see the dignity and value of each student wholly apart from their work. May we all grow in spiritual maturity each time we grade a batch of papers, no matter whether they meet our expectations (of ourselves) or not. May we trust that God is working in us, helping us to find our identity in him and not in the performance or opinions of our students. May we grade with honesty, integrity, and impartiality, not favoring the brightest nor worrying about pleasing students. May we give God the glory in our work.