No matter how well I plan and no matter how hard I work, there comes a point in every semester when I am overwhelmed with grading. All teachers experience that moment when they stare at The Pile of papers in front of them and start the dance that they’ve done before.
First, I count the number of papers in The Pile.
Then I make a rough calculation about the number of papers I can grade in an hour. After I set what seems like a reasonable hourly rate, I get up to get a snack.
I return to the couch and I start grading. Usually, in that first hour, I fail to meet my quota. The first pass at grading depends largely on that first paper on the top of The Pile. I grade blindly so I don’t know which student wrote the paper, but if the paper is off target, rambling or a frustrating read, I move even more slowly.
By this time, it is typically late and I give up for the night.
The next day (or the next night), I am eventually able to get into a grading groove. At this point in the semester, even grading blindly, often I see improvement in my students’ writing from their earlier work. I spend a fair amount of class time discussing their writing process, how to approach each assignment, and how to take skills they build in my course to their writing across the curriculum, so it is really satisfying to see when students start to make these strides.
When I have graded a few papers in a row, I reward myself with a quick glance at my email (or Facebook or Twitter). Okay, let’s be honest, I look at Facebook AND Twitter. Then before I pick up The Pile, I count the remaining papers. Counting the papers is a privilege, I tell myself.
At first, it feels like The Pile never gets smaller. Sometimes it even grows as late assignments roll in. But, because I believe deeply in “writing to learn”, I face the reading and commenting on student papers many times over the course of the semester. I should not complain. My classes are relatively small by many standards. And if I help improve their writing, they need to practice writing AND receive some feedback.
So the semester works in cycles where sometimes I am without papers to juggle and other times I am in a grading vortex. I front loaded a significant amount of work for my students in one class and then they had several weeks to recover. And I recovered with them, attending to other non-teaching related items like job searching (more on that this week) and finally kick-starting my new research project (research blog also to finally launch this week). And when their deadlines came due, everything else in my life felt like it came to a screeching halt, too.
No matter how tall or short the stack is, I’ll find myself here again. Surrounded by papers that I carry from place to place and that I stack up in every which way to make them look like there are fewer of them. And as I tackle the papers, as The Pile grows smaller, I feel a sense of relief, of satisfaction. Yet, I know that as soon as I come up for air, I’m staring down another student deadline in less than a week.
Sucked into that vortex, it’s rinse repeat all over again.