My parents had a friend who taught English at the local university who worked long past the age he was eligible to retire. He quite cheerfully insisted that he would continue to teach until he couldn't face grading another paper. And he finally reached that point, retired, and continued to be cheerful for the next few years.
Grading is the great challenge of teaching. It is repetitive (no matter how often you change the assignment), at times frustrating (when submissions don't follow the guidelines you have laid out), and even depressing (when students do badly). Tests and papers, short written assignments, and projects, all are usually more of a slog than a joy.
Don't get me wrong -- there are those tests and essays and papers which, after reading them, make me want to pump my fist in the air and do a jig. She GOT it!!! He really taught me something new!!! THAT humorous essay on the test really is clever and accurate, and I laughed out loud (yay!). But the majority are usually a bit boring and there are some that are just painful.
So why do we do it? What is the value of assigning a similar task that results in a similar submission from year to year? And why do you grade things at all? How do you work out ways to avoid the challenging and frustrating and get the worthwhile aspects out of the classes?
Follow me below the fold, but know in advance (yes, this is a spoiler) -- I don't necessarily have any answers to these questions that convince me, let alone anyone else.
Assigning a paper or setting an exam is a way to measure progress of the individual student, to assess skills, knowledge, and what he or she is learning. If I don't assign these sorts of things, it becomes really hard for me to know how a single person is doing among a class of 40 (I classes between 40 and 45 students and one of 25, so I don't know who is who until the end of the semester, if then). Grading each paper or test allows me to give students feedback on progress, to let them know what they are learning or not learning that overlaps with what I emphasize in the classroom. It also gives me a way to interact with even those students who do not come to my office to ask for help. In paper grading I do a bit of proofreading as well as adding suggestions for improvement in organization and research resources.
I don't give a single assignment in any of my classes, whether test or paper or short written project, that is not a stage in a final project, or one of two or three submissions under the same template, because I want to give the students a chance to improve their writing/studying/reasoning over the course of the semester. I can show improvement to the students and improvement to myself. If students don't improve, on the other hand, I have a clear problem which needs a solution -- are my instructions and comments so convoluted that they are unfollowable? Is the assignment not one that can be completed in the time frame or with the preparation that students have before the class or get in the course itself? So grading is a chance for me to evaluate myself and/or my activities and assignments as well as to provide feedback and numerical marks to my students.
I see grading as part of the "scaffolding" we do throughout a major program and through the university career of a student. Someone does a freshman writing class, and a capstone project that often includes writing in the senior year. How one gets from the freshman level to the senior level in knowledge, skills, ability to make logical connections across disciplines, and to construct and express a complex argument, is what we are trying to teach our students. Some of that is from the classroom activities, but some of it is from the work the student does individually in the library, in front of the computer. The thinking that goes into the best papers needs to be encouraged, writing can always be improved, and the framework (vocabulary, chronology, formulae) needs to be understood. Even though the setting is somewhat confrontational at best, testing and papers are really the best way I have found to interact with individual students, particularly when they don't come to my office to ask questions and sit at the back of the classroom and don't invest themselves visibly in what is going on during class time.
The way I grade is to randomly select 5 papers or assignment submissions and read them quickly (making comments, as I always make comments), rank them, and then take a short break (time for a cup of tea, perhaps). Then I set others into the range these create. I don't generally start assigning any letter or numerical grades at all until late in the process, when I really know how the range will fall. This means I go at a relatively reasonable pace. I still have trouble getting them turned around as quickly as I would like, however, because I do tend to write pretty extensively on them, which slows me down. But I always figure that it is better to give students useful feedback and explain the marks they are getting than just glance over a paper, write a letter grade at the top, and hand it back to them at the next class period.
So I am working my way through many many papers this weekend, and tests next week. This evening, I think I am going to light a fire in the fireplace, put on some music at really low volume (I find non-vocal is easier to have in the background when grading), spread out a blanket on the floor, get a purple or green pen, and go through at least 20 short papers. At least that is my goal. Ah, the exciting life of a college professor...
Why do you grade? Why do you even make assignments? And how do you cope?