Thursday, April 30, 2009

I'm going down...all the way

When I first started teaching, there were many things about the occupation/calling that really surprised me. I was surprised at the emotional response I had to being in front of a group of students, for instance. I, a normally shy person, did not freeze up or feel all that nervous. Instead, I participated in a bevy of shared emotions with the students: frustration at a stupid text, wonderment when a mental wall was broken down, glee when a cool idea took center stage.

What really shocked me, though, happened in my (communally shared, cramped, and ultimately decaying) office, at my lonely desk, when I was forced to slog through student papers and exams. I thought that I would be able to coolly detach myself from the act of grading. After all, I was (I figured) only dealing with questions and answers, theories, ideas...wasn't I? I wasn't actually rendering judgment on them on their worth as people. And I had the added benefit of having an extremely rotten mind for putting names together with faces (am I mentally deficient? just had too much fun in high school? I dunno), so I couldn't really figure out, in the majority of cases, whose work I was evaluating. The anonymity, I believed, would help.

Somehow, in spite of knowing I was evaluating ideas and not people, in spite of not being able to tell which person wrote down those ideas, I felt very much involved in the plight of the (oft-anonymous) students anyway. Sifting through stacks of paper, red (or the more student-friendly green) pen in hand, I still found myself rooting for students, cheering their accomplishments, feeling insanely proud when someone got a key point, suffering a meltdown when the point (whatever it may be) was irrevocably lost in a haze of illogic, suffering akin to the sensation of parental failure when someone obviously didn't care. Frankly, I wasn't expecting this level of emotional investment.

Moreover, I wasn't expecting the resulting student reactions. Those who earned As were unnervingly nonchalant about them. Likewise, and even more unexpectedly, those who earned Cs were similarly nonchalant. The realm of student expectation was so strange to me. About the only people who really seemed to care, out of that first group of students, were those who earned A-s...those acted as if I was exercising some vast, personal vendetta against them because I mysteriously didn't want them to get into Harvard Law or something like that.

And although there is a bunch of negatives about the actual grading process (it's isolating, tedious, mind-numbing, repetitive, the papers blur together, your eyeballs hurt, your back starts to give out, you envy everyone who gets to work outside), it's this emotional state that's the worst.

It's also why I try not to do it anymore.

Nowadays (or, as the comp student likes to say, "In our modern society today..."), I just hold conferences. Rather than me rendering solitary judgment, the student comes in, and we read, talk ideas, plot organization, and suggest revision strategies. It actually takes more time, but for most students, we get to have a conversation. Students seem to prefer it, and for me, it turns an isolating, pain-inducing desk session into an interactive student-centered learning opportunity (how's that for educat-speak?).

However, there's still a problem...the students still ultimately have to turn in revisions, and I still ultimately have to grade them. I only have to experience the roller-coaster that is grading one time a semester, but that one time involves everything each student has written...and therefore is a real doozy.

That's where I am the middle of grading hell. One class is down, and I'm in the middle of a second. I hope to get class 2 finished after lunch, maybe get class 3 done before bedtime. Friday will be class 4 and any stragglers. Then I will be done...both in terms of workload and of leftover mental sanity.

When I'm grading, other things, the regular small activities, tend to increase in importance and interest. I must, must regularly check all e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, Reader pages for updates...I can't fall behind! I need hot tea; coffee provides too steep of a kick, and tea has the added benefit of taking just long enough for me to go ahead and stay in the kitchen, away from those pesky portfolios. Lunch moves away from a quick sandwich, or maybe leftover something-or-another, and takes on epic proportions, both in preparation and consumption; today, for instance, I plan to cook a nice chateau brion, accompanied with rosemary-chive-goat cheese-black truffle mashed potatoes and cedar-wood grilled asparagus in a freshly made bernaise sauce. Then, of course, there's always writing this damn blog entry.

All to avoid going back to grading, you see. Because I want it all. I want large breaks from the tyranny of having to apply judgment, but I also want all said judgment over with. I want to do experience all the aspects of learning save the detection and determination of whether or not any actual learning actually happened. I want the teaching experience to be limited to just the adulation, the admirers, the illegal cash gratuities, the wine and champagne, the admiring students throwing garlands of freshly picked roses.

Of course, that will never happen. That, my friends, is why they call this grading hell.

No comments: