Be like Johnnie too good, well don’t you know he never shirks

16 12 2009

Hate grading. Hate hate hate grading.

It’s not just the labor of it—tho’ it is also the labor of it—so much as the pointlessness of the process.

Identify this, define that, explain how this fits with that. . . oh my god, I’m falling asleep already. But don’t worry, I’ll rouse myself with coffee or beer (what the hell) and read every fucking word written before scribbling a number which just might bear some relationship to the worth of that collection of words.

Dot i’s, cross t’s, jump hoops, student and teacher alike. You get a grade, I get a paycheck.

So why bother with grading at all? Well, there’s that matter of the student needing a grade and my desire for that paycheck.

Practicalities, in other words.

Please don’t think that, if I had my druthers, I’d abandon all work requirements for the students. If you are not a prodigy or genius and you want to learn, you have to work. (And if you are a prodigy or genius and you want to be good, you have to work.)

The problem is that the work required for learning is only approximated by the work required for grading, and often, not even that.

I shape and cut and alter the course requirements, but, in the end, what I grade only partially captures what they learn, and, for that matter, what they haven’t learned.

A big part of the problem, perhaps even the main problem, is that most students don’t much care about learning. They care about grades, yes, performance, at times, but learning? Mm, no.

How do I know this? Besides the dearth of students who visit me during office hours to discuss the material, or who approach me wanting help puzzling through a problem I posed, or who show any energy at all in class or in the written work? Besides the slack look on their faces when I ask them the most basic questions about the material? Besides the utter lack of interest in finding their own way into the material?

Simple: because every once in a while, one of them does learn something, and he or she is overwhelmed—because they don’t expect to learn.

Understand? They don’t expect to learn, so when it does happen—when an insight or a question percolates up and into their consciousness—they are visibly giddy or discombobulated or even scared. I never knew. . . .Is this real. . .  ? How could this be. . . ?

I’m not exaggerating. I’ve had students stand in front of me with their mouths opening and closing  and their eyes wide and darting as they attempt to corral this feeling into words. They are agape in the presence of knowledge.

I let them work their ways through it, tell them they have something real, and that they should do whatever they can to make sense, that I will help them to make sense.

It doesn’t always work. You can see them back down, or let it go, or watch as they’re distracted by other matters.

But even then, with those who seem to have tossed their insights aside, you can see an angle to their thoughts, and you know it’s still in there, somewhere.

There’s no way to capture that, that abashed curiosity, in a grade. On the margins, maybe, but in the main? No.

This is why I hate grading. This is why I love teaching.