Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Joys of Grading Essays

I missed teaching while I was in Spokane, and I am thrilled to be back in the classroom. However ... I've always said that I don't mind reading student papers, but I despise having to grade them.

So here I am tonight, taking a break from grading the first batch of essays from two sections of pre- basic college composition courses. They're not strong writers to begin with, as this is a developmental English class at the community college level. In the Bay Area, at least half of the population or more lives in a home in which English is not the language spoken. So there are always second language errors to deal with (and truly, unless you're trained in ESL, how do you explain such things as when you use "a" versus "the" or not at all?) Additionally, my second section of English appears to consist of a quarter of the football team, or it least it has seemed so this weekend. (Students could pick their own topic, so naturally the football players wrote about football. And that is as it should be--write about what you know! It's one of the oldest cliches in the book, along with "Show, don't tell.") But I swear, if I read one more football essay, I'll hang myself.

Of course I exaggerate. First essays are usually awful, and I get tired of flunking jocks, especially when they're African American athletes from Oakland, trying to get a leg up on life. One of these guys wrote an essay for me once about being in a gang and dealing drugs and getting shot by the police. It was a gripping essay, a narrative, although it earned a "D" due to the fact I hadn't assigned a narrative and, of course, it was riddled with grammatical and mechanical errors. In my end comments, I asked, "Is this true? You're quite the storyteller!" I meant it as a compliment because despite his terrible grammar and not following the assignment, he had at least hooked me. And then I proceeded to the comments about his errors and blah blah blah. He got the paper back, didn't even blink at the grade (par for the course, I guess) and called me over. He rolled up his pants leg. "Here's where they got me," he said proudly. My God. Half the boy's calf had been shot off.

He failed my class anyway. Halfway during the semester, he stopped showing up, and God only knows where he is today. Back in jail and not dead is my hope.

The hardest papers, of course, are the ones in which students write about the death of a family member or the death of a friend or lover. Maybe this is why I give an "open topic" essay for the first essay of the semester; this way, my students can write about what's been troubling them and get that out of their systems. (Not that it would, but some students seem to think that writing an emotional, here is my arm and I-am-now-slicing-it-in-front-of-you essay is what I'm looking for. Or maybe they've never been given the opportunity to write what they feel in an English class and they believe topics such as death are the only ones worthy of "a great theme.") I try to nip this stuff in the bud and say I'm not looking for the profound. I'm looking for specificity, for clarity, for examples. You don't have to give me your heart on a platter. Does that sound harsh? I don't know; I think I seem easy-going and accepting to my students (which I am, I hope) and I am grateful they trust me, which is truly a privilege ... but they don't listen! Reading this blog post over now, I can see why. I'm ambivalent. I want them to write about what matters to them. So they do.

Imagine how it feels to have to stick a "D" or even a "C" on an essay about, say, the death of a child.

I hate grading essays.

I still love what I do. If I didn't, this kind of thing wouldn't trouble me. Honestly, it's stuff an English teacher will deal with from Day One. I suppose what astonishes me is that the scenario doesn't really change. I've taught at Penn State, in the mid-80's; I've taught in Mansfield, Ohio, in the early 90's; I've taught in the San Francisco Bay Area pretty much since 1998, with one year off. So it's amazing that, apparently, no matter where we are in this United States, or when it is, my experience teaches me that we're all pretty much the same. I've changed assignments; I've changed topics; I've changed even myself. Yet students' grammar will always stink and might be getting worse (but why shouldn't it? Computer grammar checkers and spell checkers catch much, except for subtleties, and in this global economy, communication is more important, not trivia--as long as the point is clear, what's the problem?) But the human heart remains the same. The need to spill our guts hangs on. The need to convince your English teacher that football or baseball is extraordinarily important hangs on. The need to tell me, in broken English, that an aunt died because she got hit by a bus is always there.

Why? I suppose it's because I put out an invitation to listen, to read. And it's because I have a soft heart, and I think they sense that. I hate it when that conflicts with what I know I have to do ... to sometimes fail papers that I know someone struggled to write. But it's college. There's a standard to uphold. It's not commerce, a business in which I may be asked to sell out for a client or an account because the company's profit is the bottom line. With teaching, there is integrity. This, I hang onto as I grade essays as fairly as I can.

Did I say I hate grading papers? ;-)

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