Tag Archives: american higher education

Adventures in Grading

It’s that time of the year again, when red pens run freely and the coffee mugs get bigger.  Surely the end of the semester is the grading salt mines for everyone.  It’s my first time grading papers and long-form exams instead of multiple-choice scantron tests, and the amount of work that goes into them is vastly different.  The challenge of multiple-choice exams is all front loaded: you put in an immense amount of work writing clear, concise questions that are challenging but not impossible, and that don’t play “gotcha” with students.  (Or at least, they shouldn’t.)  When the tests come back, you’ve got an answer key, grading flies by, and there you are.  The challenge of long-form exams is back loaded: you put some terms and questions out, and then spend your time deciphering student handwriting along with student answers, trying to pan for gold in the form of recognisable answers that address the topic at hand.  It’s a different kind of labour.  Papers are another kind — for me, the challenge of papers has been seeing how few students understand how English grammar works, for one, and for two, seeing how few students understand how to structure and present a coherent, strong argument.  My university is no slouch in the humanities and is a competitive school.  I’m dismayed by some of the papers I’ve received grading for an upper level class, frankly.  I’ve had students completely incapable of reading the paper assignment in the syllabus, hearing the discussion of the paper assignment in class on multiple occasions, and consequently, hand in something completely unrelated to the task assigned to them — and poorly executed at that!  It’s so incredibly frustrating.  And some of the examinations make me wonder just what classroom students have been in for the past semester, because based on their answers, it certainly wasn’t mine!

The stages of grading, as illustrated by Jorge Cham of PHD Comics.

The stages of grading, as illustrated by Jorge Cham of PHD Comics.

But the thing that’s bothered me today is the question of language.  Specifically, how do you grade a student who uses derogatory language in their examinations and papers?  I haven’t had a slew of these, but one was enough, frankly.  In a classroom headed up by a professor who is visually impaired and assisted by a TA with visible mobility aids (fabulously floral print mobility aids, may I add), the student repeatedly used “cripples/crippled” to refer to people with disabilities in their exam.  It’s pretty elementary that you don’t call us folks with sticks or chairs cripples to our faces, or at least, I hope it is.  But apparently, referring to people that way in an exam is okey-dokey.  I’m flabbergasted.  And frankly, it was hard to grade the rest of her exam fairly.  Maybe I’m too sensitive, considering it’s a derogatory term people use for me.  But if she had been writing about Jews and called us kikes, I’d have my hackles just as far up.  Or called African-Americans negros.  (Perhaps more for that one.)  It’s wildly inappropriate, and it stuns me that a student thinks it’s a good way to refer to someone who can’t climb stairs unassisted (like yours truly) in a formal writing situation like a final exam.  Doubly so when said cripple is going to be grading it!

I recognise that students are often young adults, frequently very young.  I teach at a private Catholic university.  Some of these students are incredibly sheltered young people.  Their exposure to the world beyond their hometowns and home parishes can be limited.  And I also recognise that part of our job as educators is to bring them into greater awareness of that wider world, not just through the materials we teach but in the way we teach.  It seems to me that language needs to be a teachable moment every time it wanders off into poisonous pastures.  You wouldn’t let a horse graze in a field of nightshade if you knew that was what it was eating.  You’d get it out of that field and put it in a safe pasture.  But you’d also inform the horse’s owner that the field they’d put their horse in was dangerous!  The tendency to shut down language usage or to ignore the matter until it arises — and by then, it has done its damage in your classroom — is the same as just leading the horse away and dropping the lead once the belladonna was no longer underfoot.  It’s not enough to just shut this stuff down.  We have to be proactive about it so that classroom discussions and written assignments are spaces in which students wrestle with difficult ideas and concepts in the clearest, most accurate way possible.  Classrooms are already challenging environments.  They need to be spaces where doing hard thinking and asking hard questions are as safe and supported as possible.  One of those ways is by dealing with language before it crops up and puts vulnerable people at a disadvantage.

a handful of buttons saying "social justice warrior," "social justice cleric," "social justice bard," "social justice ranger," "social justice rogue," and "social justice wizard."

I’m a Social Justice Cleric, really. I’m always the cleric.

This is another one of those moments where I’m a bleeding heart liberal pinko commie whatever.  I recognise this.  But having felt the punch of being called ethnic slurs in a classroom and the double indignity of having a professor do nothing about it, I know what this minefield is like.  Seeing “cripples” in the exam today brought me right back to it, being 20 years old and getting called a Christ Killer in the middle of a presentation on Jews in the Civil War, and feeling utterly powerless and silenced in the face of this big, imposing fraternity brother who had just shouted it at me.  How much worse would it have been if this student had used “cripples” in a classroom discussion with students with disabilities present?  How marginalised and silenced would they have felt?  How can students feel able to contribute when the language their classmates use tell them their voices are worthless and they themselves are unequal participants in the classroom, unwanted and unheard?

I’m in charge of discussion sections next term.  I think one of the first things that I will be doing is talking about language in the classroom.  I’m a big believer in setting standards, communicating them clearly, and letting students rise to them or face clearly articulated consequences.  A zero-tolerance policy on derogatory language is one of those standards for me — after that discussion, if you use language like that and it’s not a direct quote from materials we’re handling, you’re out the door and you get a big old zero for that day’s participation.  Consequences escalate from there.  And if this means it’s the first time that a student learns that “cripple” or “gypsy” or “jap” or “tranny” is a slur, then it’s high time they learned.  Everyone needs to be on an equitable playing field in a classroom, doubly so in a discussion section.  And that means making sure no-one is told by virtue of their immutable characteristics alone that they’re unwelcome on that field.  I’ve been there.  If I can prevent it, none of my students are going to stand in my same place of 10 years ago while they’re in my classroom.  The lesson that privileged folks have the right and ability to call you derogatory names and will face no consequences for it is not a lesson that should be happening in the academy today.  Period.  And privileged students need to learn that their words, choices, and actions have consequences.  Those consequences aren’t unforgivable, more than likely, and I’m hard-pressed to say if I’d fail a student for language.  Perhaps I would, if it was egregious enough.  But I believe in teachable moments, and that education is more than a grade — it’s about learning how to move through and interpret the world with grace, wisdom, and understanding. Those are things that can’t be graded, but must be taught.

However, I’m still marking down for improper comma usage and inability to cite correctly.  Some things are just untenable, after all.


The Syllabus: Roadmap or Contract?

In my various orientation meetings about being a Teaching Assistant/Teaching Fellow (a grad student instructor rather than just an assistant to an instructor) at my university, we’ve covered the importance of the syllabus more times than I care to count.  Faculty explained to us critical elements such as laying out grading procedures and rubrics so that students feel grading is as fair as it can be, and the importance of setting the tone for your classroom with policies on technology use, absences, and other things important for the class but not found in the university handbook.  The syllabus, it was explained over and over again, is a roadmap to the class, letting students know what to reasonably expect from the class and giving them a sense of what’s expected from them.  It should give important dates for major papers, exams, and importantly, list the books they need to buy and when they need to do readings/assignments.  It gives an expectation of the shape of the class — what we intend to do and how we intend to do it, as partners in an effort to understand and interpret the class materials rather than an imposed, unchanging structure of demands.  I like that sense.  It adheres to my personal teaching philosophy and my sense of the humanities of being responsive and context-driven at their best.

The syllabus also provides a way to answer the same five or six questions over and over again.

One of the things my institution does at teaching orientations is bring in a handful of undergrads and have a panel where they talk about what they expect from TAs/instructors, what makes a great TA/instructor, and what things they wished their TAs/instructors knew.  And the thing that surprised me routinely was the assertion that the syllabus should be written in stone, and anything else was unfair to students.  We just didn’t understand the demands on their time and how much changing the syllabus hurt them.  “Don’t ever change the syllabus!” they said over and over.  “Once we put things in our planners, that’s it, we can’t change things.  You don’t understand how busy we are.  We plan going home around our syllabus.”

It was an odd assertion to me.  I remarked on it to my fiancé when I got home that day, then didn’t really bother to think about it much.  I’m not teaching this semester, my relationship to syllabi is as a student, not as an instructor.  I got my syllabi, plugged in all the due dates and assignments into my calendars, and made my general outline for the semester.  No big deal.  When professors have given additional assignments or changed due dates, I’ve shifted plans around and made time to do the things asked of me, despite my class load of 3 800-level seminar courses and the demands of life outside school, to say nothing of research and professional development.  That, to me, is part of the contract of being a student.  You invest your time in your classes, you respond to the classes appropriately, and you do the work as assigned or face the consequences.  You are responsive to the work, the same way you are responsive to the demands made upon you in a job.  Sometimes, you work overtime.  Sometimes, you have light weeks.  That’s the nature of the commitment.  And it’s a mutual one, as the professors are committed to being there with you, working through the same material and handling your problems, concerns, and grading your assignments.

I’ve had professors who have made egregious syllabus changes — I remember clearly a professor in my first MA program who decided to bump up the due date for a major paper three weeks, and announced the change the week before it was due without warning or context.  That was particularly bad, and felt distinctly unfair.  (I dislike the “unfair” claim, but when an instructor makes it harder to complete a major assignment without any justification, that seems a relevant accusation.)  But there was a process for handling it.  A few of us talked to the instructor, and when she didn’t budge, we talked to the academic dean about whether or not this was a thing allowed.  It wasn’t, in fact.  When major papers take the place of final exams, they had to be due during exam week save with dispensation from the college.  The problem was not the change in the syllabus itself.  It was the nature of the change and the fact that the change substantially altered the course and put it in conflict with college policies.

Because that was the thing — the syllabus was a roadmap, and when you’re reasonably anticipating your roadmap takes you to Las Vegas, suddenly discovering at the end of the trip that you actually need to go to Spokane and you need to get there tomorrow means that your map isn’t very good in laying out the pace and distance of the trip.  And while some syllabi are better roadmaps than others, they should reasonably and accurately lay out the route taken and the expectations for how the trip is going to go.  A four day hard drive across the US is very different from a three week lazy roadtrip.  And it’s good teaching to differentiate between the two when it comes to laying out how the class is going to go.  It’s also good teaching (perhaps bare minimum teaching) to make sure your policies and assignments fall in line with institutional guidelines and rules.

This was an issue that cropped up again today when I saw an article on HuffPost College: “Dear Professor, Some of Us Work 40 Hours a Week.”  In it, Fernando Hurtado asserts that because of his intense work schedule that he has taken on in response to the cost of college and student indebtedness, he cannot handle changes to the syllabus.  And because 20% of students work full time in addition to college, professors who value getting paid out of student’s tuition dollars oughtn’t add assignments to the syllabus with less than 24 hour notice because students already work hard enough.  The syllabus, Hurtado suggests, should be locked in stone because of the demands on student time and because professors have no sense of what it means to be a busy student.

As I read it — with some sympathy because I understand the pressure and demands of being a student with a strained schedule where sleep barely fits, but with some derision because he admits that he chooses to work and resists pressure from his parents to rely on his financial aid package instead of stretching himself so thin (to say nothing of his assertion that his tuition pays professor salaries instead of the reality of adjuncting and the relationship between tuition and instructor pay) — I realised this is smack-dab in the middle of the same battle over the concept of the syllabus.  Is the syllabus a roadmap, loose but reasonably clear, inherently flexible and responsive to the needs of the class?  Or is it a contract, locked in stone and unchanging in order to give students the certainty of what is expected from them and when?

The contract seems to stem from the culture of American public schools, where students are chronically overbooked, overtested, overworked, and overobligated.  Having done some work on secondary education in the US and read about the homework and testing loads present in American classrooms, I can see where the student need for the contract model comes from.  With the anticipation that everything is going to be competing for limited resources of time, attention, and rigor, if the syllabus changes then the student is suddenly faced with a scheduling crisis.  There are often not enough hours in the day for public school students who want to attend top colleges to do everything expected of them in addition to sleeping, eating, and socialising.  Couple that chronic anxious overcommitment with the increasingly dominant business model of higher education, and students seem to expect high output for their invested tuition dollars — that is to say, good grades.  (This is not to suggest that all students feel entitled to good grades because they paid tuition.  But it is certainly a current present in the stream.)  Professors are contractors producing a product, and students as consumers of that product are in a contractual relationship to know exactly what they’re getting.  The syllabus becomes like a work agreement rather than an outline of learning outcomes and course themes — you will work this many hours performing these tasks, and no more.  Anything else, any additions without compensation, become unpaid overtime.  And a boss that demands unpaid overtime is cruel, unethical, and oblivious to the realities of work.

I am resistant to this model, admittedly.  Perhaps obviously.  I am resistant to the business model of higher education to begin with, and my sense is that the contract syllabus is part and parcel of the commodification of learning.  Instead of a guide to the reasonable expectations of the class, it has to be locked in stone so that students aren’t expected to do more for a given class than they agreed to at the beginning of the term.  And that’s a troubling development.  It means that the instructor has limited flexibility to address issues that arise in the class or shift assignments in response to student needs or struggles.  In the humanities especially, this strikes me as the worst model of instruction possible.  And yet, at the same time, I don’t know how we respect the intense levels of pressure students are under without agreeing to give them so much work and no more.  Does that respect for their pressure and workloads mean we ignore learning opportunities that arise during the semester and avoid adding sources, ideas, lectures, and events that could deepen their understanding or illuminate ideas they’ve struggled with in the classroom?

I don’t know what the answer is.  But I sense that the contract model of syllabi, especially in larger institutions, is here to stay for the foreseeable future.  And I feel it is quite possibly one of the nails in the coffin of the idea of a liberal arts education.  The humanities don’t thrive in contracts and limitations.  They’re at their best when they’re flexible, responsive, interdisciplinary, and relevant to the world in which students live.  Can we make the humanities do all of those things if we must teach only to the context we imagined for a class in the weeks before the semester started?  Or can we reasonably expect students to meet us halfway as partners in learning, adapting their expectations of the class and writing in their planners in pencil instead of sharpie?