Now is the dreadful time of year when I have to grade exams. I like to think that I am good or better at most parts of my job, and competent at the rest. But even hubris would not suffice to make me think I am an efficient grader. I am slow.
No, I am very slow. I agonize. I get upset at the weak exams — I want the students to do well, and the reality is that they don't all do well. Among the worst parts is seeing common errors float up: could so many people have sat through a semester of my class and not learned that? Did I somehow say something that unintentionally misled half the class? Or is it some commercial outline somewhere that led them astray? There is no way to know.
I used to get really upset about the disasters, the D's and the (rare) F's. Now, perhaps my heart is hardened. Or, more likely, I've come to understand that not everyone is cut out to be a lawyer. Those are not my fault.
It also helps that today's students at UM are better than they were over a decade ago. There are far fewer disasters, and some of the students are very very good. Even so, there are a lot of mushy waffly exams. C+'s dragged down lower by blatant errors, or pushed up by an insight. B's listing under the weight of distractors or unspotted issues.
The A's are the best. Quick to read, easy to grade. They got it! I smile. I wish there were more of them. For the very best I'll be writing them a note, asking them to drop by so I can congratulate them in person, offering to write them recommendations. Most come by, not all take me up on the offer; some already have their futures mapped out, others I never learn the second act much less the third.
Grading is serious business. It matters enormously to the students; they think it determines their prospects. They are not entirely wrong, although for most careers it will affect the first job more than any other, and in five or ten years will be much less relevant than what they have been doing since. I have all sorts of strategies to try to be as fair as I can be. I split the exams up into piles of questions to increase consistency and so that performance on one question won't subconsciously affect the grade of the next. I grade each question in a different order so no blind grading number always comes first. I read every very low grade twice to make sure I gave it every consideration. I have certain issues in mind which, unless you see them and deal with them properly, you cannot get a top grade.
I am fairly confident that if you gave me the same pile of exams to mark last year or next year, almost all the grades would be the same. Certainly the A's, the B+'s, they're quite clear. So too with the C's on down. We don't have a B- grade. The high B's and the low C+'s are very different exams. But right at the margin between the B and C+…there I always suspect that on a different day things might have fallen a little differently. You can only do the best you can.
Grading is serious business. I spend hours and hours at it, while only a few rooms away, my wife grades twice as many exams — she's justly a more popular teacher and also teaches the business subjects that more students think they want or need — nearby, my wife grades twice as many exams in about half the time. She's a grading machine. I find my mind has wandered, and I have to start reading the essay all over again. Grading is serious and important and requires attention. But it's just not that interesting to read the fortieth essay on the same subject.
This year may be different. Normally when I'm not grading I have the alternative of doing something more interesting — usually research. But this year, when I'm not grading what I should be doing is unpacking boxes: our nearly endless home remodeling project is near enough to completion that we've taken back the half of our worldly goods that we had stuffed into a 10×15 container. (“Thank you for staying with us” said the man at the storage facility, as if I were checking out of 3-star hotel…) Now the boxes are in piles on the floor. And it's not all obvious where it all goes.
It's time to start grading today.
Or maybe tomorrow.