This is the part of the semester and this job that I both love and hate. On the one hand, I have to read and award good final papers with good grades, but on the other hand, I have to read and award bad final papers with bad grades. This is thrilling, heartbreaking, and sometimes even surprising. Students’ insights can delight me, especially if I’ve been working with the student to develop her critical thinking and writing skills over the semester. They can also disappoint, and they can also satisfy me: reading a paper I expected (either good, bad, or mediocre from excellent, struggling, or mediocre students). I never talk about grades with students in anyway that would suggest they can lock me into a verbal commitment. I learned this lesson early on in my teaching career. Students can and will latch onto anything you say that sounds promising and contractual. What you might have offered as praise “This is a potential ‘A’ paper!” is heard as “You will get an ‘A’ for the semester.” Praise and criticism, then, must be measured out carefully. Also grades are never discussed over email. Grading English papers is not like grading Scantron tests, which use the darkening of bubbles to assess learning; grading English papers takes time, patience, and careful consideration, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The English teacher usually has a clear sense of the kind of grade a student will get on a final paper when reading that paper’s draft (and certainly if there is no draft provided even when the actual paper is due in a few hours!). Even still, my responses to those drafts must be measured with praise as well as suggestions: “This is an interesting thesis. You seem to be answering the essay question effectively, but you might want to focus more attention on building your essay according to the parts of your thesis.” If a paper needs significant work, I measure out some praise, more suggestions, and lots of encouragement: “Nice hook! The thesis statement is unclear though. Remember, all you want to do is answer the question and support your answer with specific, well-chosen evidence, just like you did in your previous paper. Look at that paper again. Use your notes from class. You can do this!” And so on. Always offer a mixed response (praise, suggestions, encouragement) but never ever suggest or give a clue toward the kind of grade the student will get.
Because grading English papers is time-consuming and tends to be subjective — rubrics help to an extent — I wonder, only at the end of the semester, what it would be like to teach for an exam (the fill in the bubble kind). At the very least it would make grade disputes more difficult for students. It’s hard for students to dispute that fill-in-the-blank system of testing and grading, because it’s hard to argue what a student “meant” to bubble in as opposed to what he/she actually bubbled in. This is where grading papers becomes challenging, because writing doesn’t always convey what is actually meant. Language has its limitations. Unfortunately, it also means it’s much easier for students to contest final grades for an English class. Sometimes such disputes come down to what they perceive as a matter of like/dislike: “My professor didn’t like me.” “He had it in for me from the beginning.” “I knew he’d give me a bad grade because when I asked him what grade I’d get, he said ‘we’ll see.'” The quality of the paper is also taken into consideration; all English professors have an office, or room at home, or car trunk full of composition folders from years past, just in case. (My first grade dispute taught me to document and save everything!)
This semester, I’ve learned the importance of talking to students early on about their grades. In conferences this week, I’ve had some heart-to-hearts with students who might have attended classes all semester but turned in work that I cannot pass (to pass a student who is not ready would be a disservice to him/her). I’ve found that this frank, well-meaning conversation is usually met with awareness from the student who responds with an “I know” or “I had a feeling I wasn’t doing well.” To which I respond, “Just so there are no surprises when you look at your grades….” They nod and say they understand. Next time, though, they shouldn’t be embarrassed to come to me (or to any of their professors) I tell them, because it’s better to turn things around mid-semester than suffer the losses at the end. Never do I tell students their final grades though. “I can tell you how you’ve done on your previous papers, which you can add up and divide to figure out where you stand now,” I say. “But I can’t tell you what I think your final grade will be.” That, I tell them, depends on their final paper, which we are both awaiting with bated breath.