classrooms · emotional labour · grading · pedagogy · teaching · Uncategorized · writing


I was complaining to myself about how slow my grading was going and how I was a slacker for not getting it done faster. Then I added up some numbers. Then I tweeted this, that is to say, complaining to others, and it got a LOT of traction relative to my usual Twitter complaints:


So that’s what I’m going to expand on today: grading is writing, and it’s work, and we do way more of it, probably than we think we do.

Here’s how I grade. Students hand in their assignments (a lot of short writing assignments, usually between 400-1200 words) and I mark them up with pen as I go–I put tiny underlines under simple errors; I write marginalia that queries a point, or offers a readerly reaction like “ha!” or “aha!” or “hm” or “!” or “are you sure?”; I write sentence fragments in response to the main idea. When I’ve finished reading and marking-up the paper copy, I write up more formal notes, summative and formative, in Word. This weekend I was grading Evidence-Based Arguments for my first years, so I have one Word doc called “Evidence-Based Argument” and I just concatenate everyone’s feedback in that one doc, separated by page breaks. So there’s a running word count for the whole thing.

For 24 Evidence-Based Arguments I graded this week, I wrote 2735 words. That’s a lot of writing, it struck me. I opened the other files for that course. The Internet Literacy Narrative? 2898 words. The Fact-Check Report? 2763 words. You can see that’s about 100 words per assignment, for a total in the course so far of about 8500 words. That’s a longish academic article worth of words.

Now I’m curious. For my grad class this term, 15 students, I’ve graded essay proposals and annotated bibliographies, and two 400 word response papers per student. [Goes away and calculates] Just over 6000 words of feedback.

That makes 14,500 words of formal written feedback since September. Not counting marginalia or emails or verbal feedback in office visits.

Last semester my courses were bigger–a fourth year seminar of 25 students and a first year course of 40. [More calculation ensues] 22,000 words for the first years and 16,000 for the fourth years, so that’s 38,000 formal grading words in the winter term.

In my assigned teaching in 2017, I’m at 52,500 words of direct feedback to students typed into Word docs. I’m not done yet: my first years and my grads have final papers yet to hand in for me to give them feedback on.

I have also read and given extensive feedback on …. lessee …. four complete dissertation, and about 8 dissertation chapters this year? I don’t know how much I wrote for those, but it was a lot.

I don’t begrudge this work. But I would like it to be more visible than it is. A writing intensive course for students is a feedback intensive course for professors. I often will note in my annual reports that my first years write: a response paper, then revise it, then produce a paper with a stepped structure of proposal, bibliography, intro paragraph, draft, and final paper. But I do not note what *I* am writing in response to this.

Linda Carson on Twitter suggested that in academic life as in most other domains, what counts is what gets counted. She encouraged me to think about writing out these numbers on my report. I might. But even personally, I think I generally tend to dis-count this writing as writing, because not only do I not literally count up how much of it I do, I don’t think it “counts” as real writing.

But it does, in its way: crafting feedback on student work is a balancing act of formative and summative goals, a kind of specificity of address that lets the student know you really heard them, but a level-appropriateness that encourages reach without overwhelming. No wonder we get tired doing it.

Anyhow. I’m at about, as I say, 52,000 words of feedback I can directly count up in my Word docs from my 2017 teaching. That’s not all of it, but it’s most of it. If it feels supportive, I encourage you to look back, if it’s easy enough to do, and see how much you’ve got done this year, too.

This is real work, real writing, creative and laborious. It counts.

advice · grading · protip · teaching

How to Grade Faster

Last week I covered how to get a lot of grading done in any given day, by managing the macro and meta elements: minimize distractions, take real breaks, fool yourself into working in chunks, etc.

But what about where the pen hits the paper, and the grade goes in the grade book? Many of us find this part hard as well. I have more tips. So this is a post about how to grade faster, which essentially means grading with more confidence, as it seems to me that we take sooooooo long sometimes because we’re not sure we’re doing it right. Alternately, we sometimes mistake grading harder for grading better. TL;DR: grade for some things but not everything, and trick yourself into thinking you know what you’re doing.

Basically, there are two parts to grading. First, marking the document, leaving comments, writing marginalia, crafting meaningful feedback. Second, assigning a grade. Let’s do both of these things faster.

Marking the document faster

My tip, basically, is this:

  • Know what you’re grading for.
Oh sure, easy to say, but what does it mean? Some people find rubrics really helpful: if you create a grid that lists the things that are being assessed, and use checkmarks in the grid to give feedback, you can be really focused. Rubrics are great for that. Rubrics also help students parse your feedback (and their grade) and that is also great. Rubrics can help everyone be more efficient: you look for the things in the assignment that match the rubric, and you assess. Me, personally, I hate using formal rubrics like that, because I find the format overwhelming and for me it makes me feel like it’s more work rather than less. But I can still get the same effect using other means.
I was lucky to attend a university Teaching Excellence Academy a bunch of years ago, where I was introduced to the idea of intended learning outcomes: for a given course, I identify several things I want the students to know, or be able to do, by the end of the semester. And then, miracle, I design the assessments around those outcomes. So for me, a key component of grading faster is to undertake more thoughtful assessment design.
For example, when I was starting out, I used to always assign big research papers in all my courses, because that’s what you do in English, right? So for a media history and methods course, I would get these 12 page final papers that I would helplessly pour over, looking for content mastery, and sophisticated and appropriate use of media theory or methodology, and good writing, and good research skills. It took ages. It was also, usually, just disappointing on all fronts, except for those 2 students who should just skip past the rest of the BA and MA and PhD and just get tenure right now. And half the time the students never even picked up their papers.
Now, sometimes I use exams to test content knowledge. I use group work to test interpretive creativity and flexibility.  I have small assignments where students apply a theory or method to a given text. I have assignments where they do research on a topic and make a bibliography. No one assessment is meant to be truly comprehensive; each assignment has one main point I’m trying to test and one main skill I’m trying to teach, so when I grade I’m just looking for a very small number of things. Annotated Bibliography? Are the citations in MLA format, did you find sources of different types, are the sources appropriate to your paper? I can grade that in five minutes–the first two points are purely mechanical, and so the last bit is where I spend four of the five minutes. 
My assignment sheets lay out, in bullet point, what I want, and I go over that very carefully with students ahead of time (which is a learning opportunity!), and then I have the assignment sheet in front of me when I grade, which functions like a rubric, sort of, but allows me to just give two or three sentences of holistic feedback.
Basically, to mark faster, you need to mark deliberately, and this comes from careful assessment design. Basically, I try to design assessments that give the maximum learning opportunity to students for the minimum amount of marking and grading. On my final exam, for instance, there’s a terms-and-definitions section. In advance of the exam, we take class time to brainstorm a giant possible list of terms from the whole semester, and work on crafting definitions. We’ll get something like 40 or 50. I tell them 15 will be on the exam, and they have to define 10. The learning is already happening in class in this exercise (and it’s no prep at all for me). And do you know how long it takes to grade 10 term definitions on an exam? It takes less than two minutes: you got it right, or you didn’t. On a topic and thesis statement assignment, I’m asking two questions: is the topic appropriate/to scale? and is your thesis arguable/to scale? 2 minutes to assess, 3 or 4 minutes to give feedback to aid in revisions.
So faster marking is a function of better assessment design, and really staying focused on one or two things that you’re really looking for.
And stop copyediting your students’ papers. It’s overwhelming for everyone, and it doesn’t help.

How to Assign a Grade Faster.

You can, again, use a rubric. They’re still awesome for all the reasons above. But I still find it really hard to use them. So I don’t. I have other tricks.
Teach a course several times, with the same assessments. Many of us have no choice at all in which courses we teach, but it is often the case that many courses we are assigned are repeats. Sheer familiarity with the assignments and experience of a range of possible student responses to those assignments will make it easier to assign a number to the very first paper you grab. You get used to it.
Ask colleagues or chairs what the average in the course tends to be. Sometimes you can pretty easily assess the merits of one paper relative to another (this one is better / worse than that one, and both of them are better / worse than this third one) but aren’t sure what number to assign. If you find out from your chair or ask colleagues who teach the same course what the average tends to be in that course, you have a kind of benchmark. You can also ask about the range of grades students tend to get. Maybe first year courses at your school tend to have an overall average final grade of 77. Or maybe it’s 87. Maybe student grades tend to run the breadth of 60-100. Or maybe they tend to clump between 76-90. Absolute grades are usually harder for newer teachers especially to determine, even if we know the relative rank of each paper against every other. Ask.
Do relative ranking in piles on the floor. As a first pass, if you’re having a really hard time assigning numbers, drop each paper on the floor after you have marked it up and written your feedback (that is, all that’s missing the number). First one goes in the middle. Next one is better (to the right), worse (to the left), or the same-ish (on top)–you’re making a right-left axis here. I tend to make piles in what I imagine are five percentage point increments, because otherwise the pile becomes a fan, and each paper gets harder and harder to place. I stagger papers on the pile, so a pile with six papers in it stretches further up, like a bar graph, than a pile with 2 papers in it (that is, this is the up-down axis). Once you’re done with all the papers, there will be a natural distribution visible. You can shuffle the piles to reassess outliers, but now you can say the big middle clump is going to be from 80-85, and then have a look at those six papers and slap a number on each, relative to the others in the pile. And then continue along the left-right axis until they’re all graded.
That’s it. Those are my tips. I’m brutally efficient at grading, and I almost never get any grade complaints: these mostly tend to be when I’ve entered the grade wrong in the spreadsheet, or lost someone’s assignment. It’s going to be okay: it’s important work, but no one is going to die if you give someone an 81 when they really should have got (perhaps) an 83. It is possible to grade a lot faster than you probably do, and if you do it right, student outcomes and student learning will be improved, not diminished.
As always, I’m happy to hear any of your tips in the comments!
advice · grading · teaching

How to Grade a Lot

This is my Month of Grading. I have 40 students in my first year Digital Lives class, and as this class counts as writing intensive, well, it’s also grading intensive. In practice, this means they have a 400 paper due week 4, which I give them extensive feedback on, leading into a revised version of this same paper due week 6. The back half of the term is about the research paper, and there’s a stepped assignment for that due every Tuesday from week 8 until week 12, when the final paper comes in.

So my grading issues are twofold. First, for the short papers, I have to give extensive formative feedback to guide their revisions, and then grade those new papers in light of the first round of feedback. Second, for the assignments building up to the essay (Topic and Thesis statement, then Annotated Bibliography, then Introductory Paragraph, then Draft Workshop, then Research Paper Final Version) I have to give formative feedback to guide the next steps, but I have to grade it really really fast: things get handed in on Tuesday, and I return them on Thursday, so that they can have the feedback in hand as they craft the next Tuesday’s assignment.

I’ve had a lot of years of trial and error to get this mostly functional for me. And I even get 8 hours of sleep, most nights. If you have to grade a lot, I have some tips. This week, I’ll cover the general useful tips, and next week, I’ll cover some specific tips on how I give individual feedback to 40 people without repeating myself too much or getting sarcastic or gouging my own eyes out.

Most general useful tips:

  1. put your phone in a different room
  2. if possible turn the internet off on your computer, if you need it to write feedback
  3. break the big pile into a series of smaller piles, and grade in units of Small Pile
  4. take breaks
  5. know thyself; plan assignments (and thus your grading) accordingly
Put your phone in a different room. I am very, very, very easily distracted. And grading is hard, and it’s a slog, and the mountain of stuff seems unclimbable, and so I really, really deserve to have a little break to check my Facebook, right? Except I noticed that when I keep my phone beside me, sometimes I take a little break in between reading a paper and giving feedback, and I lose my train of thought. Or I spend 10 minutes grading a bibliography, then spend 10 minutes on Buzzfeed. Or I start texting my sister. Or I decide now is a good time to start Googling landscaping companies. And when I put the phone down to get back to grading, I’ve lost my flow and my eyes are tired and I don’t really even feel like I’ve had a break. So now the phone is on the breakfast bar downstairs, and I am in my grading chair in my home office. Because I have no self-control: luckily, I’m lazier about getting out of my chair that I am curious about that penguin who thinks a human is his family.
Turn off the internet on your computer. If the phone beside you is like having a cupcake at your elbow and trying not to eat it, using your computer to grade while having the internet turned on (and your notifications running) is like putting the cupcake in your mouth and trying not to chew it. Impossible. Some online/grading is unavoidable. My course has online quizzes that only live on the intertubes. I grade those by first turning off my notifications, closing my main browser totally, shutting all my other programs and opening one lonely window that’s got nothing but quizzes in it. If my students submit longer pieces via a dropbox or otherwise electronically, I batch download them to my own computer, and then shut off the wifi. If I’m grading on paper, I put the computer in the room where the phone is, and pretend it’s 1990.
Break the big pile into a series of smaller piles. Today I’m going to grade 40 annotated bibliographies. Shit. That’s a lot. Picking them off the pile one at a time feels very unsatisfying and Sisyphean. No one paper reduces the pile by very much, or increases the Success! pile by very much. Grading one paper more or less doesn’t seem to matter, so it’s easy to just keep taking breaks, or having naps because none of it matters I’ll never finish anyways. So now I make piles. That pile of 40 will get sorted into five piles of 8. Now I only have five things to grade! I know that these assignments will take about 8-10 minutes to grade, so I’m looking at grading for about an hour, and being 20% done! Then I can take a break! Then grade for another hour or so, and I’ll be 40% done! I can’t quite explain how this effect works, but it does. Your piles might be bigger or smaller, depending on how much you can handle in one sitting. For exams, I grade 40 at a time, but one question only. For final essays, I plan the day so that the first pile has the most and the last pile has the least, because that’s really tiring work and as the day proceeds I need more breaks: 5 papers then a break, then 5 papers then a break, then 4 papers then a break, then 3 papers then a break, then 2 papers then a break, then one final paper. That’s 20 papers graded in one day, which, when I phrase it like that, seems impossible and awful, but in my piles system is entirely doable.
Take breaks. This is crucial. After I grade 8 bibliographies, I’m going to gather all the towels in the house, put them in a laundry basket, run them down to the basement, start the laundry, make a coffee, and run back upstairs. That is, I will move my body quickly for about 10 minutes, then get a treat. And then I will grade again. After that pile, I will put my shoes on and take the dog for a 15 minute walk. And then I will grade again. After that pile I will make a nice lunch and stare out the window for a while. It is essential that the break be the opposite of grading. Grading is sitting very still in my chair and thinking and writing words. So, Facebook is not a break, because I’m still in the chair writing words and thinking. My dog is the opposite of grading. Doing laundry is the opposite of grading. Making a potato pancake and watching the birds and squirrels in my backyard is the opposite of grading. You need to come back to the grading refreshed, to feel like you’ve really done something very different. And your break needs to feel like a real reward. Man, I really want to go outside with the dog today, but there’s 16 things to grade before I can do that.
Know thyself. I hate grading online, so I get my students to hand stuff in on paper. This has saved me endless procrastination and frustration. I always know everyone’s final paper grade somewhere on the first page of reading, so I’ve started making shorter paper assignments. Grading is really taxing for me, so I need to clump it into days at home where I can walk the dog or do my laundry and just really do nothing but grade and break for a whole day with no other obligations. So this is how I’ve organized my semester. Over the years, I’ve come to accept that the way I work is the way I work: I’ve tried to optimize my Best Way with what the students need, and I think I’ve been pretty successful. And my life is a lot easier now that I’m doing things the ways that best suit me.
All of these tips apply to all grading situations: quizzes, exams, papers, stepped assignments. These are the things I keep in mind or practice every time I grade, no matter what. Next week, I’ll write more about some specific situations: giving useful and individual feedback, how to make sure students use it, how to manage tone.
What are your tips? Margrit had some tips for us last year, some of which are different from mine! Discuss!
enter the confessional · grad school · grading · teaching

Show your work: modelling scholarship in teaching

This week, no one did the readings, and we had a great class anyways.

How can it be week 11 of the semester already? The students in my graduate seminar on Writing the Self Online have already done two or three response papers, produced an autobiographical writing project online, cultivated an audience, and written a short analytical essay about their experiences, and, last week, submitted proposals and bibliographies for their final projects. I collected those last into a pile very early Friday morning as I handed back their projects.

This is a little bit a story about how it soon became pretty obvious that no one had done much more than skim the readings, hoping that others would have done so more carefully and they could float through. They’re really busy with the flurry of end-of-term assignments coming hard and fast now, both the ones they are producing and the ones they are grading. It’s dark, they’re tired, I get it. It’s easy to write about this. But this is mostly a story about how I wasn’t really as prepared as I wanted to be to teach: it’s dark, I’m tired, I’ve been hauling ass for several weeks assessing SSHRC apps, graduate course proposals, extra office hours, travel, grading assignments.

What we did was this: broke into groups of four, each group assigned one of the three scholarly articles, and produced reading notes and lesson plans. Each group spent 25 minutes cobbling together their best notes on the article. Then the timer went off and they shifted to 15 minutes of producing a credible lesson plan so that they could teach their article to the other groups.

To begin, I put up on the white board my own process–how I take notes on materials I intend to teach, and how I build a lesson plan from there. I told them to snap a pic of the boards, that this was information they could apply to any teaching situation. We went meta: the class became as much about time management and note taking and lesson planning and teaching as it was about Twitter and collective life writing.

It went so well, I had to increase the time.

Each group took a turn to teach their material, instead of simply presenting it. Everyone else took notes. We debriefed afterward about what parts of which teaching were most effective. Students looked way more awake, way more engaged, and way more confident that they knew the material.

In one of the presentations, a student asked all of us to take a moment to craft a Six Word Memoir (hat tip to Laurie McNeill’s book chapter on Life Bytes!). I took a risk and wrote this for mine:

“Grading done, lesson not done–crowd source!”

I was so impressed with how the class had pulled a really creditable session together that I felt I had to fess up: I was overwhelmed and under prepared too, and I knew it had nothing to do with motivation or interest. That I was in exactly the same boat as they were, but we could do something great anyways.

I’m trying to do more of this, more of the explicit modelling of scholarship and teaching by making visible the cracks and fissures in my work as much as I share tips and tricks to make it all manageable. There’s clearly something valuable in me teaching my students to read efficiently and make useful lesson plans. Of course. But there’s something just as valuable perhaps in showing that the reason I need these tricks and tips is because I run out of time too. Out of patience, out of breath, out of energy, out of ideas, but can find a way to keep going that’s based in compassion for myself and compassion for others, to keep the the whole apparatus on track.

It’s possible that I could have lectured for three hours–I did know the material, even if I hadn’t pulled together a real lesson plan. I could have wagged my finger and chastised them for not doing their part of the work. Probably class would have been pretty dead: me asking pointed leading questions about the readings and then glaring at them as they struggled to find answers. This would have been an impressive display of my moral rectitude, greater knowledge base, and authority. But it would have been awful and no one would have learned anything.

It’s a lot easier to say; “Ugh, my students didn’t do any of the readings barely! Kids these days!” But it’s a lot more productive to say: “You know what? I feel like I ran out of time this week, too. It’s a hard, and busy time of the semester. What can we do in our three hours together to get back on track?”

All semester, my students have been impressing me with their smarts, their diligence, there creativity. I told them so and I will keep telling them so, even when they didn’t do the readings this one time. Because I know, because we’re all in this together, and maybe we can learn something new now, about how to ask for help, how to work together, how to make something great simply by admitting we’re not ready to do it alone.


How to grade better

Hello, week 4 of term! Have you adjusted yet? Well then, just in time for the deluge of marking, no? You might  remember I was teaching five courses last term, and while this term I’m only teaching 3, they’re all new to me, so between the prep and the marking, I strive to be as efficient as possible. So, I thought I’d make a list of things that help me streamline this arguably least enjoyed activity in the teaching panoply. So today I’m outlining *my* recipe for setting up assignments and grading them effectively without either the grader or the students feeling like pulling their hair off. This list comes as a crowd-sourced result of my blog posts and conversations on- and off-line through the years (go and read Heather’s comments here for example). The truth of why I personally am not fond of grading is that I don’t actually believe putting a number or a letter on an assignment is good pedagogy, or that it serves any learning outcome properly. However, since we have to do it this way–and as contract faculty, I have little traction in changing my post-secondary institution’s demand for the numbers and letters– there are ways to make the process more transparent for the students, less anxiety-inducing for students, and thus more effective in achieving our pedagogical aims. Here goes:


Setting up appropriate assignments:

1. Look up models, but adapt them to your class syllabus:
One of the things I find most pressure-laden is coming up with essay questions that are smart, generous in the possibilities, but not outlandish. What do I mean by those modifiers? “Smart” means providing compelling avenues for investigation, that students will actually appreciate and possibly even enjoy. With “generous,” I aim that students be able to take them up in various ways. For example, if we’re talking about a literature course, that the questions be potentially tackled theoretically, historically, thematically, etc. Finally, “not outlandish” means putting some limits on the generosity, and also that we would have touched on this or a similar issue in class discussions, that it not be completely and utterly new to students.

2. Think of your pedagogical aims, and don’t be afraid to share them with the students:


Many post-secondary institutions or departments now mandate or provide suggestions for which learning outcomes/objectives (LOs) each assignment should address. Make sure these LOs are aligned with your pedagogy, or that you have given thought to your own. What is this this particular assignment wants to achieve primarily? Is this essay meant to familiarize students with proper paragraph structure, or is incorporating research your primary goal? Spell out a few of these aims, write them down in the assignment outline, and explain them to your students. That way, you will be able to adjust your focus (trying to do too much all at once?), and make it clear to students.

Grading better:

3. Have a detailed rubric:
This point follows the previous point; if you have a very clear idea of the 2-3 LOs this assignment means to accomplish, then you can break them down into their components, and assign points to every (sub-)category to reflect your pedagogical aims, and reward effort accordingly and proportionately. This breakdown might seem onerous in the beginning, but it serves to both cut down on grading time considerably, make it more objective, and more transparent to students who tend to think grading in English is totally wishy-washy.
Most departments will have developed a rubric for various assignments, especially for the Intro courses, so take it, adapt, and make it work for you.

4. Set a time limit on grading each paper:
This one falls in the “easier said than done” category for me, but I did find that using a rubric helps a lot, and so does:

5. Grade electronically:
The only reason I survived teaching 5 writing-intensive (think 7 assignments each times 150 students) courses is because I used the institution’s electronic LMS (learning management system) for all assignment submissions and grading. In the past, when teaching literature courses, I used to ask students submit them by email, and it still worked so much better than paper. With paper, I’m just too used to edit, so I would just proofread the papers, compulsively marking every comma, misspelling, or disagreement. Using the electronic format, here’s what happened:

6. Restrain your comments:
When it comes to intro courses, new post-secondary students (first-semester especially) are not that well versed in parsing our well-honed academese. Therefore, the rich prose comments, which we pore over for 10 minutes to ensure we’re using the perfect word to express the problem, while also not discouraging the student, might be impenetrable to them. Having a clear rubric (tabulated or bullet-pointed) might communicate your message better.

7. Be selective:
Yes, there are very good reasons why an assignment has received only 60%, but putting them *all* down at the end of the paper might not be the best way to go. Try to focus your final recommendations on two or three that the student might actually look up more in-depth and improve on.

That’s all I got in my bag of tricks for today, but please do add your own in the comments. Here’s an incentive: imagine your Facebook timeline with all the grade-bitching that usually populates it mid-term.

balance · grading · yoga

Holding your sense of humour

I just got my braces all readjusted yesterday. I had been on tray 28 of 32, but everything had to be recalibrated, and after an hour of my orthodontist yanking on my face and doing what felt like hammering, I restarted on my new tray 1 of … 34. That was bad news. And it hurts like hell.

My daughter’s teacher sent home a note indicating that Munchkin is “significantly behind in what concerns the homework assignments.” Oh great. That’s on me, because the homework needs to be explained and supervised and I’m the French speaker at home.

My husband fell down the porch stairs in the rain, while putting up Halloween decorations.

My class got shifted to another room for a special event, and when I put the poster on the door, I listed the wrong room number.

The indignities and injuries are piling up at the same time as the grading and the writing deadlines and SSHRC adjudication season for me. I’m grumpy. But this:

I went to yoga last night, and as we moved into a tricky and extended balance sequence, my teacher instructed us to hold our hands in this tented-fingers position. It was, she told us, so that we could hold our sense of humour, keep it close.
So there we were, on one leg, tipping forward and kicking back and rolling up into some awkward and unstable sort of floating half moon pose, trying to keep this soft tent of fingers together, gently cradling our sense of humour, delicately, in the midst of difficulty and effort and sometimes falling over.
It’s hard to keep your hands like this when you are getting a foot cramp on your standing leg and your thigh is burning and your balance is super off and you’re about to fall over. The tendency is to let the arms flail out for balance, or, conversely, to jam the hands together, in a hard clench. It takes real skill to go through the hard stuff and keep your fingertips softly touching, but if you can do it, your jaw unclenches. You relax a little. You remember to laugh when you fall.
At the point in the term, then end of Week 9 for me, with 40 new papers to grade every week, and a final to plan, and two more online quizzes to create, and managing the graduate program and adjudicating the SSHRC apps, and trying to not get any more notes home from grade three, well, it’s hard to not clench. It’s hard to hold onto my sense of humour, gently.
I’m trying colourful pens, mint tea, shared videos of adorable animals on Facebook, early bedtimes, and some self-compassion.
How are you managing to ‘keep your fingers tented’ at this tricky balance point in the term?
best laid plans · gradgrind · grading · PhD · productivity

Grading Strategies (…I need ’em)

(read Erin’s post from yesterday first, if you haven’t already!)

It’s that time of year, to invoke the old academic cliche (when is it not that time of year?). I have a stack of grading that I’ve barely touched: 31 4-page papers, plus 30 journals that span roughly the last month of weekly journal entries. Plus I have to teach those courses, sometimes be observed by my superiors teaching those courses (twice in the last week, including this morning, which is why this blog is late, apologies), and I’m supposed to have written two chapters of my dissertation by the end of this semester.

Oh, and the venerable holiday of Halloween happened.

 My partner and I, as “American Goths”

So yeah, that was important to make time for too (…I’m serious!). To some of you, this schedule–basically juggling two things, teaching and dissertation–may seem pretty tame. Some of you have hundreds of students, hundreds of papers to grade, you’re writing three books, some of you teach at multiple institutions, some of you have families and kids and administrative responsibilities and…overall, I know I should be thankful that my schedule is relatively simplified, but to be perfectly honest,  I’ve never taught more than one course at a time before and so am finding managing two plus general dissertation workload quite difficult. You have my permission to scoff.

So, I think it’s time to consolidate some grading tips! We haven’t talked about that too much on this thing, it seems; Aime discussed clumping her papers in a 2011 post, generating a useful discussion in the comments with such strategies as recording rather than writing your comments, and giving detailed feedback only on the first page. I clump, but I can’t see myself recording, and I am constantly plagued with guilt when I don’t comment on every page or paragraph so I’m not really sure about that last one either. Here are some other strategies I’ve thought about, discussed, learned, attempted to put into practice (key word: attempted):

1. First things first, establish reasonable expectations. I have heard of first-year Composition & Rhetoric courses requiring something like 4-page papers every week. I think we can all agree that that’s too much for all parties involved, engendering writing produced under exhaustion and duress, and stressed-out and overworked professors. Immersive, high-pressure learning environments work, arguably, for language acquisition, but not for writing, when the goals are more geared around precision, nuance, attention to detail, personal expression. So, teachers, if it is within your power, don’t construct an unreasonable syllabus! Remember that the demands of the academy and the pervasive DWYL dictum within academia ask too much of us to justify spending every waking moment grading; we simply aren’t paid enough, aren’t compensated for our labor enough, to sacrifice personal or research time for written feedback to students, who generally care more about the letter grade anyway.

2. Structure peer review into the writing process. Jana talked about this a little bit last year. At the very least, forcing them to write and print out a rough draft gets them thinking about and wrestling with their projects early on, and instills in them a sense of writing as a process, not an isolated event.  I’ve found, however, that my in-class peer reviews yield mixed results, as my students are often too nice to one another to provide useful critical feedback, or they get caught up in (important, but still) local problems such as formatting the Works Cited page rather than global issues. I always distribute a handout, but have adopted different formats;  on the one hand I don’t want to set them loose on each others’ papers with no guidance, but on the other I want to leave room for personal engagement and independent critical thinking. For my last essay, I had them read each other’s drafts over the weekend and write neutral summaries of them; then, in class, I gave them a handout with guiding questions for their conversations. The authors were supposed to chronicle on this handout the feedback they received, but I think they got too caught up in conversations to be able to complete that fully. I want to keep experimenting with formats that keep them responsible to each other as well as sparking independent thinking.
The point is: peer review and sequenced assignments should help produce better quality work in the end, allowing for an easier grading process.

3. Make sure the assignments are carefully scaffolded so that they can be as prepared as possible to write. Relating to #2, but there are lots of things you can do besides peer review: devote time in class to having them pair up and talk through thesis statements/outlines, brainstorm research possibilities together, have them write out intro paragraphs in class and then ask for volunteers to read and discuss them. (N.b: if you’re teaching Comp, you can turn this into a fun exercise in tone–pass out slips of paper that provide individual instructions for rewriting their introductions from different perspectives, eg. “Write an intro paragraph to your paper as though you are a strongly right-wing critic,” “Write an intro paragraph to your paper as though you are writing the introduction to a children’s book,” “Write an intro paragraph to your paper as though you are writing the beginning of a manifesto,” etc. Learning to approach the material from different perspectives will help them nuance and master their material, and it’s always a fun exercise to have them read out their paragraphs to one another, having them guess what persona they’ve adopted.)

4. Maintain a routine. Set the timer, keep to it. I aim for 20 minutes per 4-page paper. Sometimes I (still) take longer than this, but having the timer go off as I’m still reading through the last page will give me added urgency to speed things up and get to the end comment as quickly as possible. I also always grade with the same blue pen, play music that peps me up, keeps me cheerful, or calms me down as necessary, and (of course) take short breaks to minimize my own crankiness.

5. Experiment with oral forms of presentation/grading. Someone in a recent Facebook discussion noted that she actually grades in concentrated one-on-one settings, which seems to me to be a little too high pressure (for both me and the student; I know I often have a hard time concentrating with someone [who has a vested interest in what I’m doing] just sitting and watching me!). But perhaps you could transform a written assignment into an oral presentation to the class. Explain to your students that this is an opportunity for them to hone their oral delivery skills, cater their arguments to a broader audience, and experiment with different kinds of electronic media, such as Prezi.

6. Skim through all the papers and stack them according to what you initially perceive as A, B, and C-worthy papers. I actually don’t do this much anymore, because when I did I often couldn’t help but engage with the work the first-time around, and then it ended up taking approximately twice as much time if I had to go through them all twice.

7. Quality over quantity; fewer assignments, higher stakes. I recently decided it was unreasonable of me to give written feedback on every single weekly journal entry (and my students probably weren’t reading/absorbing everything either), so I adjusted my policies so that students choose one out of four or so entries to submit as a hard copy for written feedback; the others, I just skim through online, keep a log of what I anticipate their grade to be, and leave short comments, briefly observing what worked in the entry and what didn’t.

Those are what I’ve come up with so far; now I really need to go put these suggestions into practice! Maybe I just need to continue to channel the austere, hardworking spirit of the American Gothic couple. More tips welcome!

classrooms · experiential education · grading · reflection · teaching

Reflections After a Semester of Teaching (for the first time)

Yesterday, I finally pushed the big writing project of my semester off my plate. Admittedly, I did it with little aplomb or flourish (in fact, I may be legitimately concerned that it might have landed with something like a splat), I’ve still got 30 final exams to grade, ongoing work with the digital humanities project I work on, and a spring research trip looming. But it feels, at last, that this very busy and taxing semester actually might wrap up. My classes have ended, my final essays (and revisions) are graded, the graduate student event I’ve been coordinating all semester is poised to take flight on Wednesday, and this week I finally have some time in my schedule to do things which I’ve been putting off since the mid-term break.

As I near the point where I can legitimately say I’m not a first-time instructor anymore, I’ve been reflecting, like Erin about the end of this semester, my first semester of teaching. This winter, as I walked into my first-ever classroom as sole instructor of an intro English course, there were several things that I expected and had prepared for, but others that presented unique and unfamiliar challenges. As a result, there are some things that I’m pleased to say went very well, but others that I think I’m going to change going forward.

First, I should say that I am really privileged to have walked into my first-ever classroom with a lot of support behind me. In the first year of my PhD, I took a writing studies course on how to teach writing which helped me feel confident and knowledgeable about how to approach first-year composition. My department also put on a valuable proseminar on how to teach English literature. Finally, and most importantly, I was given a really excellent teaching mentor who was willing to answer basically any question I had, gave me copies of sample assignments, and helped me to assess my assignments and imput my grades. I really don’t think it would have been possible to be a sole-instructor for the first time without this kind of support system, and I think anything I did right was because I had the benefit of these helps.

Anyway, without further ado, here are some of the decisions I made that I’m really happy about:

1) Assigning an obscure text: I put a book on my syllabus that I was not sure would go over well with my students, a late-nineteenth-century feminist utopia, Margaret Dunmore, or a Socialist Home, which is totally not mainstream, but I thought might be an interesting pairing with Dracula. My students found it fascinating, and took it up productively in ways I didn’t expect. In the future, I hope I’ll be less anxious about making decisions to feature texts on my syllabus that are obscure if I find them interesting and/or provoking, even if they are a little off the beaten path.

2) Sequencing Assignments: For every essay, I made my students do a short three or four sentence “Question and Answer” prospectus, which consisted of a question, revised from the essay prompts I provided, and an answer that would form the thesis of their papers. (Taken from John Bean’s really excellent book Engaging Ideas). When I got them back, my first instinct was that it was a terrible mistake, because they were kind of awful. But I was then able to give detailed feedback, explaining to my class again collectively and to each student personally how to write a thesis statement. It made my papers infinitely better than they would have otherwise been. I did this with both of my papers, and for the last final research essay, I also assigned an annotated bibliography which helped make sure they properly assessed the sources for their final essays and understood them in advance of the final assignment.

3) Requiring Drafts, Allowing Revisions: I had a peer review class for each essay assignment in advance of the due date, and required at minimum a detailed outline and intro that my students had to bring to class and read to each other. This meant that students were forced to get thinking early about their assignments, and able to collectively bounce ideas off each other in the classroom space. I also allowed revisions for their papers, but only up to a week after their papers were handed back. Only six students over the course of the semester took up the opportunity to revise their papers, but reading them as though they were drafts, and seeing the potential for improvement, made a big difference in how much I enjoyed marking their assignments. It was also a great pleasure to see how much improvement the students who did take up my offer to revise their assignment were able to make in their writing. I had several students bump up their marks from high C’s/low B’s into the A-range, and it’s great to see how much they learned to clarify/revise their thinking and writing.

Of course, there were also things I did that I did that I’m not terribly pleased with–hopefully these are rookie mistakes that I won’t make again:

1) Overpreparing: I often prepared wayyyy too much material for an hour and twenty minute class: too much groupwork, too long of a lecture, too much knowledge crammed into my head/refreshed the night before. This often caused me to rush through my lectures and not take enough time for class discussion if I had too much to say. This was a big issue in the first half of the semester. Serendipitously, my daughter’s/my frequent illnesses in the last half of the semester meant that I simply couldn’t prepare nearly as much as I had been in the first half, and I cut down my prep from probably 6+ hours for each class to just 2, and was pretty shocked to see how much of an improvement preparing the right amount of material had on my actual classes. I also got a whole lot better at being okay with letting things go if I didn’t get to them. Hopefully this is something I can carry forward to my next teaching experience.

2) Poor Organization of Classroom Time: This one is related to the above, but more specifically related to how much time I took in the space of the class to a) lecture, b) do group work, and c) undertake class discussion. I was not taking enough time for lecturing/class discussion, and giving too much time for group discussion. Fortunately, I did a stop-start-continue (an anonymous assessment from my students suggesting what we should stop, what we should start, and what should continue doing in the classroom space) with my students just a few weeks in, which let me know that I was giving too much time for group work. In response, I cut down group work drastically to between 3-6 minutes, depending on how many questions I was having them discuss.

3) Overassigning: In addition to the two essay assignments and annotated bibliography (and the sequenced assignments therein), I required my students to do 7 weekly reading responses over the course of the semester, which they were required to post on a private course blog. This one is tough because I really really liked the outcomes of this assignment: my students were always very well prepared for class, they had ideas that they were comfortable discussing in groups and as a whole class, and I’m pretty sure this largely followed from the assignment. I also used these blogs to prepare my lecture: I tailored my talks to the themes they picked up on, and was able to correct misreadings and redirect discussion to the things I thought they should note. But the fact is that there were just too many things to mark, even though it was low-stakes writing. I think in the future I’m going to have to cut this down to a maximum of 5, but of course I’m concerned that if I do this, the students themselves will be less prepared.

What are the things you do in the space of your classroom that you’ve found work well? What have you learned as you’ve become more experienced in the classroom space? Do you have any advice for for new instructors that you wished you’d learned before you stepped into the classroom space?

deadlines · enter the confessional · grading · research · writing

The road to hell is paved with deadlines

Margrit has perspective! Serenity! A new resolve! Go read her post: I tried to breathe it right off the screen and into my soul. Tonight, Tuesday, five days after she published it because that’s how long it took me to get around to reading it.

I am burning in the fires of hell. Because I am late with everything.

Late: getting SSHRC Insight Development Grant application assessments to Program Chair. Late: getting my DHSI coursepack done. Late: getting my graduate class grades finalized. Late: making Congress travel and hotel arrangements. Late: answering probably 20 urgent and important emails. Late: one supervisee’s latest writing languishing unread in my inbox. Late: dealing with some design milestone on some pilot materials for my online course. Late: RSVP’ing to some committee meetings with dodgy schedules. Late: getting PhD area exam masters to the graduate committee for their approval. Late: making my conference paper slides on the airplane, printing my paper at the hotel.

It might look like I’m running downhill–wind at my back, hair flying, arms outstretched in full embrace of the momentum of life! Actually, I’m falling, but with my legs moving–trying to dig my heels into something solid, looking for a safe place to just fall over, or something to grab to arrest my pitching headlong forward. It’s all moving too fast; it’s out of control.

Extra miserable? The terrible hypocrisy! I preach the gospel of peer review just doesn’t take that long. Of making the most of every 30 minute chunk of time. Of the importance of an active, high-contact relationship with graduate students. Of how I want to get my email under control. Of how conference papers need to be done so much earlier so that they can be practiced and perfected.

So what happened? How did I get into this state?

1. I say yes to too many things. I shouldn’t have gone to that conference in mid-April, which coincided with SSHRC assessment season, and grading time, and my DHSI deadline. I had to prepare new work for it, and it took a long time. Or maybe I should’ve said no to doing the SSHRC assessments. That was easily 40 or 50 hours of work at the worst possible time of year.

2. I’m scared. My grad class this year was awesome, but I did some wild and crazy things with the participation component, and I’m scared to find out if it all worked or not. (It worked. Procrastination on dealing with it, though, didn’t help.) I’m scared of my brand new DHSI course: I’ve never taught this topic before, and putting together the coursepack might expose me for a fool. (So far, no. Should’ve not put off starting that either.) I’m scared to write my book proposal. Scared means don’t start. Don’t start + deadline = no sleeping.

3. Life. You know how they say when you do a big renovation, of your kitchen, say, and you want to spend $30,000 on it–we’re imagining, so let’s pretend we live on HGTV, okay?–you should have a 10-15% contingency fund? Because of the inevitable Dodgy Plumbing Behind the Walls, or Sudden Need to Upgrade to Viking Range? I think the academic life is like that. Perhaps if everything ran absolutely perfectly, I might’ve managed it. But we had two snow days in April, then I got stuck in the FAA sequester nonsense, and then my daughter got a stomach bug and missed two more days of school, then the furnace conked out, and then the car had to go in for emergency detailing owing to the gastro bug and projectile car vomiting. I don’t think anyone in my house has put in a five day week at the office in the last six weeks.

Ugh. The self-loathing is strong in me this week. I did this to myself by overcommitting! Then I did it to myself again by under performing! Then I made everything worse by having a terribly messy personal life! And compounded the problem further by hiding in a hole and not letting anyone know what a crunch I’m in.

So, internet, let me confess. I’ll need another week to dig myself out of this mess. Forgiving myself will take longer. And finding some balance in what I say yes to–challenging and scary enough to help me create new ideas and connections, but not so much or so hard that I make it nearly impossible for myself to succeed–is going to take longer still, I imagine.

Do any of you suffer similar problems? Or am I terrible, terrible outlier? If the latter, can you tell me how you do it? Because I obviously need the help.

At least I got my blog post done on time.

best laid plans · grading · teaching

Best laid plans…

This past Tuesday, I was up early to complete a job application. I have overcommitted myself this semester and have too many articles to write, so when an interesting job posting came up, I had to schedule myself time to work on it. My hope, that early Tuesday morning, was to get a jump on my day. Sadly, things did not go to plan. While groggily pouring hot water into my tea mug, I accidentally overflowed it. Boiling water then poured over the counter and down my pant leg. Ouch! Once recovered, I sought out the milk from the fridge, a 2-litre, yet un-opened carton, which I promptly dropped on the kitchen floor. The bottom burst out of the carton and started spraying 1% all over the place. With the spilled milk mopped up and many milk-filled containers cluttering up the fridge, I finally sat down to complete my job application.
Face wash on the left, shampoo on the right.
Once submitted, I hopped in the shower, and for reasons that I will never fully understand, managed to inadvertently wash my face with 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner! That actually happened. I should note, that the face wash and shampoo containers in my shower DO NOT in any way resemble one another (see picture). Despite all of my eagerness and my careful planning for my productive day, the whole thing went to pot before 9am. 
The cliché that comes to mind is best laid plans….
I had a true taste of best laid plans falling apart last term while teaching. For some reason, I decided mid-semester that my students were going to learn something. Not just the regular course material stuff that we expect them to pick up, but an actual academic skill that would be of use for the rest of their academic careers and hopefully beyond. I decided that they would a) learn how to use academic sources, and b) use proper citation style. Now, I know technically our students are always required to do this, but this time I meant it. These components of the assignment were weighted heavily in the rubric and they would lose significant marks if they did not achieve this learning objective.
I brought in the librarian who gave a clear and concise elaboration of what constitutes an academic source, why they should use them, and how they can narrow their database searches to ensure that the sources they choose are in fact academic. I also took the entire class to the computer lab where they completed an extensive training program on proper citation style complete with video explanations, quizzes, and a certificate of completion (which they were required to show me). 
I handed out the rubric weeks before the assignment was due and diligently drew their attention to the academic references and citation style sections in which it was made clear that failing to complete these elements of the assignment adequately would result not in a C (as is usually the outcome of poorly researched, poorly referenced undergraduate work), but a failure. “You will fail if you do not use proper citation style” – I can still hear my words ringing in the air.
Admittedly, I was taking a pretty big risk. With so many assignment grades allocated to the completion of a few very simple tasks such as having 5 academic sources (no matter how well they were used) and MLA style (do it exactly like it tells you to in the book), I worried about how inflatedmy grades would be. With this system in place, a C paper could easily be turned into a B or even an A simply by having the right number of sources and a clean citation list.
Sadly, my grades were not inflated.
A sampling of a graded Works Cited page,
with 0.5 marks removed for each error.
As I began grading, it quickly became clear that I was going to have a big problem on my hands. If I deducted grades, as I had promised that I would, many of my students would fail the assignment, and most would receive grades in the D and C range. I should note, that I also had more A grades than usual. About ¼ of my students did really, really well. But what about the others? Surely I couldn’t just let them fail. They would hate me. I would hate myself. My learning objectives were not met, and failing so many students would not change that. 
So I dug in my heels. I had decided that these skills were essential, and by God, come hell or high-water, like it or not, they were going to learn them!
I gave them their failing grades, but also gave every single student the opportunity to rewrite, re-edit, and resubmit. We (again) spent an entire class going through appropriate citation style, how to recognize academic sources, how to select sources, how to edit. They were shocked to find out that there are different kinds of books, such as edited collections, which require different citation formats. They simply did not understand that edited collections have both editors and chapter authors, and that you should not cite the editors in-text (although, I did mention this repeatedly in lecture in relation to their edited textbook…but I digress). The whole day was filled with anxiety, anguish, and constant “ah-ha” moments.
The following week, I re-graded many, many, many works cited, as well as a pile of annotated bibliographies (which was my consolation assignment for students who did not use academic sources the first time around).
My initial plan to front load my work on the assignment by teaching them all about citations and sources fell through. And re-grading over 100 assignments was a bitter pill. Not everyone “got-it,” of course; a very few resubmitted citation lists that were equally ill-formatted as the first time around. But most of them did get it. My grades were, in the end, inflated for that assignment and my workload management plan was blown to smithereens, but my learning objectives were also met.
It didn’t go to plan. It was a tough slog. Would I do it all again? Probably.

Incidentally, I have to admit that my 2-in-1 actually did wonders for my dry winter skin, and now that my milk is already poured into individual glasses I’ve really upped my calcium intake. Disasters do sometimes have their perks.

What were some of your recent best laid plans?