Next on FOX: “Grade Grubbers” - Reality TV Meets Freshman Composition

I have a three-inch tall stack of student essays sitting on my kitchen table demanding attention. They need to be—they have to be—graded, and soon. As anyone who teaches is well aware, grading is the worst part of the job, by like a million times. I would rather do anything else. And that includes arguing with students about the grades I already gave them. I don’t give out A’s for effort, despite what students may have learned prior to college. There has been a lot of criticism of reality television (and with good reason, since most of it is total garbage) but it does have one thing going for it: It’s not afraid to tell people they’re not as great as they think. That’s basically what grading is—telling a large group of people they’re not special snowflakes. Here’s the up-side, kids: C’s get degrees.

There are no “participant” ribbons in college. Unless you have a video surveillance recording of yourself doing all this hard work, I can only grade based on what you actually handed in. Also, please don’t hand in surveillance videos with your assignments. Your future employer will fire you for spending a lot of time on a project that ends up being so-so.

The only thing worse than actually grading papers is handing them back. Fortunately, that moment is much, much shorter. I have some rules about this, which includes that students must wait at least 24 hours before approaching me with concerns.  They must read the comments I have written, which I understand can be painful. Also, they must have actual questions about the assignments. That seems like a “duh” rule, but you’d be surprised how many of them show up with nothing.

Despite these rules, I often end up having discussions with students that are actually just them lobbying for higher grades. The grade most likely to result in these conversations? The worst possible grade you can receive in college: a B minus. These conversations are especially difficult to have with students who genuinely spent an inordinate amount of time on something that ended up being middle-of-the-road, and they start to get teary-eyed when I am matter-of-factly trying to explain how to improve the work. We can’t all crap out brilliance on the first go-around. This blog proves that. (Sorry for all the sucky blogs, btw.) Also, if they spent as much time developing their arguments in the essays as they did developing their arguments for higher grades, the essay grades would be higher.

Like my students, I resist reading the comments on my writing for fear of being told I’m average. I made a huge mistake yesterday and did just that. My most recent published article (on the X-Files for those of you keeping score) had a handful of comments, and I naively thought I wanted to know what random strangers had to say. One person angrily noted that nothing I said was worth his/her time because I had made a chronological error on the ordering of a minor plot point. I did make an error. S/he suggested Google would help me. I should not have read the feedback. I didn’t need to be reminded that I am nothing special. Also, Google was not helpful. I don’t think Google ever saw the movie.

So, when it comes to assessment and the pain of being told we’re nothing special, it’s never fun. I think we all can relate to that. Even famous people who look outwardly as though they’ve got a hold of their chosen profession by the balls struggle with feelings of inadequacy. Or so I’ve been led to believe. I think they’re probably just ungrateful babies who don’t know how good they’ve got it. Did I say that out loud?

I am actually pretty good at the part of the job where I give critical feedback on areas of student assignments that require improvement. The problem is I’m not as good on sparing students’ feelings in the process. I’m like the Simon Cowell of first year composition. I wonder if that’s a legit job I could pursue. Maybe I can pitch a reality show to FOX. Ooh, or the History Channel! That’s the kind of mainstream pabulum they’ve slumped into. What was that stern British woman’s name on that knowledge game show? I could so pull that off. “You are the weakest link. Goodbye.”

In summation, most of us are average, don’t read the comments, and my stack of grading is still as tall as it was at the beginning of this blog.