It is the hardest part of the job. As we near the end of the semester, I am reminded again of the agony of paper grading for all concerned.
I experienced the roller coaster of curiosity, fear, joy, irritation, etc. first from the perspective of a student: I still remember several comments that were written on papers I turned in during my academic career. In 1982, a professor commented that a paper meant to fulfill the requirement of writing my Christology was "really more of a soteriology," and he gave me a B+ for the course. In 1984, another professor wrote at the end of a paper I wrote on antinomianism in the Lutheran Reformation, "More of a dalliance than a paper, but a fine one and fun besides." I had to look up the word, "dalliance." At the time, it seemed unlikely to me that it was a compliment.
Now as a professor, I wish students could have a bit better understanding of what we go through when offering feedback on papers. So here is my list.
- I understand that timely feedback honors your work and offers the most potential for significant learning and continued conversation. I also have about one and a half times as much to do as I can fit into a day. My guess is that you have some idea what this sort of schedule is like. I'm not delaying in order to torture you. I'm honestly working as fast as I can.
- Understand that marginal notes and comments on papers are like email in this way: tone is hard to convey and easy to misconstrue. One of my friends once called me up to read, with rage, a comment he had received on a paper. The teacher had written, "This is good as far as you go...." When he was reading the comment to me over the phone, he realized for the first time that she had probably meant for the emphasis to be on the idea that there was more to say--the paper had not gone as far as it might have. When he first read the comment, however, he heard her saying, "This is good as far as you go..., as if she knew better than to expect stellar work from him.
- In any given class or on any given assignment, you may not be judged an A student. This does not mean that no one will ever love you, or that God has abandoned you, or that you should just reconcile yourself to a life of failure. Figure out the scale of the problem and then see if you can match the scale of your response to that.
- Related to the previous point, I am not God, so stop giving my comments as much weight as you would a theophany. As much as I might like it, I do not have power over whether the rest of your day, or week, or life is good unless you give it to me. No single grade keeps anyone out of a Ph. D. program. No single paper casts your future into stone.
- I do not pull punches when I am reading papers. I try not to be hurtful, but I have no interest in lying to you. Everyone's work could be improved. Part of my job is pointing out where your paper could be better.
- It is not personal. I don't know you that well, and I don't think about you that much.
- I tell myself every time I sit down with a stack of papers, "First, do no harm." Even so, of course, I do. I might say something ridiculous or hurtful on your paper. I ask that you judge my intention to be ridiculous or hurtful on the basis of the whole interaction we have had over weeks or years, rather than on the basis of one paper's comments.
- I could be wrong. I am wrong at least a few times a day, and that habit might one day be displayed in the margin of your paper. If something bothers you, talk to me.
The professor is neither God nor the Enemy. The professor is just a teacher. When grading, the professor is reading as quickly as possible through a stack of papers and trying to say something helpful on each one. The task is fraught with danger.
Now that I have said my piece, I wonder what students wish professors knew about grading. I await your comments.