The Truth About Grading

I finally handed back all of the papers I had today. Last week, it was my developmental writers. This week, it’s my more advanced 200-level writers. They’re all decent writers, so grading becomes less about correcting grammar and more about how they fulfill the requirements of the specific essay assignment. This is much more art than science.

The students had to chose a piece of rhetoric (speech, op-ed, or advertisement) and break down the rhetorical “tricks” the author/speaker/creator used. They were limited to using the six essays we had discussed in class about rhetoric. I had approved their selected piece, seen an outline, and given feedback on their introductions. We had done a number of peer review and self-assessment exercises in class. The peer review questions addressed the exact questions I would be asking when grading, as well as the self-assessment exercise. I felt confident that if the students attended class and took the exercises seriously, they would produce decent essays. 
I was partially right. I neglected to include an assignment checklist, which I give to my developmental writers, wrongly assuming that the 200-level students didn’t need one. Essays are like a house of cards; take away one of the fundamental pieces, and the whole thing collapses. But how badly did it collapse? Was the roof missing or was it just a mess of cards? And what corresponding grade accompanies each unique deficiency?
Take the following example: I have one student whom I particularly get along with. We both lived in Southern California, and he’s tracked me down after class to talk about living in a place so completely different from the one where we currently find ourselves. He comes to class, does all the work, and does it well. He chose a particularly challenging piece of visual rhetoric: an illustration used pre-American Revolution that was intended to garner support for taking up arms against the British. We talked about how it would be a challenging, but possibly rewarding project. 
The end result was well-written and thorough, but poorly organized and neglected to refer to any of the rhetorical tricks we had discussed and they were required to use. So what grade does that earn? Complicating matter is that I like the kid and I know that he has worked hard on the paper. If I give him a C, am I being too harsh, but if I don’t, am I being too generous? It’s hard to compare the papers because each paper did different things well and poorly. If I didn’t know who this student was, what grade would I give the paper? 
I don’t know. I can never know, really. Built into my writing classes are lots of opportunities for feedback directly from me, meaning that submitting papers anonymously is practically impossible. Getting to know my students is my way of a) remembering who they are and b) knowing how best to give them feedback. I might not have the time or freedom to personalize how I deliver the courses I teach, but I do have complete power over how and what I say to my students to help them become better writers. The only way that works is if I get to know them as much as I get to know their writing. 
You could argue that I took the easy way out of the problem; I decided that each student would have an opportunity to revise and resubmit their essays for a new grade. I knew that the aforementioned student would be troubled by the grade that I gave him (he was) and would come to talk to me (he did) with the aim of rewriting and improving what he had done. I knew that all of the students who had worked hard but produced flawed papers would come and see me in order to be able to resubmit their revised papers. I also knew that a poor grade would serve as a wake-up call for the students who weren’t taking me seriously yet. 
Grading is, indeed, an art, but one I take very seriously. The feedback I give to justify that grade is as much an art and no less important. If getting to know my students makes the former job more difficult, so be it. The latter is more meaningful in the long run.

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