Monday, March 23, 2015

Why I Started Grading First Drafts and Why I Stopped

When I first began teaching English composition, I had little context from which to judge student papers, and not much in the way of pedagogical theory to guide me. Fresh from my M.A. in creative writing, I was hired as an adjunct and went into teaching with little experience grading papers.

Ironically, I think I was better at it then. At the time, I viewed writing as creation from within. None of the pedagogical concerns that now swirl around my head as a doctoral student had tainted my writerly mind. I was clear of any worries about the economics of grading. I didn’t grade first drafts back then. I focused solely on teaching students how to bring their thoughts to the page. I thought it more important that they concentrate on editing their work than on writing to a grade.

In those days, I viewed student essays as a product of their perception of the world; a writing assignment was merely a way of bringing their ideas into focus. Once the student’s message in a paper became clear, I went to work on format, structure, and writing to an audience. That’s when grades came into play. The students responded to that approach. My conversations with them focused on writing technique. All seemed fine. Seemed? Nay, it was.

Time passed. I sat on committees, listened in on department meetings. And I found myself increasingly swayed by both students and faculty members who balked at the ungraded draft. They viewed it as a practice without a purpose. Why, they questioned, should a student write something without getting a grade in return? No one takes an ungraded draft seriously, they argued. In order to be taken seriously as a professor, I decided I needed to start evaluating and assigning grades to student drafts.

The final nail in the ungraded-draft’s coffin came when I went back to graduate school to seek a doctorate. There I studied pedagogy, heard lectures on its importance, and searched for my own. What was I supposed to do with those pedagogical strategies if not use them to analyze and grade student writing? So the creative writer in me faded a bit and I became what I thought I should be: an academic.

One of my grad-school professors warned me that doctoral work destroys your writing. I had scoffed at the time, but after a year of dissertation-writing and work-shopping, I see what he meant. All the criticism, the sense of constant analysis from others, and the invasion of several audiences in my head united to massacre whatever marginal writing ability I had. Instead of worrying about the message in my writing, I found myself worried more about the form and rules of scholarly writing. I wrote to imaginary hypercritical audiences. The teacher had become the student. Or a moron. Probably both.

Likewise, when I graded students’ first drafts, I found myself writing more on the weaker papers, as I felt I “owed” it to my students to give them more feedback in order to justify their low grades, the ‘minimum wage’ they earned. I wrote less on the better papers, and that was equally unfair, as if the higher ‘pay’ meant they had received reward enough and needed less feedback. Either way, it was all about the grade. And my students of course only responded to the grade, wanting to know why they got it and how they could improve it. I spent more and more time justifying grades than discussing writing or writing strategies.

One night not long ago, while grading papers, I imagined what my younger self would think of my approach now. Suddenly both the student and inexperienced professor in me wanted to light up RateMyProfessors with criticism.

That’s when the full-circle revelation came to me. I had started out treating writing and student papers as sacred -- whether it was a five-page short story or a three-page personal narrative, written either by an eager English major or a student who had only grudgingly signed up for my course.

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