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Monday, October 4, 2010


It's just hard. It isn't just that there are so many papers, though there are a lot (thanks to increased class size--and the fact that the attrition so far has been a trickle, not a flood). It isn't only that I feel compelled to mark the first portion of each paper pretty intensely (I do stop marking as much half-way through each paper, but I have a complicated relationship with the comments I leave on the first half and can't bring myself to do less).

The genuine problem is that so many of the papers are in such dire shape, so far below what I would want to see from new college students, that they require an indescribable mental effort to mark. I'd give a lot to see a representative slice of papers from a composition class from 1975 (my first year in college) to see if my memory of what my classmates and I were capable of is faulty. But I don't think so. I recently re-read "How to Say Nothing in 500 Words," by Paul Roberts; it's an antique by now (written in 1958), but the student example he creates--one he would give a D to--I'd find a relief and would probably grade at a C+ (maybe even a little higher, if I were in a fragile enough mood). It is "weak in content," as Roberts points out, but at least it has something of an argument, paragraphing, and the sentences make actual sense.

So, yes, in a way I do this to myself. I assign the papers; I insist on marking at least the first two pages in depth; I determine the schedule that says I have to turn them around in a week so the students have time to revise. I insist on revision (it is an absolute requirement). And I did spend several days last week when I could have been grading these papers getting my feet clear of other homework that had piled up. And it's true, I didn't grade much on Friday, cravenly giving in to exhaustion and emotional wobbliness. So, yes, it's largely my fault that this is so freaking hard.

But not entirely. It honestly would not be so hard if more of the papers were actually good. Really good, not just better than bad. There are a few good ones--and a few that are so awful I don't have to spend any time on them (the one that came through with zero spell-checking and five egregious errors in the first paragraph, for instance: if the student can't be bothered to read it, why should I?). But the vast majority require grinding, grinding, grinding away, trying to figure out how to point out the problems so my comments will make sense to a student who thinks and writes like that.

And then, in conference, a student will point to a "thesis" that says something like, "They appreciate nature for what it gives us"--never having explained what nature gives us--and say "I don't know what you mean when you say that the thesis is too vague."


I still have a huge bunch that need to be graded for tomorrow. I know, that begs the question, why, then, am I taking the time to blog? Because I need the brain break--and I need to whine a little. I find it easier to dive back into the bilge when I can periodically come up for air and bitch about it. I confess, too, that to cut myself a little slack I did A) bail on the meeting I was supposed to go to today, used that time to mark papers, B) cancel the short story class on Wednesday (we covered the one story I assigned for this week; I moved the paper that was due; why make them come in for essentially nothing?) and C) rework the pick-up schedule for papers so I don't have quite so many to finish by Wednesday at 10 a.m. I'm hoping that makes tomorrow a little more tolerable. There's still tonight to get through, and I'm fading rapidly, but I'm going to finish one or two more here at the office and if need be, take a brief nap so I can grind through a few more at home. And get up at O-dark-30 tomorrow to finish what I can't face tonight.

At least I'm not collecting another damned thing until next week. Maybe I can get the lingering assignments from the short-story class shoveled out over the weekend, so next week won't be quite so dire.

I hate to hope for attrition, but it will make my life much easier if they start dropping in droves. I'm losing more from the short-story class almost every day, but most are still hanging on in 101. I hope they continue to do so. I also hope they don't. The former for their sake; the latter for my own.

Counting this week and the last (partial) one--and not considering Veterans' Day and Thanksgiving--twelve weeks to go. I don't think there's enough chocolate in the universe.

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