Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 9: grades

Some of the concerns I had, coming to a new college, were about grades. Would student expectations be different? Would I find grading for three classes overwhelming? Would I grade too hard, or too easy? Would students complain about grades?

I lucked out, a little bit, in that two of my classes are very small: 5 and 8 students, respectively. So the grading in these classes isn’t terrible. And I assigned only two papers in my survey course (along with three exams, which are slightly faster to grade). In my small classes I even made a little extra work for myself, telling my 8-student survey class they could rewrite the first paper if they so desire (only one student took me up on that), and the 5-student seminar that I would read as many drafts as they wanted to show me. In that class they can write either two papers, 10 and 15 pages, or a single, end-of-term 25-page paper. So far I’ve gotten just one 10-page paper, though more should come in next week.

So much, then, for the time concern. And as for my level of grading, I had a unique opportunity to think about it this week. We had a department “grading meeting” — the department’s first ever, apparently, or at least in a long while. Having been a TA I am used to this kind of exercise, where everyone grades the same two papers and then we compare our grades. I was shocked how consistent the department was: just about everyone was within 2/3 of a letter grade on both papers, with only a couple outliers. And, more to the point, I wasn’t one of the outliers. My grades are in line with everyone else’s.

So do my students complain about their grades? Some do, of course. And since they know I’m new, some tell me “this isn’t how other professors grade.” I understand the frustration — different professors look for different things — but I can now feel confident that I am in line with my colleagues. And as we discussed at our meeting, as long as we are clear to our students what we look for in assignments (how important is grammar? argument? close reading? formatting?) it’s probably OK if we don’t grade exactly the same. To paraphrase Tolstoy, all happy papers might be all alike, but every unhappy paper is unhappy in its own way.

How did your grading policies and strategies change when you started your first job? Do you have any tips or strategies to share?

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