I wish it were William Farish’s fault.

Grading that is. Google “history of grading” and you’ll find this Cambridge University tutor blamed for having invented grades ca. 1792 as a way to evaluate more students more quickly and thereby collect more fees.

Ezra Stiles
Rev. Ezra Stiles, president of Yale from 1778 until his death in 1795

But according to Mary Lovett Smallwood’s 1935 monograph, Examinations and Grading Systems in Early American Universities, it seems that one American university of my acquaintance had already introduced a version of this system before the nefarious Farish invented his scheme. In 1785 Yale College decided to award students one of four ranks (roughly, from the Latin then used: Best / Second Best / Lower / Worst) in their examinations, according to the diary of then-president Ezra Stiles. By 1813, there was a four-point numeric scale in effect.

It’s bad enough that one of my alma maters introduced this practice to American higher education. Worse yet, the other was right behind Yale, as the College of William and Mary was also using a four-point system by 1817. (all this from a 1993 article by Mark W. Durm, “An A Is Not An A Is Not An A: A History of Grading” in The Educational Forum)

Given my educational genetics, as it were, perhaps there’s a degree of self-loathing at work when I get to this point of every semester and have to start grading exams and papers. (Though it does help to learn that letter grades were invented by the oldest of America’s three oldest universities: Harvard.)

Why do those who teach loathe grading? I can only speak for myself, not the entire guild. But I suspect my own frustrations are not that unusual…

1. I fear that I’m being too harsh

Silly as it sounds, holding the green grading pen means that I bear a certain degree of power over others. (Green because I decided that covering exams and papers with red ink seemed too brutal.) It would be easy to wield that power vindictively, and even though I think (pray!) that I avoid that temptation, it does create a distance between teacher and student that I wish weren’t there. Some distances are appropriate, of course, but at Bethel we’ve long talked about the relationship being one of helper and friend; there’s little friendly about grading, and (see below) perhaps not that much helpful about it.

That said, of all my anxieties, this one increasingly means the least. I heard from one student a couple months ago that he had avoided taking my classes his first two years because I had the reputation of being a hard grader. In the end, he said that he appreciated being challenged, and thought that it showed a level of respect for students’ abilities. (The implication being that teachers of softer classes didn’t think their students could rise to meet a challenge.) And I’m past the point of worrying (too much) that unpopularity might harm my course evaluations.

2. I fear that I’m being too easy

Which is why I’m generally more concerned about this. See, for all the big talk above, I’ve got a Midwesterner’s aversion to conflict and a Pietist’s desire to see the best in people. So I’m prone to talking myself into grading one or two steps higher than my instincts tell me to do.

And by revising expectations on the fly, I’m both being unfair to more conscientious students and extending a kind of false grace to students who find bad habits rewarded (or, at least, not disincentivized) and might then fail to develop the skills we promise them as practitioners of the liberal arts.

3. I grade too slowly

Translation: I put off grading as much as possible. (There’s a slight, slight chance that I’m procrastinating at this very moment, though surely it’s more important that I write a blog post about grading than actually grade a set of Western Civ exams. Right?) I know there are professors who take several weeks, even months to return graded papers, so it could be worse. But it could be better: in graduate school, there was a professor who simply had her TAs gather in a room right after the exam and not leave until the grading was done. At best, I normally take 1-2 weeks to return papers and exams. And they’re the slowest 1-2 weeks of the month.

4. I grade too quickly

Especially near the bottom of a stack, when I’m bored to tears by reading variations on the same three-paragraph essay on just and unjust laws and just want to finish my work and reward myself with Thin Mint ice cream and a marathon of Parks and Recreation. All the worse if I’m overwhelmed by anxiety #5…

5. I suspect that most students don’t read what comments I make

I tend to write a lot of comments on student essays of almost any length, since it’s the only kind of formative writing instruction that I feel remotely qualified to give. And I give similar enough assignments over the course of any semester that students ought to be able to learn from those comments from paper to paper.

But I’ve also graded enough to know that most students look no further than the score or letter grade. I suppose that if I were a person of integrity who truly thought that my students would benefit from reading what I had to write, I would become one of those professors that only returns papers if students actually make appointments to come to office hours and read through the comments. Alas…

6. I suspect that some students do read the comments I make

Here’s the thing: much as I hate grading, I’ve done enough of it that I feel pretty comfortable with my level of fairness and my ability to write at least one helpful comment on any essay of any length. I can look at an exam or a paper and pretty quickly know where it ought to fall on the letter grade spectrum.

But it’s sometimes hard to explain why that is to students, especially those in their first year of college, who have little experience of being graded subjectively and sometimes possess understandings of their own abilities (and of the meaning of letter grades) that have been warped by high school. (“But I was a straight A student!”) So I have to fight the tendency to write comments in expectation of difficult conversations, to anticipate having to justify a B+ instead of an A-, rather than simply evaluating candidly a paper’s strengths and weaknesses.

A question for readers who teach: Do you enjoy grading? If so… Do you start drinking before or after the first exam is done? Or, is there a certain medication, or herbal remedy, or…

I kid!

Note to Bethel administrators, parents, students who might read this: no illicit substances were consumed during the writing of this post or the grading of any paper, test, quiz, etc.

One thought on “Grading

  1. When I was a smoker, I learned to space out my grading with well-deserved cigarette breaks. The advantage to tobacco as a reward drug is that it doesn’t affect your ability to be either harsh or gentle, as alcohol might. Now that I now longer smoke, I mostly hold my breath and hope it will be over soon.

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