I Will Now Stop Resenting the B+ I Earned Last Fall Quite So Much…
I was offered a position as a marking assistant in the Women and Gender Studies department, and offer that made my day/week/month. I felt like I had finally “arrived” to be tapped on the shoulder like that. In my undergrad years I always envied the students who were asked to RA or TA for faculty members. They always seemed somehow smarter, or more together than I was. So to be asked now brought me back to my twenty-one year old self, validating my worthiness as a student. Silly, I know.
The course is Intro to Women and Gender Studies. A course I have never taken myself, though the Doctoral programs I have been tentatively exploring are in that area. I received my first batch of papers to mark this week, and I realized I was taking the course along with the students. I read the entire batch of reading responses, absorbing the summaries without making a mark. It was fascinating to experience the chapter from so many perspectives. Each of those students had read the same words, but not one of them repeated what another had to say about it.
Throughout the course of my education I, more than once, have been concerned that I would propose the same paper topic as another student. That we would write the same paper, but inevitably *they* would write it better. But reading those papers, I realized that such a thing would most likely never happen. One’s life experiences, culture, employment history, family, and a multiplicity of other factors would make that a virtual impossibility.
When I initially met with my Professor about marking for her, she asked me a series of questions about how I would handle the job. The more she asked, the more I realized just how much consideration went into every grade I have ever received. How *would* I handle marking for someone whose first language was clearly not English? I was not in the Math department where there is a universal language and only one right answer. Perhaps this was going to be more challenging than anticipated.
And so I dove into the marking, with a mixture of both excitement and terror. These are GRADES. These grades MATTER. They will be reflected on student transcripts, and permanent academic records, and what if they want to apply for scholarships and graduate school and jobs? I haven’t even taken this course! What right do I have to grade a paper when I haven’t done the reading myself?! What if they all hate me? What if I’m too harsh? Too lenient? What impact will my decisions have on their ultimate feelings of accomplishment or entitlement or future scholarly plans? Why did I take this job? This is WAY too much pressure! How do faculty handle this?
The professor and I had decided earlier that I would mark 10 – 15 and then meet to review how I handled it. I dove in, wrote comments, assigned a letter grade and attached a grading rubric scale to the papers. That rubric killed me. As I was checking off boxes that meant C or B I felt constrained. I found myself giving lower scores than my intuition told me was warranted.
And when we met yesterday, my Professor agreed. She, too, was dismayed at the number of C’s I was giving. We had a talk about not discouraging first year students before they have found their bearings in both the course, and often in University as a whole. While we had to be fair, we also wanted to guide them, and offer them the opportunity to grow into themselves as scholars. We decided that the attached scoring rubric had to go. I would be more gentle, encouraging and numerous with my commentary and hopefully instill a love of the subject in them.
It’s a big task. My sense of weightiness and responsibility was not diminished after that meeting. But I also have shifted my own attitudes. Grading offers an opportunity to act as an indirect mentor to students. With each check mark, and “good point!” I could be inspiring them to continue on in an area that was completely unknown to them a mere month ago. I got a C in my Intro to Sociology course and I never looked at the subject again. Where would I be now if that initial professor had taken a less standoffish approach?
I think I could learn to love this job, once the terror subsides a bit.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed