I saw a man in the grocery store, and if I had the time and the reason, I could thoroughly and exhaustively explain why I disliked him based entirely on how he looked at the portabella mushrooms. I could have taken him aside by the flower arrangements nobody has ever bought outside of an emergency, and I would have told him that the slight rise to his eyebrow paired with his strangely squat and spread-legged posture made him look like a man who had been told someone nearby was about to tackle him. Confused readiness might just be the most exhausting thing to look at, and if I had a minute and a loudspeaker, I could have explained to this man that looking vaguely confounded and oddly alert is the exact expression once worn by my high school P.E. teacher, and I wanted that guy to burn.
I’m pretty good at arguing and making sure my point is heard. I have a Master’s degree in it.
I like arguing. I like proving I’m right. And both of those things lend themselves pretty well to grading papers and just to teaching in general. Working with college students is a constant negotiation of my own credibility and just how much my students think they know, including what they know about the subject I’m teaching and what they know about me as a person. When I put a grade on a paper, I’ve noticed that if the student doesn’t like the grade, they’ll respond in one of three ways: they’ll argue that the grade wasn’t justified; they’ll imply that my personal standards are unreasonable, or a mixture of the two.
I like grading papers because it’s like a preemptive argument. I know the students who will still say their draft, resplendent in its half-assed research all-nighter glory, is worth only the highest A. But they aren’t, and I make sure I can back up the grade I assign based on the comments I put on the draft. I know of some shitty teachers who slap a grade on a paper without any explanation of why that grade is there, and if I were a student in that class, I’d want to drop a bowling ball on that teacher’s reproductive bits.
I’ve had a few students post some version of an argument that basically said: “who are you to give me this grade?” It wasn’t that I didn’t justify the grade, and it wasn’t that the paper was bad. It was that I have the soft, youthful face of an elven bard. I wonder what goes through their heads right before they openly question my credibility as a teacher. Are they surprised that someone can both make amazing writing puns also knows that papers aren’t always an A or B? Are they angry that I don’t quite fit the image of the stern college professor that splits their time between brooding in candlelit rooms and slicing through essays with a red pen while listening to Mongolian throat singing? Or are they outraged that they did poorly because they think that I couldn’t have done better?
I enjoy the argument.
I hate putting in final grades.
A final grade isn’t complicated. It tells a student what their work in the class was worth. It takes everything they’ve done, assigns a number to it, and closes the door. The argument ends.
I’ve been really dragging my feet this last week. I have two things left to grade, and I already know what a lot of my students will get in the class overall. These two assignments won’t really change that, and I hate it. I have some great students, and they know they’re great, and they’re also pretty good at very basic math. They can see that 150 points out of a thousand sounds like a lot, until they realize they already have 848 points and will only need to get 52 points to still get an A. I’ve done that kind of grade math a lot as a teacher and as a student. If I were in my class, the second I realized I could get away with doing a third of the work left in the class, either I would stop caring and work as hard as I wanted, or I’d do exactly one third of the work and coast by on a low A. Some of my students are better people than me, but they’re stressed and want to sleep and never see my class or any class again, so the work just isn’t as good when the stakes are gone.
On the other end, I have students for whom %15 of the grade is only enough to bring them to a C or keep them at a D. They could pass the class if they made these two projects the best things they’d ever submitted. But they don’t. The last assignments were all due last Friday. I have a student who still has not submitted them because they would only save his grade if he put more effort into them than anything else he did this semester. I told him I’d still grade any late work he submitted, in part because I want him to pass, and in part because I knew he wouldn’t.
Either way, the argument has been over for a while, but final grades make it final.