Why “Grading” is a Four-Letter Word; or, the Difficulties of Work-Life Balance When Teaching is Your Work

It’s been eleven days since my last post.

When alcoholics say something like that, it’s an accomplishment. I wish it were so for me. I wish blogging were an addiction that I couldn’t shake and that taking time off from it were a sign of self-control. But even though writing of any kind is a passion, during the school year, it is hard to justify something that seems as frivolous as my blog.

The semester started last week, and as usual, I was completely incapable of getting my syllabi done early. I tweaked and revised and proofread right up until each class started, and still I feel that I didn’t get them quite right.

And even though I taught my first class in 1997, almost seventeen years ago (boy, I wish I hadn’t done that math), I still get performance anxiety and so get no sleep the first week. In earlier years, I had teaching nightmares, ones in which I would ask my students to complete a brief in-class essay on the first day, but they would refuse and storm out of the classroom, and I’d chase them down the hallway, begging them to return.

This semester, I had nightmares about serial killers and loved ones having heart attacks. It’s as though instead of simply worrying about not being good at my job, I’m convinced that my job brings disaster into my life.

My therapist says I need to strike a “work-life balance.” I agree. But I wish someone would explain how to do that when they are not separate categories. My work often feels like my life.

What I do affects about 100 students a semester. Not only have these students paid lots of money to learn something useful from me, but most of them are really awesome people. I’m not just saying that. The students at NAU are appreciative, hard-working, kind, interesting, smart, and funny. I sincerely like them, I want to do well by them, and I want to help them do well.

“Work” also involves my own three R’s: reading, writing, researching. But these don’t feel like work either. I write about evil children, about ghost-hunting reality television, and post-apocalyptic narratives. Maybe I’m a nerd, but I think that stuff is cool.

On the “life” side are loves I don’t get paid for: outdoorsy stuff, trail races, triathlons, photography. These are big, time-consuming loves. But they are not necessarily more satisfying than my other work.

The work-life balance struggle is often presented as two competing arenas. Mine overlap. This should be an advantage, right? It doesn’t feel like one, though, because when work becomes life–as it often does in my profession–I get the feeling that I’m doing something wrong or–worse–that I’m participating in my own exploitation.

The problem, I think, is the generally derogatory view of teaching in the world today, at least in higher ed. I know that sounds absurd since everyone outwardly praises teaching and teachers. However, administrators constantly try to increase the numbers of students in classrooms and pay professors less for more work–especially professors who teach more than research. The outside culture acts as though faculty are simply waiting for tenure so that they can finally do what they really want to do: nothing. In popular culture, the only images we get of college professors shows them giving awe-inspiring lectures on urban legends (see Urban Legend) or serial killers (see Copycat) or Poe (see The Following) in large auditoriums to entranced audience members.

It’s even worse for writing instructors. Outwardly, everyone talks about how important it is that students learn to write well, but decisions are constantly made to fill up classes with so many students that it becomes damn near impossible to teach writing at all. When I asked for a solution once, I was told to stop spending so much time commenting on essays or to stop assigning writing completely. In addition, the lowest-paid instructors–graduate assistants, contingent faculty–are given the most writing-intensive classes, as if the teaching of writing were the work of untouchables.

And there’s that awful, awful saying out there that “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” I’m not sure who came up with that, but I’m sure they have a backpfeifengesicht. So does the person who invented the claim that spending more than ten or fifteen minutes commenting on an essay was foolish and ineffectual.

It’s no wonder that teachers feel like saps when they spend “too” much time on their teaching. 

I wonder, too, if faculty would feel better about the work they did if “grading” weren’t used as a euphemism for “miserable drudgery” but were instead talked about as the meaningful process it often can be. In fact, how about we just get rid of that word “grading”? Unless you’re feeding multiple-choice tests through a scantron, marking a set of true-false answers right or wrong, or correcting fill-in-the-blank quizzes, chances are you’re doing more than grading: you’re commenting, responding, guiding. Like Cate Blanchett’s character in The Gift says about the word “fuck,””grading” is just a bad word for something nice. Let’s stop using it and instead take pride in what we do, even if it takes us more than 10-15 minutes.

4 thoughts on “Why “Grading” is a Four-Letter Word; or, the Difficulties of Work-Life Balance When Teaching is Your Work

  1. I think that I understand where you’re going with renaming “grading”, but I suspect that the tongue in cheek epigram “If employment were supposed to be fun they wouldn’t call it work” applies here, even if in a particularly sinistral way. I’ll freely admit to my tendency towards prescriptivism, but tinkering with the language only affords temporary relief, it doesn’t remedy the underlying problem — in much the same way that changing “counter help” to “associate” doesn’t actually improve the lot of burger-flippers, or the long steady lather-rinse-repeat in terms for mental illness from technical to euphemism to pejorative to replacement with a new technical term altered the sounds, but not the underlying problems.

    As for the current popular vision of professors as lazy fat cats sipping fancy wines (and boinking undergrads) that, I think, is a side effect of the decades-long slide into anti-intellectualism and anti-science in favor of uninformed opinion, religion (on the right) and woo-woo (on the left). I really wish I had a solution, not only because the massive outpouring of stupid pains me but because if I could reverse it I could be wealthy beyond comprehension (and then I could endow chairs for all my friends).

    1. Hmm . . .I guess I agree that work isn’t “supposed to be fun” if fun = rollercoasters and sundaes and long walks on the beach, but I do think it’s supposed to be meaningful and fulfilling. And I think it can be.

      And it’s not so much “tinkering with the language” that I’m advocating as changing the way we look at what we do and the way we talk about it. We can keep “grading” as the word, if you like, but let’s change our definition of it to “meaningful engagement with intelligent minds” rather than that “boring thing teachers must get through in a hurry so they can do something worthwhile.”

  2. Ah. I misunderstood, then. I do agree that what you see in a thing depends on how you look at it. I can sit for hours working my way through a maze of wires to make lights work in a specified way, while my coworkers might walk by, shake their heads and say “better you than me.” I see a challenge, they see maddening frustration.

    1. Yes! That’s exactly it! I enjoy commenting on student papers for the same reason: how can I explain how this paper works upon me as a reader? is the challenge. I think that I might use your comment about work and fun as a subject for my next blog, so thanks for your comments.

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