We have just passed the midterm, and spring break is behind us. In my informal polling, most students simply headed home, to write papers, prepare for midterm exams (I schedule them for after break), sleep, and eat home cooking. Faculty use the break for research, maybe some travel, though those of us in my corner of Tucker Hall, like many of our colleagues, spent much of the week grading.
For those of us in the humanities, grading is both the hallmark, and the bane of teaching. We certainly devote a lot of time and energy to it. We grade before the sun comes up and after midnight, while watching our children, at meals, on Sundays and holidays. Common are stories told with a practiced eye-roll about grading in airports, in hotel rooms, in cabs. Only once will you make the mistake of assigning papers in two different classes to be due on the same day: facing fifty to sixty five-to-seven page papers all at once can rust to powder the iron of the strongest will.
Grading essays can be drudgery. But for many of us, they offer too many benefits to drop. For me their greatest benefit, and my deepest satisfaction, comes from how they allow me to get to know my students. Movies, novels, and the media portray all the educational action in the classroom, where charismatic teachers use a mixture of grit, guile, and personality to inspire students to greater things. And of course what happens in the classroom matters. But if the conversation stopped there, things wouldn’t go far enough, and education would be more like theater than learning.
Face to face, classes have their own personality—some are raucous, filled with strong-willed students who have lots to say, others are relatively quiet. Part of my job is to learn and respond to those collective personalities, adjusting my approach and even at times my syllabus in response to what goes on when we are together. But the other part is to develop a dialog with each student, and there is no better, and no more rewarding, way to do that than with an essay. Essays allow me to personalize learning in a way I can’t do in the classroom.
This kind of teaching doesn’t work in large classes, nor does it work well in classes where someone (a professor) lectures and someone else (often a teaching assistant) grades. In English and Film & Media Studies, my classes are relatively small—they never exceed thirty students and are often much smaller. With that I can spend the time to make each paper a small tutorial for each of my students.
Here’s how it works. Papers are intense exercises in thinking that allow us to take ownership of what we know. When we sit down to write, most of us, myself included, discover that we understand much less about a topic than we thought we did. Writing forces us to sort things out, make distinctions, weigh values, and generally clear the fog of assumption that often feels like understanding, but really isn’t. And it also reveals insights and makes connections we didn’t think we had.
When I read someone’s essay, I engage in a dialog with them, about what they understand for sure, but also how they understand it. I write a lot of comments in the margins; many of them are questions meant to tease out larger issues, suggest alternatives, and make connections that I see as latent in the writing. I also make sure to cheer the often wonderful insights they bring to the material. And yes, I do grade them, but that too is part of a discussion that we will pick up in class, or in the next paper.
Or in my office: one of the favorite parts of my job comes when I meet students to talk about their writing. I do this with every student in my seminars, but even in my larger classes I talk to all of those who want to stop by (some of them at my encouragement) about what they do well and what they can do better on their papers. I also enjoy when, before they write, students come to “pitch” me their idea. Our conversations can be a real back and forth as we probe their topic not just for good ideas, but for ideas that make a good paper. Most of the time the papers improve. But more importantly, I have the opportunity to give every student an individualized education.
At times I can see our dialog pay off in stronger papers; just as often I think the improvement takes place in other courses and later semesters. For my part, the payoff is immediate. Each semester I get to know just a little more some very fine people.