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Long papers, short lines, tough decisions

Essay with comments Photo courtesy of Nic McPhee

It’s hard to believe, but as October starts I’m staring down the deadline of my first writing assignment. And I don’t mean anything that I have to turn in, but rather a ream of papers that I have to give back. Students often don’t realize that what seems like a painful task to them — writing an essay — can be even more painful for the people who have to grade it. This is why, every year, professors happily surrender their powers to a legion of graduate students who can learn the ropes by doing the dirty work.

Usually I do my own grading, because my classes are fairly small. And this year, like most other years, I’ve been grading for weeks. I just haven’t been grading papers. This led me to consider why it is we as instructors tend to think about grading long-form answers, like essays, as ‘hard’, while shorter and ‘mechanical’ answers, like math problems, are ‘easy’. This isn’t in fact the case, and I know — I’ve spent the past month grading Latin homework twice a week.

If you have ever taken Latin, or know someone who’s taken Latin, you’d know that Latin is in many ways similar to math. There are right answers and wrong answers, and there are answers that are wrong for the right reasons, or almost right for the wrong reasons. It is easy to slash an ‘x’ next to the wrong answer, or scrawl a checkmark next to the right answer. It’s a lot harder to deal with the in-betweens, and here, I think the main difference between these ‘mechanical’ answers and essays is that an essay is one long, sustained answer, while Latin homework and problem sets are a similar length of shorter, choppier answers.

The difference in length matters. If you make a mistake in one sentence in your Latin homework, you might be entirely wrong in that sentence. But you can still get the other sentences right, get back up on your feet, and do pretty well on the homework as a whole. An essay is a different ball game. Oh, you can make a small error and still be okay (Nero died in 64? Not true, but not disastrous.) Once you’ve gone too far wrong, though, your argument becomes irrecoverable. (Nero lived in 64 … BCE? He lived at the same time as Cicero? He was a partisan of Caesar’s? Oh, you’ve conflated two Neros…) And then you’ve made a mistake on an assignment that’s worth much more.

In some ways, the shorter assignments are actually harder to grade. It’s difficult to decide, for example, whether getting the vocab word right but the grammar wrong is an error equivalent to getting the grammar right but the vocab wrong. It seems like the first mistake is far more serious than the second — and yet for both I generally take off a half-point for the word. They are easier to grade when they’re entirely right or completely clueless (although the latter case is usually depressing), but the squishy middle requires attention and care. And that is where most students lie, if you’ve set your content right.

The longer assignments are more daunting, but with experience you can assign a provisional after the first few paragraphs. At that point, you just need to make sure that the student doesn’t made a huge mistake (or, less frequently, a great recovery) towards the end. The tough grading with a longer assignment comes in the comments, and here the squishy middle is easy to deal with: most students in the B–C range will have a few good points to compliment, and a few glaring holes to work on.

Unlike with short assessments, essay outliers are hard to grade. When a student has done almost everything right, and is receiving a mark in the 90s, it’s often difficult to point out more than superficial improvements. But you often want to say more, because it’s disappointing to receive a grade without comments (at least I always thought so). On the other hand, for students who do very badly, you need to carefully pick and choose the most crucial aspects that they can work on, while trying to scaffold confidence for the next assignment. Such comments aren’t necessary on shorter assignments. When students get in the 90s on their Latin homework, I write “good job!”, sometimes with a smiley. When they do poorly, I can simply write “you should review {topic}”. The sentences are short; sustained commentary is unnecessary.

To a certain degree, debate about what assignments are more difficult to grade is silly. Not just because it perpetuates an unhelpful divide between the ‘practical’ STEM subjects and the ‘touchy-feely’ humanities, and not just because it reinforces the concept of grading as a chore rather than part of the learning process. But also because both types are difficult in different ways. And while I will be complaining about my essays this week, I have to admit — I’ve been complaining about Latin for a month already.

About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

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