Monday, April 9, 2012

Confessions of a Slacker, Part 1

My job takes me a lot less time than it used to. This I admit freely, because I used to put in 60+ per hour work weeks, when I was young and green, and inexperienced. Before I knew more. Before I knew better.

My job does not take as long to do as it used to because I have chosen not to waste time. The ruling principle of not-wasting-time is never to put in any effort that will, in effect, be wasted. That seems easy enough. The problem is figuring out which time is wasted.

There are of course many things to accomplish that are a valuable use of time: being on a hiring committee is grueling and takes months. But I always volunteer, because it’s terribly important and will have a vital impact upon the life of the department for years to come.

What I have realized over the years, however, is that the biggest waste of time can be found in feedback to students. To faculty members that spend 45 minutes to an hour grading a term paper, I ask: Why do you do this? It is wasted time. I discovered just how wasted the first year (many, many moons ago) that I decided to give my students until finals week to turn in their papers without penalty. They asked for the extension, I fretted about it, but then thought, “why not?”

“You won’t be able to get your paper back with comments, though!” I said in a worried voice, wringing my hands. “I know you’ll want them back with comments. Come see me in the fall and we can talk about your papers in detail…”

Before that fateful semester, I twisted myself into a writhing agony to get my students’ graded term papers back to them by finals week. I pored over each one, marking every comma splice, scribbling encouragements, citing where they went off track, and where they could have made a solid section even stronger. Those papers were forested with comments. As I have never taught less than four courses a semester, you can imagine how much time I spent grading.

Wasted time, I was to realize. I allowed the students the extra week, but I told them as well that they still could receive comments if they turned the paper in during the last week of school. If they waited until finals week, they wouldn’t receive the paper back at all, unless they came to find me the following semester. And when they did, they would not find comments, as I would have been pressed for time merely to submit their final course grades.

“So if at all possible you won’t want to turn them in during finals week,” I told them. I was young and na├»ve. I assumed that most of them would not avail themselves of the extra time, as it would deprive them of my sage commentary and advice on their work.

I’m sure you know what’s coming. Not one single student turned the paper in by the last day of class. Every single one took the extra time. “Well,” I thought gamely, “surely they will come by to talk to me about their work next semester…”

Mais non. One or two stragglers dropped in, asking for the paper. But this was in the days before attachments, before even the possibility of electronic submission. They came because they wanted the paper itself. They had typed it, and did not have a copy. Even that buoyed me some, but only a tiny minority ever actually wanted to talk to me about their grade. Most just snatched up the paper and left.

It was depressing, but I’m a practical person by nature. I saw no reason to continue to mark up innumerable term papers when the students would prefer to just turn their papers in as late as possible. So I just read them and wrote one letter at the bottom. Five minutes instead of fifty.

Then, as time passed, I started to wonder about grading during the semester. I was one of those teachers that cited every single mistake. I expected, of course, that students would work to improve so that they would not make the same mistakes again. I was wrong. I was wrong I think even about my expectation that they would read the comments, let alone try to improve. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been followed back to my office by a student clutching a D paper, a student that immediately demanded to know why they got such a low grade.

“Did you read my comments?” I ask blandly.

Of course they didn’t. They just looked at the grade. “Come back when you’ve read my comments,” I say. They didn’t want to come back. They wanted to argue about it right then. “Come back when you’ve read my comments,” I’d repeat.

They’d leave, and I’d never see them again.

Once I began to work with blackboard, students submitted electronically. I'd write about a paragraph in the comments section (I can type a paragraph a minute, so not much time there). Then I realized that students don’t even go to the comments section. They go to the grades page, and just look at their grade.

Thus over time I have spent less and less time grading, even as my students write more and more. My sophomore and junior level classes write 500 words a week each, plus tests and a final (and in the case of the junior-level class, an oral report). I speed read, and make a brief comment.

In the syllabus is the instruction that informs them what to do if they want more: “make an appointment with me if you want me to provide you a completely corrected copy, with changes tracked, lengthy comments and all your mistakes corrected. We will go over it together in my office and strategize ways to improve.”

Then, I spend my office hours alone, reading on my chaise lounge or working on my own personal academic projects. Only one person this semester has even asked me for a fully corrected paper. But when she realized she’d actually have to, oh, come to my office hours to get it, she balked.

There are some things a professor cannot in all good conscience avoid. We must prep for class. We must teach that class to the best of our ability. We must remain prepared and engaged with our subject matter. That stuff takes a lot of time, but it is time well-spent.

But obviously we don’t have to comment on student work. At least not the way everyone thinks we are supposed to. It’s a waste of time, because students either don’t read the comments or don’t make the first effort to apply them to future work.

So right now I’m looking out my window at the garden on my deck. Roses are blooming. My scallions are coming up as well as mesclun greens that will be cut for tonight’s salad. There are teeny-tiny closed flowers on my cherry tomato plant. The cukes and peppers are going in this week. Serrano. Baby belles. And then there’s the dill and the basil and the mint.

I think I will make some mint tea and sit outside for awhile.


  1. Indeed, I remember learning this and regretting having wasted so much time.

    But are you reading this comment? Or shall I just give you an "A+"?

  2. Stella, I <3 you. Please don't be weirded out.

  3. I <3 you too ...

    I just sent out another "Did you read my feedback?" reply to a generic "Help! I don't get it!" snowplea.

    I've been quite literally frozen by procrastination to avoid going back into the grading pile, dreading to once again expend the effort for virtually no payback.

    Your core message has been made before, but, after seeing how you've framed it, I can't deny that I've been caring more about their education than they have and I can't do it any longer.

    1. I am so glad to hear I am not the only one who responds to this problem with the "freezing with procrastination" tactic.

    2. Another victim of "freezing with procrastination" syndrome. I'm so behind, but I don't know how much more I can bear!

  4. Preach, sister! This is why I've so eagerly adopted rubrics. They allow me to check boxes that contain my standards for why the student earned the grade s/he did, so I don't get a lot of grade complaints. If students want more than the rubric, they can ask. They don't. (Or, I should say, the ones that NEED to ask don't. The super-keeners still try to get that extra point or two.) I got through a stack of 35 primary source papers last night in a couple of hours, all while enjoying a tasty beverage.

  5. Church! Stella, you are way way wise!

    And that is such a neat photo treatment, too.

  6. I am going to print this out and nail it to the top of the next stack of papers I grade.

    I just burnt another weekend on the altar of paper commenting. I wasn't even going line-by-line, just stapling a rubric with a few paragraphs of comments on the front of them. Already I'm wishing that I had done less. Sentences instead of paragraphs. No one would have noticed or complained. So many wasted hours pouring sand onto mud.

  7. Commenting on papers is still what I do best and where I get the positive feedback from students. But that is from a very few students. One time there was a problem with the submission function in the classroom. I could only submit grades, not the marked-up papers. I posted a class announcement telling anyone who wanted comments to e-mail me. I would e-mail back their marked up papers.


    Here I was putting more commentary onto each and every student paper than I got during my whole undergraduate education (all papers combined) and hardly anyone was even looking.

  8. Damn, Stella. Not only do you got your shit figured out, you read in a chaise lounge. I need to acquire both of these characteristics myself.

  9. I write (what feels like) pages of comments on my students' work. And yet, when it comes time to fill out course evals, the little darlings invariably give me low marks on "Makes helpful comments about my work." My interpretation? "Helpful comments" means telling them how brilliant and special they are, not how much their arguments and evidence need work. You can't win.

  10. This is so NOT FAIR.

    At my perfectly respectable university in the UK, all the marked work is checked by another colleague to ensure that we have given sufficient comments, and returned if found to be lacking. And noooo, I can't gang up with other like-minded colleagues to pass work through with fewer annotations, the 'checker' is assigned centrally.

    I am frequently reprimanded because my writing is 'too large' so that when the little dears give in work single spaced not double spaced (ignoring the instructions - but they cannot be penalised for this because, oh, maybe they have problems reading or my instructions weren't clear enough) I don't fit enough notes in on the text. Which makes a change from being reprimanded because my writing was too small so how could I expect a student to read it?

    Fortunately, MOST of the time, I get assigned a sane checker who accepts that for most students a paragraph which identifies a couple of things they did well, uses a few phrases from the (standardised across the FACULTY) grading rubric and points out 2-3 'strategies for improvement' is sufficient, along with a few squiggles marking up the first few times they do awful things to the English language in the text (pet hates: apostrophe abuse, random insertion of comma or semi-colon, confusing effect and affect, Ph valve instead of pH value, been in place of being...).

    However, once again this semester I have Professor Picky for my Big Marking Module (75 essays), who is either very poorly endowed or has actually swallowed the pedagogic Kool-Aid since he seems to get all his kicks from making me write more comments that don't get read by students... Sigh.

    There are clearly many problems in the academic system of the US of A, but the fact that the academic is usually boss and sole tyrant in their own classroom, free from centrally mandated marking rubrics, having to pass all summative assessment questions/exercises to two levels of bureaucratic approvals before they can be distributed to students, getting to set your own standards for behaviour and for minor penalties/deadlines... oh, I'm jealous!

    1. Grumpy, you have my sympathies. We have a very much diminished version of such supervision, since we turn in copies of graded papers as part of our annual salary review (a nuisance, but it beats being judged on student evals alone), but I can't imagine having someone checking *all* of my comments. I also can't imagine how this works, since I scramble enough just to get papers back to my students in some reasonable amount of time. If they had to go through someone else (and I had to read someone else's), the whole process would grind to a halt. Am I correct in assuming that these are not papers the students will revise (in the American sense of rewriting)? If so, what's the point of all the comments?

    2. Oh no, students don't get to revise these. The comments are to a) justify the grade to the student and b) so that they can 'transfer the learning forward' and use the feedback to develop 'personal learning plans' for the next modules they take. Which, yeah, sure they do. Even the BEST students struggle to do that...

      We have a 'four working week' return window policy, and 'exam weeks' which don't count, so typically we have a week or two to mark work and get it to the checker, then another week or two to fix stuff, before it goes to the students. Which of course really helps them 'transfer the learning'.

      I hate our system.

      I'm only allowed three pieces of summative assessment per module, all of which must map onto different learning outcomes. I can't make formative assessment submissions compulsory, so relatively few students submit drafts (apart from the ones who don't need help). I've fought hard to be allowed to have a portfolio as one piece, and then to allow the students to hand in weekly 'portfolio elements' for marking during the semester, in a statistics class where practicing doing it is the only way to learn. Much as I'd like to do more of this, it isn't an option - because I mustn't ask the students to do too much work, or spend too much time grading myself because I have 'more important things to do' (admin mostly, although research is also considered important as long as it doesn't cost money or get in the way of anything else).

      The trouble is, we AREN'T a top research university - so the vast majority of my department's 'income' (we have to manage and balance our own fictional budgets with a 'return to centre' of 40+%) comes from the students. Teaching well SHOULD matter... and DOES, if teaching well = good evals and not taking too much staff time.

      I wish I drank!

    3. All that and you *don't* drink? HOW ARE YOU STILL ALIVE?

  11. I wish I could adopt this attitude. My students bug me and bug me for comments and justifications whenever I assign grades. Do they actually revise their essays to incorporate this feedback? Do they even read them and attempt to understand them? Of course not. They just want to know that reasons exist. So I have to put in all the work for appearances.

    Sort-of related, I think I'm going back to hard copies next semester. It's just easier on me to get through a stack of physical papers.

  12. My students seem to expect a shit ton of feedback. They don't ever read it or learn from it, but they expect it nonetheless. And I don't get it. At my small college, I had no reason to expect more than a handwritten paragraph and a grade. But my megacity state-school students expect typed comments, marginal comments, and detailed rubrics. Without these justifications--even for a B+ paper--I get complaints about being "unfair" or "bias." Of course they don't read these comments--they make the same mistakes again and again in all their papers and use the same sloppy colloquialisms and slip-shod thesis statements--but I suppose they want to know that I'm doing my job.

    However, I've learned to work around this system. I've graded hundreds of papers, so I practically have form letters for each kind of paper. I have a "shit sandwich" form letter. A "fantastic work" form letter. A "this needs a lot of work, please revise" form letter. I have a paragraph about organization. A paragraph about topic sentences. A paragraph about thesis statements. I sometimes worry that they'll get together and compare their grading sheets--but they don't. Because they don't care.

    I still spend too much time on grading, though. It's ridiculous.

    1. This is much like my office mate's system. He has, for years, used a macro sysstem in Microsoft word. It identifies by numbsr--all you have to do is type the number and a paragraph aboutnthat problem magically appears. As he goes through the essay, he writes the appropriate number in the margin. Then, he goes to word and types the numbers and the paragraphs magically appear. His student each end up with a page and a half of comments.

    2. I, too, learned long ago the magic of Word's AutoCorrect and have a library of about 40 pre-fabbed comments.

      This was supposed to speed things up, but the simple fact that one can amass a library of 40 commonly used comments rather undermines the goal of streamlining the process.

      I also thought I was helping the dears by including a rubric based breakdown of their score. There too I had a collection of commonly used explanations. Sorta following Gone Grad's model, I would start with rubric summary pre-filled with the most common combination of comments.

      Ultimately though, what usually bogged me down was -- even with these quick cut-and-paste comments -- I would still agonize over whether or not this comment really addressed this problem, etc.

      But as Stella -- and my spate of recent "I don't get it! Tell me what to do to improve" pleas from students -- demonstrated, no one's reading the feedback anyway.

      Creating these shortcuts et al. is solving a problem that doesn't exist.

  13. After a number of students this semester stubbornly refuse to stop making the same damn mistakes no matter how many times I comment on the mistakes in their assignments, I am seriously thinking of instituting a "prove you read my comments" pop quiz next semester. That should make them crap their pants, even if it doesn't make them read my comments.

  14. I long ago gave up writing comments on final versions of papers (but I did for a long time-- why, or how, I can't now recall). I still spend a good deal of time on reading drafts and filling out rubrics, making marginal comments, etc., as well as holding individual conferences (at least partly during class time, so there's a bit of a time tradeoff there). Even with minimal marking strategies (mark only the most important things, mark only the first time a problem occurs, mark only as much as you think they can absorb, etc.), it takes time; in fact, it can take *more* time to decide what most merits comment than it takes to bleed all over the paper (in ink or pixels). Some of my students do actually pay attention to my comments (in some cases out of genuine interest; in some cases because they're horrified by their preliminary grades, and anxious to replace them with higher ones, which is possible under the system I use), but there are many more who appear to understand what I'm saying in conference but still make minimal changes (which may be a matter of time rather than willingness), and others who turn in as little as possible as late as possible (a choice which removes them from the written commenting pool entirely; they just get oral comments on whatever they bring to a conference, assuming they come to a conference).

    In an ideal world, each student would get the kind of feedback (minimal, maximal, oral, written, etc.) that would work for hir, at the time (s)he is ready to absorb it. As it is, I sometimes feel like I'm spending a lot of time throwing darts while blindfolded and being spun around, hoping that now and then one hits a bulls-eye (and hoping neither I nor anyone else is badly injured in the process).

  15. I've noticed that the majors (English ones) want comments; they want feedback. So now I tell students if they want feedback, to print out a copy of their essays and I will give them feedback in written form. And they have to meet with me where we discuss their essays. And the English majors always want feedback. And they come to meet with me to discuss their great, philosophical ideas. And it's grand fun for us all.

    The rest of the students: they just want a grade, preferably an A.

    1. Speaking as an English major, I definitely agree with the first part of this comment (can't vouch for the other majors, unfortunately). Granted, my concentration is in creative writing, for which detailed feedback is key. One of my professors this semester provides a full, typed response to each of our workshop pieces, and his feedback (along with the similarly formatted feedback each student is expected/required to provide to the rest of his/her classmates) has been incredibly helpful from the beginning. Then again, it's also a writing workshop for senior creative writing majors, so if we're not interested in improving our writing, what's the point?

      That said, I can understand why Stella's students are so ungrateful when it comes to end of the semester paper comments. If you're a writer taking a creative writing class, or any other class where your final paper/project could be taken out of the classroom, constructive criticism feels vital. But if you're not planning on doing anything with your final paper, well...the temptation is very strong to just say goodbye to the class and move on as soon as the work is done.

      Just try to keep in mind that while the majority of students today seem to be complete ingrates, sometimes your feedback really does mean a lot to us. I took a class several years ago on the Beats, and for our final, we were told to write a letter to ourselves fifteen to twenty years from now, talking about what we had learned from Kerouac and/or Ginsberg and what we hoped we remembered this far in the future. We were told to hand in one copy of the letter and put another copy in an envelope, seal it, date it, and put it in one of the course books that we intended to keep. I don't know how many of my classmates took the assignment seriously, but I still have the sealed letter tucked into my copy of Ginsberg's complete works as well as the emailed comments from my professor, which I printed out and reread when I need a lift.

      In all honesty, though-- unless you're teaching a class of students who really need feedback on their final projects/papers in order to succeed in their chosen field (I don't want to determine what that means, since it's bound to vary based on a student's field, strengths, and weaknesses over all), you (Stella) probably have the right idea about only giving feedback on final papers when your students specifically ask for it. The ones who care will, and the ones who don't aren't worth the extra effort.

    2. Yes, but, RunnerOnIce, you are the kind of student we only dream about.

    3. RunnerOnIce, you're right: we like to think that students value the same things we do, and wish they'd realize that MAYBE the professor knows something more than they do (just maybe). I valued professorial feedback, but that's why I'm a professor now.

      My Creative Writing students beg for more feedback than I can possibly give (some, almost in a sycophantic way; ie. if they've written it, then it MUST be worth commenting on), but they are not the audience we mostly grumble about here. :o)

      The general ed kids... I don't get offended if they don't want my feedback. While I think it immensely important that they know how clear thinking and writing in an essay will translate to clear thinking and writing in a lab report or a patient write-up, they don't make that connection right now. They just know they've been required to take this class that they'd really rather not be in, and the least amount of effort they can put in to get that A is all they are willing to put out. It's a relationship: why foster a relationship that isn't going anywhere? For them, College English isn't someone they want to invest in. And while I think some would argue that MAYBE showing them what they SHOULD value is part of our job by showing them the importance of reading feedback, we all know they're not going to change their minds based on a comment that I agonized over writing. The ones that already care will continue to care, and those who don't will ignore me.

  16. Rock on, Stella. This year I finally wised up and asked for a self-addressed, stamped envelope from those who wanted extensive comments on their end-of-quarter papers. Out of a class of 75, I got 5. I breezed through the rest in 50% of the time it usually takes.

  17. I have read this attentively. It is eye-opening. My process is somewhat different - I don't actually put extensive comments on the papers; what I do is feel so overwhelmed by the horrible task of commenting on all the papers extensively that I simply don't start marking until it's far, far too late to do that, and then I stay up all night and mark a bunch of them with minimal comments, and feel horrible both about the minimal comments and the fact that they're getting back to the students so late. Plus, meanwhile, not getting enough sleep and being grouchy around my family, who have learned to dread this time of year. I have to find a way of adapting your methods to my circumstances. Thank you.

  18. It's not like the comments are going to contain some extraordinary nugget of wisdom that's going to affect the overall outcome of the course. Like dropping a quarter in a river, comments may make ripples but the current stays the same.

    Wow. Just. Wow.

  19. I have to put some level of comments on student papers because it's CYA. If Brattina goes to the chair or the dean complaining about a grade, I need to show cause for it, and Brattina is usually cloned (or re-gendered) in every course I teach.

    That said, I've received some good pieces of advice on commenting over the years. The first came from a wise chair who told me, "Never mark all their mistakes, just enough to justify the grade. Then when they come to see me, I can tell them they actually got off easy because you could have marked them down for X, Y, and Z but didn't." The second came from a workshop I attended on constructive commenting. The presenter said that if comments are really meant to help students learn, we need to focus on the most important things they can learn as a result of their having done this assignment. Therefore, a term paper shouldn't be covered with red ink but should have a few representative errors marked and then contain 2-3 specific, detailed comments that the student could actually work from and use in future assignments. Once I realized I didn't have to be the grand proofreader, marking papers and making comments became easier.

    We also have a new LMS which makes grading and commenting easier, so that's helping a lot. Students can actually comment on my comments, so I know some of them are reading them. They thank me or ask questions for clarification.

  20. Amen, Stella.

    I've been at this (several) years and my quantity of comments has declined steadily. I no longer comment on regular homework at all...unless the student comes to me.

    I still give feedback on drafts for big papers, but it's decreased a lot. In the interest of fair play, if they want their final paper back with comments, they can fill out a (three line) form when they hand it in (no form? then I don't waste time with comments).

    This is worse still: any major assignment during the semester can be revised and resubmitted for an improved grade (I usually give them a couple points for effort, even if the improvement isn't great - which it sometimes can be). Despite many of them needing those extra points for revision, I've never had more than about 1/3 of the students take the offer up in a single semester, and this term is looking particularly abysmal (I think we're around 5%).

    To paraphrase one of the mottoes here...Never put in more effort than they do!

    1. The problem is that it's not possible to put in less than zero effort.

  21. Shortly after this post appeared, I received an email from a student wanting to discuss an assignment that received a grade she found "disappointing." What she wanted to know was what "exactly" she could have done to receive a higher mark. I replied, saying that I would be happy to meet with her, but she should take time before the meeting to read the comments (marginal and in a standardized feedback form) as these would likely indicate areas of strength and weakness, as well as suggestions for improvement.

    This morning I got an email from that student, thanking me for my time and canceling her appointment.

    Did I just make comments work?

    1. No, you just found out that, as usual, students don't want to do anything for themselves. This "meeting" and "take read the comments" stuff involves actual work.

  22. EXACTLY!

    I believe that what wears us down is not our work, but rather that portion of our work that is not appreciated (or, in the case of marking, even read). I will not cast pearls before swine. Like you, once I discovered strategies to avoid giving that which is holy unto the dogs, my job satisfaction improved tremendously.

    For every assignment, I give students a ten-day submission window. Those who submit within the first seven days receive comments and a grade; those who submit in the last three days receive a grade (and a grid with inadequacies ticked off so they know at a glance where they went wrong). The students who value my comments submit during the first week, and because I know they value the comments, I write extensively (and don't mind doing so in the least). Occasionally, a student will beg for comments, but want to submit later. I refuse, but say I'll be happy to go through the paper with them in my office. They NEVER come to my office to go through the paper. In other words, they don't really care about the feedback, but they want me to think they do (not sure why).

    The same is true for committee work. I used to serve on every committee under the sun and would resent it like hell when my time was wasted by endless meetings that accomplished nothing. Now, I commit to two committees per year and ensure that they are committees that can accomplish something concrete. And I know admitting to serving on only two committees per year reveals me to be a slacker, but I put in fifteen years chairing/serving on dozens of committees, chairing departments, etc., etc., so I've served my time.


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