Monthly Archives: September 2011

Don’t take it personally

I got the first set of papers from my class last Friday, and am returning them via email this evening. In anticipation of that, I wanted to end today’s class by saying a bit about the relationship between grades and the work done in my class, or any class, for that matter. I wanted to communicate that I genuinely, sincerely value each of my students as people, and that the grade I give any paper I read is in no way a reflection of my personal feelings toward the writer of that paper. That, more to the point, students should resist the urge to see their grades as reflections of something about themselves as people. A student’s grade on a paper is a reflection of where that paper is at this particular moment in time, no more, no less. It’s not a reflection of the writer as a person, and it’s not a reflection of the paper’s ultimate potential–it’s a reflection of this particular paper, written for this particular assignment, at this particular stage in the writing process. As such, that grade can and should change with revision.

I said something pretty much to that effect. I also meant to say something about the engaging in revision as a collaborative process where the goal is strengthening the paper and moving the argument forward, rather than addressing each of my questions and comments as discrete obstacles between the paper and an A. I meant to tell my students that the former approach helps them reflect on their writing process and their goals in each paper, while the latter approach leads to frustration. But I forgot that part. Maybe next time.

I wanted to encourage my students to think about themselves as writers, and writing as a process. I wanted them to think about grades as one of several ways to take stock of where they are in that process. Naturally, I bungled it. My awkward introduction to the topic of grades sounded ominous to my students’ anxious ears, rather than like the poorly-executed transition it was. My well-intentioned plea not to see grades as reflections of themselves implied to them that I was doing damage-control before giving everyone ego-crushing marks on their first paper. The more I tried to emphasize the particular and limited function of grades in the context of this class, the louder the panicked murmurs grew. I reassured them that this was not meant to prepare them for unexpectedly low grades on their papers, but by that time, I’m not sure they believed me.

Maybe next time.