Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Why Grading Papers Doesn't Suck

And yes, I'm doing a whole reverse psychology thing here. Because grading a great many papers does, without doubt, suck. But there are bright spots.


She's nearly done with her thesis. Her penultimate draft was, well, shit. The organization was all fucked up, her attempt to integrate theory was (generously) lackluster, and well, just generally, it was not what she could do. So then we drank (a lot of) wine together, and talked through the problems, and at one point I made her do a close reading of a random passage from The Pleasure of the Text, and we busted through a wall. And then I sent her off to finish her thesis. And the draft I read today? MOMENTS OF TOTALLY RIDICULOUS BRILLIANCE. Sure, she still has some cleaning up to do, but I am so, so, SOOOO amazingly proud of what she's accomplished. She's reached a point that I didn't reach until after my M.A. program. She RULES.

Student Brillianter than BES (and BES agrees)

So last semester, I encountered ze for the first time. In my Joyce and Woolf class. Now, this class had some repeat offenders who knew the level that I expect of my students, and who'd had a theory class with me, and well, I imagine for the other students, at least at first, that they were insufferable. Ze wasn't one of those students. Ze (who we'll call Ridiculously Smart Person - RSP - from now on) was a totally unknown quantity. RSP showed up every day, but ze also never spoke a word. And when RSP turned in hir's first paper, ze turned in a paper that received an 83. I remember the grade exactly because RSP was so clearly stunned by the grade. Apparently, I was the first person never to just hand RSP an A. Flash forward to the final research paper of that semester, and RSP wrote a paper that was nearly publishable. Seriously. Like, better than anything I've ever read from a student. Like, something that I would have thought was awesome and provocative had I read a version of it published in a peer-reviewed journal. Like, better than ANYTHING a student should be able to write. RSP BLEW MY MIND.

So, this semester, RSP took my upper-level course. Ze talked a lot more having had me before, and ze continued with the brilliance. Now, the paper that RSP wrote wasn't as ridiculously awesome as the one ze wrote last semester. Why? Because ze tried to write with theory for the first time. In the service of this, RSP, a graduating senior who knew he didn't need to do this, read nearly all of the Foucault Reader on his own, along with Barthes's "The Death of the Author," and no, it wasn't perfect, but JESUS FUCKING CHRIST! WHAT GRADUATING SENIOR TAKES ON FOUCAULT???? JUST BECAUSE IT'S INTERESTING??? And does so reasonably well, without having had lengthy instruction about what Foucault's on about? RSP is like an alien or a miracle or something.

Look, I tell students all the time to investigate theory. I mention, in passing, all the time, theory that can support their readings of texts. Some take me up on that, and others don't. But NONE has ever read like all of the Foucault Reader just for kicks, other than RSP.

Fantastic Awesome Student (and Perhaps the Beginning of Crazy's New Posse?)

See, both RSP and BES are graduating. As are a bunch of other smarties who are my loves. What shall I do next year? And the year after? FAS, well, ze may be the center of the Next Generation. I had ze last semester, and ze was a standout among those students (in a general education class). And then ze took me again for an upper-level English course. As FAS said, "I took you again because I know you're good." Let's just note that FAS's paper was better than RSP's (for the same class). No, ze didn't read a ton of Foucault on hir own, ze did read a ton of Gilbert and Gubar on hir own, and hir paper was SUPERB. I enjoyed reading every single word of it. Ze is AMAZING. AMAZING. (And I may have seduced ze into my feminist theory class next spring, even though ze is "not a feminist or anything.")

The Ones That Don't Stand Out As Above But Nonetheless Stand Out

I have read, over the past few days, papers that talk about religious belief in ways that aren't reductive, that interrogate history without resorting to a discussion of what "really" happened, that investigate multiculturalism and postcoloniality without reducing those things to unproblematixc difference. I have ridiculously good students. Students who are original in their research, and students who support their original ideas with solid research. And this is the majority of my students - not the minority.

So that's why grading is good. It lets you know all of the above. And no, that's not the case for every student, but how great that it's the case for so many of them.


Virginia S. Wood, PsyD said...

Lucky you. Most of my term papers this time around truly sucked.

James said...

I'm feeling positive about my students too, though I wish my teaching schedule was such that I could meet them earlier than their junior year. My best ever student is graduating this term, but he's off to the best graduate program in his major, and I'm having lunch with our program's most successful former student today.

Anonymous said...

Now I see why being a professor has always been so hard for me. I don't get liquored up with students. Thanks for the tip, crazy.

Dr. Crazy said...

I don't make it a practice to drink with students, but I don't think it's wrong to socialize with students and to be a human being around them. It just so happened that this involved wine with BES, but she's over age, she's graduating, and to have that time to talk not in the office setting was a good thing. I suppose it didn't occur to me that it was a bad idea precisely because I had similar experiences when I was a student (both undergrad and grad).