Unless your internet has been cut off in the latest round of institutional budget adjustments, you probably know by now that Cathy Davidson has become frustrated with the superficiality and pointlessness of grading, and many people are upset about her decision to try to do something about this. I’ve never tried peer grading, her experimental solution, but one of my goals is always for students to internalize the course objectives, so in that sense it would not be entirely inconsistent. (In the particular digital humanities course Davidson discusses, it is also related to the content in interesting ways.)
I am interested to hear about how contributors to The Long Eighteenth (and anyone passing through) have confronted this quandary in teaching. It seem like something much grumbled about but little discussed.
It took me a long time to figure out why writing endless comments on student papers felt so unsatisfying. Then once a colleague said to me, “I don’t mind giving the grades; I just hate the part where you have to justify them.” In that moment it occurred to me that much of what I was doing on these papers was, indeed, justifying my decision to give the paper a B or a C. I was explaining to the student what was good about the paper, but also the various ways in which it fell short. This took a tremendous amount of time and did not feel particularly satisfying. Years of entanglement with outcomes assessment helped me realize why it was all so awful: I was pouring huge amounts of time into evaluating the paper, but only minimally contributing to the student’s learning with one of the most time-consuming aspects of the course. While in theory the student was supposed to recognize the strengths and weakness of her work by reading my comments, it didn’t really feel like this was happening, or at least happening enough. Often, I think, the student would read those comments to see whether or not I had indeed fully justified the grade rather than to see how she could improve in the future.
So now I have students write most of their papers in drafts, which separates the learning process and evaluation into two different phases. I did not, of course, invent this method (I copied it from a colleague), but for me it has turned grading from an onerous chore to something that feels purposeful and seems to contribute to learning. When the first draft comes in (electronically), I add lots of comments and queries using the markup function in Word. I find this engaging because I am explaining to the student exactly how he needs to rethink the argument, the support, the writing, the organization, etc. I try to ask pointed questions about whether or not particular assertions are supported by the text. I note the places where evidence, or a topic sentence, or an argument, is needed. At the comment stage, I am not evaluating and there is no grade. When the second draft comes in, I give a grade but little or no commentary. In this method, all of my commenting steers the student toward better writing, criticism, and analysis, and none of it justifies a grade. By the time the student gets the second draft back, he knows how the paper was supposed to improve and pretty much knows whether or not he has done it. I think I get to know the students a little better this way, and as an added benefit in my experience students rarely contest a grade under this system. I also post a rubric on the course web site, which I don’t actually use for scoring points but that lays out exactly what the paper is supposed to achieve. So in theory, by the end of the course students in fact should be able to grade themselves and each other, although I don’t think they come in being able to do this.