Stages of Grading

Everyone is familiar with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her stage model of coping with grief popularly known as the five stages of grief. What you may not know is that Kübler-Ross actually developed her theory as a graduate student, basing her conception of the process of loss on the experiences one goes through over a grading weekend.
In coping with grading, it’s important for graduate students and young professors to know that they are not alone and that this process takes time.  Not everyone goes through every stage or processes the reality of grading in this order, but everyone experiences some version of at least two of these steps.
  1. Denial.  At this stage, the instructor is unwilling to acknowledge the size of the task ahead of him or her. An instructor in denial may be heard to say things like, “It’s not really that many essays, when you think about it.” An instructor in denial will grossly overestimate his or her potential assignment-per-hour output. Denial at the syllabus-creation stage of course development can lead to tears. Denial can also manifest itself as avoidance, where grading is put aside in favour of vastly more important activities like cleaning the fridge, baking, working out, or writing elaborate blog posts about the stages of grading.
  2. Anger.  Usually anger begins once the instructor starts grading.  The first few papers are likely to excite the grader, but as a steady stream of errors trickles in, the instructor may become disillusioned. Commonly heard at this stage: “But we covered this in class!  A lot!” “Wait, what does this even mean?” “Redundant!  This is redundant!” Instructors at this stage of the process are likely to have unnecessarily large reactions to relatively small frustrations; for example, in one case an instructor screamed into a pillow upon discovering that every student in the class was still using “they” as a singular pronoun.
  3. Bargaining. This stage usually begins as an earnest attempt to buckle down and grade.  The instructor might say, “If I grade five papers, I can watch one episode of House,” or, “For every page I grade, I get to eat a piece of candy.”  This process starts well, but as the instructor progresses the amount of work required to achieve the reward generally becomes smaller and smaller, until the instructor is checking Facebook after every sentence he or she grades.
  4. Depression. At some point in a marking weekend, the instructor will come to realize that in spite of his or her best intentions, the papers won’t be marked in time for the next class. For the idealistic young instructor, this is also usually the moment he or she realizes that the assignments themselves are not particularly strong.  These realizations can lead to feelings of failure, spiralling into reality TV watchathons or video game blitzes instead of grading.  Ultimately, though, recognizing one’s limitations is a healthy part of the process that leads directly to the final stage.
  5. Acceptance/Resignation. At some point, the instructor comes to term with the reality that the papers must be graded. This reality is usually acknowledged the afternoon before the instructor wishes to return the papers, leading to an all-night grading blitz. At some point and by some miracle, however, it all gets done, and the instructor is primed and ready to start to the process over again when the next major assignment comes in.
This blog post brought to you from somewhere under a pile of essays.

    • Marking papers is, without a doubt, the hardest thing we do. How compromised and imprisoned you feel when you see that stack of  papers on your desk, like a dozen unfiled income tax returns! They turn your life into one long April 15. Dozens, hundreds of pages, and I’m just teaching one little class.  Say goodbye, then, to the idea of leisure reading. Your eyeballs belong to the college (middle school!)  : But we are not talking Leo Tolstoy, You can’t just curl up in that easy chair, pour a drink, and grade papers from eight till midnight. After three or four papers, terrible things happen to you, a wave of disabling reactions. Mistakes that were merely annoying in the first paper are maddening in the third. Judgments darken, comments get bitterly ad hominem. The first time you see conscience spelled with a “t” and ending in “ious” you merely circle it; before long, you’re forecasting death. Eventually, you see some errors repeated so often you go back to the dictionary, checking harass, embarrass, weird, just to make sure you’re not going crazy, that they haven’t changed spellings lately.  You sit at your desk writing “awk” for “awkward,” you write it so often — awk, awk, awk — you feel like a bird shitting on a statue. You lean forward, late at night, mumbling grade school lessons, eternal truths like “i before e, except after c” and “there is a rat in separate.” This is what all your dreams have come to, and since you can’t whip through it, you divide hell into pieces, managable chunks. You try to accompany grading papers with useful labor — soaking beans or doing laundry. You interrupt yourself with small, pathetic rewards: one more paper and I’ll floss my teeth! One more paper and I’ll walk the dog.  :)

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