Townhouse Notes December 2016
With December come final papers, final exams, and a great deal of grousing about grading, from both faculty and students. On instructors’ end, grading is, first of all, a lot of work. And on students’, grades can seem arbitrary and perhaps even cruel. In October, an accomplished student with a Spanish surname wrote a blog post about a comment on her lit review—“This is not your word”—scrawled above “Hence,” as well as being accused of plagiarism in front of the class. Without knowing more about the context, this should still remind everyone who grades that bias inflects the work of grading as a practice and thus the achievement levels of our students.
Mounting a single professor’s head on a pike, though, obscures honesty about the adversarial nature of grading, which surely plays a role in perpetuating bias. Training in how to grade fairly and consistently, like most aspects of teaching, is nowhere in many graduate-level curricula. If students believe professors are just looking for ways to mark them down, it might be true, even with formal rubrics in place.
While I’m not an expert, the grader’s slashing handwriting and acrid comment next to “Hence” could show that anger and resentment about grading itself forms a context that brings racism and bias to the surface. I can recall complaints from colleagues about bluebooks containing pages of bubble-like handwriting that was hard to read and “looked stupid.” These exams typically belonged to women students.
The trend toward online exams could help in this regard if student names are hidden during the grading process. But the problem remains: the power to evaluate student achievement nearly always rests with the instructor, but the glut of work at semester’s end surely contributes to the misuse of that power.
Some students contest grades, but most do not. They, too, are overwhelmed by the December workload, and, like the rest of us, might have jobs to hold down and family responsibilities to attend to. And perhaps they are used to biased comments on their papers made in apparent anger.
—Allison Miller, editor
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