Monday, February 13, 2017

The Five Stages of Essay-Grading Grief: An Illustrated Guide

"Well, it's your problem now."  
- Words said to me by a student upon submitting his essay. Truer words never have been spoken.

The Five Stages of Essay Grading Grief: higher education, just funnier

After teaching for over a decade and a half, I've carried a hefty stack of freshly-stapled essays out of a classroom enough times to recognize a distinct cycle of essay-grading grief, a cycle through which I progress with textbook-like consistency.  The struggle is real, friends.

Stage One: Denial

The Five Stages of Essay Grading Grief: Denial

The classic defense mechanism rises up immediately.  I downplay the fact that I've collected 300 pages of student writing that I must read and evaluate in a thorough, yet timely, fashion while all other work and life responsibilities continue at their regular brisk pace.  I set the stack on my office desk or dining room table, glance at it warily, prod it periodically, or perhaps even alphabetize it -- just enough to engage without actually accomplishing anything.

Then I promptly check my email, immerse myself in an unrelated work task that's not due for another month, find a new way to arrange the envelopes in my desk drawer, or decide to clean out my refrigerator and dust the tops of my ceiling fans.  Anything to feign productivity is fair game.

This stage lasts anywhere between a few hours to a day, so it doesn't waste much time, except for that one stretch when I sink to reading about 25 celebrities who have aged badly.  Still, my newly-organized inbox makes up for it.

Stage Two: Anger

The Five Stages of Essay Grading Grief: Anger

Inevitably, reality sets in when the grading begins in earnest.  I carry smaller stacks of essays with me at all times -- to a waiting room, to the sidelines of a child's soccer game, to home and campus and back again.  The physical presence of the stack looms heavily, making its weight both literal and figurative.  Resentment brews.

I grow irritated with a bad stapling job, and downright agitated over a careless dog-eared fold-over.  I begin muttering to myself.  Thesis-driven?  You call that a thesis-driven argument?  In the far recesses of my mind, I recall once being told that comments written in red ink can appear harsh, regardless of what's being said, and in this stage, I don't particularly care.  I like red ink.

Stage Three: Bargaining

The Five Stages of Essay Grading Grief: Bargaining

Resentment subsides and I redirect my energy.  Each time I finish an essay, I count the remaining ungraded papers in the stack, even though I intuitively know the remaining tally.  I attempt a new strategy by criss-crossing essays into smaller piles of five, hoping that this altered layout will entice me to reach incremental goals and trick me to grade faster.  It doesn't.

At this point, after wondering whether Sheetz is hiring (I'd make amazing made-to-order sandwiches), I imagine assigning essays that students can complete like a multiple choice exam.  Choose the next best sentence: A, B, C, or D.  You picked C?  Why, that's correct.  My work here is done.  My rationale side, which already is compromised, sends up a weak flare to alert me that a multiple choice essay prompt would be a cop-out.  Think about how originality and voice would be lost.  How critical thinking would be diminished.  How depth and analysis would be shortchanged!  

I dismiss those concerns, of course, because I just want the essays to go away.  It's all been a horrible mistake.  None of this ever should have happened to me.

Stage Four: Depression

The Five Stages of Essay Grading Grief: Depresson

There is no longer any semblance of hope.  Wearing yesterday's clothes, I lie on my family room floor, surrounded by a pile of papers.  I eat chocolate, rock back and forth, and softly whimper.  My family no longer makes eye contact with me.

Stage Five: Acceptance

The Five Stages of Essay Grading Grief: Acceptance

A new day dawns, and with it, the realization that I've graded more essays than I still have to grade.  I've passed the halfway point.  As if I'm a marathoner running negative splits as the finish line draws nearer, my pace picks up.  I can feel it in my bones: my feedback is articulate, my evaluations are fair, my job is nearly done.  At the very least, I'm now convinced that I no longer will die.

I find an essay that I already know will be good and tuck it at the bottom of the stack, dangling the proverbial carrot for myself, and I work with diligence to reach it as a reward for days of sustained mental labor.  You'll end on a good note, I tell myself, and I do.  When the final essay is finished and grades are entered into the master spreadsheet, I rise from my seat and stretch.  I tap the essays into neat stacks, secure the stacks with binder clips, and regard them one final time.  They look so tame, sitting in their completed state.  Then, I carry them one final time to the classroom, feeling light and free as I transfer them from my hands to the hands of my students.

They've come full circle, these essays: their problem, my problem, and now their problem again.  

In the afterglow as I walk away, my work bag nearly weightless, I momentarily forget the pain associated with the entire process.  Except there's that niggling reminder that I also introduced the next assignment, and with it, the next due date.

The cycle continues.  It always continues.

You experience essay-grading grief, too?  Connect with me on Facebook or Twitter, or drop me a comment below to tell me about it.  I'd love to hear from you.

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Saturday, February 11, 2017

A post about that one warm-ish day in February

Our weather in Pennsylvania has been mercurial lately.  In the past week alone we've swung from typical winter bitterness with sub-20-degree temperatures, to a surprising high of nearly 60 degrees, to a school-cancelling 6-inch snowfall the very next morning, and back to a temperate day in the mid-50's that currently is causing the snow to melt in steady streams through downspouts and storm drains.

February is having a grand identity crisis.  It doesn't know whether it's winter or whether it's spring.

But this happens annually.  There's always one warm-ish day in February when everyone thinks it's spring and then promptly loses his or her mind: washing cars, wearing shorts, driving with the windows down, and making plans to stow away all heavy winter coats and boots.

It's a nice reprieve, of course, but it's merely a tease.  Winter always returns.  You see, though the shortest month in days, February is the longest month in perception.  It's also the answer to many of my recent questions: Why are my children acting feral?  Why do I feel lethargic?  Why am I contemplating eating my body weight in chocolate?  Oh, I know.  It's February.

But today, on this happily surprising day when the snow melts, and I only wear a sweatshirt when I walk outside, and I dream of outdoor projects, I don't mind it nearly as much.

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Monday, February 6, 2017

When You Don't Do the Heavy Lifting

Last winter we experienced some water damage that stained our bedroom ceiling.  As my family's resident painter, I had intended to paint the ceiling myself.  I convinced myself that while I was at it, I'd also paint our upstairs hallway and stairwell to remove the six-thousand-or-so hand prints that my kids have left over the years.  (Every child's logic: Why hold the railing when you can just as easily touch the wall the entire way upstairs?)

I never got to this painting, though.  You see, we didn't have an adequate ladder to reach the upper portions of the stairwell, and I wasn't entirely comfortable with the height, and while I'm entirely fine painting walls, I'm not keen on tackling ceilings.  So, after a year of good intentions that never led to action, we finally hired a friend who owns a painting business.  In two days the hallway, stairwell, and bedroom ceiling were painted, and everything was put back together again.

I didn't do any real work at all.  Our painter friend painted.  My husband moved the furniture back in place.  I simply hung a few pictures, and in the brief interim when our bedroom furniture was shifted, I vacuumed the scary tufts of dust and debris around the edges of baseboards that hadn't been exposed for a few years.

Yesterday morning while I was at church, I thought about how I didn't do any heavy lifting.  The job was finished by capable hands, and I simply enjoyed the results.  I felt a nudge in my soul, a reminder of all the heavy things that I sometimes carry -- concerns about my children, or work, or whether Facebook eventually will blow up from political divisiveness.

They're not good loads to carry; I don't have the capacity or strength to manage them.

Thankfully, God does the heavy lifting for those who ask.  He invites us to come to him, we who are heavy-laden, and he carries our burdens for us.  Just as the fresh coats of paint corrected the water stains, God is capable to cover our damaged parts, and just as the furniture found its way back in place, God knows how to put our disorganized pieces back together.

Oh, I'll paint again, I'm sure, but for now, I plan to enjoy the benefits and remember that I don't always need to do the heavy lifting myself.

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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Because 2:00 a.m. logic is never logical

It's taken a decade to discern this trend, but my children never get the stomach bug during the day.  No, in our household, vomiting episodes are always cloaked in the darkness of night.  This might be a blessing in disguise, of course.  (Who actually wants to be fully cognizant when scrubbing throw-up off your hallway carpet because your child didn't make it to the bathroom in time before exploding?)

Besides, once you've comforted the child, cleaned the mess, scrubbed yourself with Lysol, danced a little heeby-jeeby dance as you contemplate the billions of germs likely still teeming through your house, taken a quick shower because you know you're now teeming with germs, and laid back down to bed, you're free to confess your deepest fears aloud into the black void:

Nothing in this house will ever be clean again.  Never.  I think we need to burn it down.

And your spouse will grunt in agreement, because, quite frankly, at 2:00 in the morning, burning down your own house seems a perfectly logical response to vomit.

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Friday, January 27, 2017

That Time I Vandalized. (A Confession of Sorts.)

I enjoy finding unique or humorous signs, like this flyer once posted on campus.  Apparently crow harassment is a thing.

Then I found this gem advertising a local a bowling alley that might be a fine place to celebrate your birthday, but isn't recommended to check your spelling.

When pumping gas, I came across a scripted message from an anti-smoking advocate:

And then there's this noteworthy sign -- a local favorite -- that I pass daily on my way home from work.  Poor guy.

I laugh at signs, I take pictures of signs, I admire the humor of people who creatively alter signs, but I've never actually vandalized a sign myself.

Until recently.

An opportunity presented itself, and with the possibility of becoming part of a legacy like 22 Times When Vandalism Won, I couldn't refrain.  You see, someone had set a case of soda -- FREE soda! -- on a radiator at the bottom of a stairwell at an exit in a well-traveled campus building.  It came with a disclaimer: Please be advised that these sodas are past their expiration date.

Who does this?, I thought.  Who wants to bequeath expired soda to a thirsty soul so badly that they'd go through this trouble, rather than, say, pouring it down the drain?  My amusement grew each time I saw it.

Finally, I couldn't contain myself.  As I walked down the stairwell later that week and saw the case of soda, unsurprisingly still untouched since my first viewing of it, my heart began to pound.  I was going to do it.  I was going to vandalize that sign.

I pulled my pen out of my bag and neared the soda, brainstorming what I'd say if someone caught me.  I hadn't even determined what I'd write, but there was no time to deliberate, not when I was poised on criminal activity.  I just started writing.  These sodas are past their expiration date....

... and may poison you.

It wasn't even funny, and even worse, my mind malfunctioned mid-vandalism.  How do you spell poison?  With an oi or an io?  My focus veered off course: what if I accidentally write Poseidon, as if the Greek god also disproved of expired sodas?  Why does the word poison suddenly remind me of high school French class?  Poisson means fish, right?  Is it le poisson or la poisson?  I never could remember which article to use!

I tried to pull it together (Just write, Robin! Just vandalize! This is your moment of rebellion!), but my handwriting grew cramped, making my "s" awkwardly snakelike.  The entire message was lackluster, small, and easily disregarded.

I had failed.  I missed my opportunity for vandalism fame.

The next afternoon I noticed that the case of soda, along with the sign, had been removed.  I hoped I hadn't hurt anyone's feelings.  It had been a kind-ish gesture, after all, unloading eleven free cans of expired soda onto a warm radiator in a stairwell.

But perhaps my vandalism still serve its purpose.  After all, nobody was poisoned.

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