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 to 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 stifled. 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's 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 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.


  1. Wow, another amazing post.

    Since I was lucky enough to stumble upon your blog I've been addicted and can't stop reading! You are truly a refreshing point of view. I appreciate your words and willingness to share your experiences. My husband and I blog as well. We write about our adventures as a family, we can't have children but until the day we are blessed with one, we will follow along your journey. We'd be honored to get a visit to our website from you! We look forward to getting to know you virtually!

    Have a blessed day,

    The Bolen's

    1. Thanks for introducing yourself, Hevynn, and for sharing about your own blog. I'll be sure to visit!


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