Sunday, September 16, 2012

Grading Essays in the 21st Century.

Well, we are now a few weeks into the semester and for most writing professors, the grading has begun.  Personally, the first draft of the first essay in my class is not due for another week or so, so I have had some time to reflect on the process of grading, the amount of time it sucks from my life on a regular basis, like a yogi taking deep, plentiful breaths, and how I can reconcile my need for personal time with the needs of my students.

It's an age old question.  How do I make time for myself and still call myself an effective educator? As writing professionals, this is difficult, as our grading does not consist of answer keys but of comments - helpful, substantive comments that will help our students to be better at one of the most basic of all professional tasks - writing.  We live in a world where people write more than ever.  Between social networking, blogging, articles, memos and text messages, we are composing sentences and paragraphs at an alarming rate each day.  As teachers of writing, it is our job to help our students recognize a well-written sentence and an incomplete sentence; it is our job to make those Facebook statuses sing.

But how do you do so when your family is coming over for Sunday dinner, your kids have Saturday morning soccer games, your best friend's birthday lands on a Friday night and  you need to clean the house and go grocery shopping - all in addition to the stack of essays or the stacked inbox mocking you at every turn?  How many times can you hear someone tell you to learn to "manage your time" before you want to stick a pencil in their eye?

I have not, by any means, figured this out to perfection.  In fact, I still deal with the odd professor's guilt that comes over me each time I watch a wave from the beach or eat one of my grandmother's meatballs when I could be in front of my computer analyzing my students' central claims.  But I think I have found a sort of balance that lends itself to the 21st century:  Digitize!

Since I started accepting essays only via email, my time has opened up just enough to make me notice.  I think that the main reason for this is that grading on the computer allows for multitasking; I can grade a paper and then update my blog, work on my family's calendar or even teach an online class during those moments when I just can't read another central claim about how Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" challenges our ideas of tradition and ritual.  I can grade an essay and enter the grade into a my Excel grade book without hunting around the house for my paper grade book or a colored pen.  I can copy and paste a section of a paper that I suspect is plagiarized without having to underline it, retype it and write down the website address where I finally find it.  Whether I like it or not, the world is digital and by grading this way, I am not only allowing myself more free time; I am also allowing my students to submit their work through the medium in which they are most comfortable.

Last year, I presented at the annual NJWA conference and showed the people who attended my session how to use Google's Gmail, and Microsoft Excel and/or Google Drive to create grade books and rubrics as well as organize student emails efficiently. The best part is, it's free!  I am in the process of putting these instructions into an E-book, which will then be published on Amazon.  If you are interested in learning how to do this, please let me know and I will add your email address to my list of people to notify when the book comes out.  The most important thing to remember is that this is the 21st century; we can grade, write and communicate without ever using a piece of paper or one ounce of ink, and doing so can vet us more free time than we ever had before.

Let me know what you think. I would love to hear the experiences of others with digital grading.  And good luck with the first round of papers!