Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Managing the Workload of the Composition Classroom

It's Monday night.  I have four classes in a row tomorrow.  Tuesdays are my long day. I must leave my house at 8:00 am to get to my 10:00 am class on time because of traffic. I will undoubtedly leave at 8:15 am, making it just in time, but while punching my steering wheel and unnecessarily hating the people who innocently drive in front of me on the New Jersey Turnpike.  I will then teach until 3:45 pm and battle the Turnpike on the way home once again.  By the time I get home, I will not want to do anything, let alone analyze the central claims of my composition students.  So, I have to get these 30 essays graded tonight.

I begin to panic.  "I can't get it done," I think.  "I can't get it done without losing my mind."  Then I start to negotiate with myself.  "Maybe if I get 20 essays graded tonight, I can fit in 10 tomorrow in between classes and finish off the rest when I get home."  Then, I start to calculate.  "Well, if I spend 15 minutes on each essay, that's 450 minutes total, which is 7 1/2 hours. I will work for 5 hours tonight and 2 1/2 hours tomorrow." Yes, that should do it.

The problem is, that calculation does not include answering student emails. It does not include taking breaks to eat, or to frivolously browse Facebook; it does not include folding the laundry or watering the plants or writing essay prompts, and I certainly haven't left myself time to write lesson plans for those four classes I have to teach tomorrow.  I'm looking at a very short night's sleep, and a winter break that still seems very far away.

Don't get me wrong. I truly love my job. I love to work with students, to teach them how to write, to watch them improve and to begin to understand the world of academic writing.  I love being in the classroom and I even love reading student papers and watching their ideas take shape. I love writing.  The workload, though, the sheer number of essays, can be staggering at times.  I begin to sound like Prufrock in my head.  "I grow old...I grow old..."

Years ago, when I got my first half-time professorship, a superior said to me, "Sarah, just put grades on those final drafts and be conservative with the comments. They need to learn how to revise independently, and you will have already commented extensively on the first or even middle draft."  This advice runs through my head on a regular basis, and especially during those times when I'm drowning in a sea of incorrect MLA citations with no end in sight.  As a teacher of writing, I feel guilty when I leave short comments. I know, logically, that my superior was right; students must learn to improve their own writing and I must give them room to do so.  But how do we know when we're not doing enough?  How do we gauge when we're holding their hands too much?  

Over the years, colleagues have offered their grading rituals.  Some have shared rubrics and some have shared tips and tricks. (One person told me that she would set a timer for one hour, sit there and do work with no distractions for that one hour and then allow herself a 15 minute break when the timer went off.)  I have attended workshops and I have updated and changed my own process and rubric numerous times.  I think the problem is that many of us don't want to accept it:  Being a writing professor is a time-consuming job that allows you to truly appreciate those lovely breaks that teaching at a university afford you.  In fact, more than I tell myself the essays will never end, more than I search for ways to make grading more efficient, more than I ask friends how they do it, I say to myself, "Sarah, I think you just need to suck it up."  This, more than anything else, seems to work.