If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times. I love teaching; I hate grading. Over the years, I have devised ways to pare down the task or eliminate it altogether. “Devise” is the perfect word choice, since many of these are actually quite devious. But at this point, three months from retirement, what can they do to me? I am ready to share my secrets.
My quibbles with grading are numerous, but boil down to two issues. The first is that in my courses, students do not take the kinds of tests where a numerical score or letter grade is meaningful. Decades ago, I taught design courses. as I shifted more into cultural studies, I assigned research papers, multimedia projects, portfolios, and reflective journals. When I give the rare exam, it’s essay, not short-answer, true/false, or multiple choice tests. I will happily write a detailed written evaluation of a student's work, but translating that into a number or a letter (which is then turned into a number when their GPA is calculated) is beyond irritating.
The second problem with grading is that, in my opinion, most students are too focused on grades as a proxy for learning. It seemed no matter what I did, after an exam or project, I was more likely to be asked "what can I do to raise this to an A", than any other question. This only got worse in 1999, when the University of Maryland adopted plus/minus grading, supposedly to curb grade inflation. (Ha ha ha!). At first all letter grades in the same range (B-, B, B+) had the same point value. Eventually, the policy was changed so that they were weighted differently. This resulted in a lot frenzied calculations when grades came out, like this one from the UM Reddit forum:
If anyone can answer this it"ll be really helpful, I came away with two A-, two b flats and an A. It comes down to a 3.48 overall if the deans list is 3.5 did i not make it?
This would be followed by an email to all of the instructors, in search of relief so that the student could make Dean's List/keep their athletic eligibility/get into med school. They all have reasons. At first I tried just incorporating them into my existing grading scheme. The result was that every student who got a B+ or C+ came knocking on my door for a few more points so they get a higher letter grade. So would a few others whose GPAs came up a fraction short of some cutoff. At the end of the fall semester, I even had students who emailed me ON CHRISTMAS EVE to lobby for a higher grade.
Devious solution #1. I stopped giving plus grades. If a student fell into the plus range, they would either be given the higher minus grade, or the lower flat grade, depending on how their work compared to others in those ranges. I only did this for a couple of semesters, until I came up with Devious solution #2. (coming soon...)
From my 1976 Journal
From early September:
And here's the thing: the terror, the fear of being unprepared never completely went away. I still have stage fright before every class, even just a little bit. I still have the same dream the night before the first day of classes -- I am late for my flight and discover I left something at home, and go back to get it, making me even later.
So it's hard not to laugh at the inauspicious start to my "last first day": I realized after Jim dropped me off at the Bagel Place that I had left my office keys and ID at home. Since I need them to not only open my office door, but to access my classroom and ride the university shuttle, this was not good. Happily, my luck changed; I found a taxi quickly and was able -- for a price -- go home and get the keys and get back to campus before my first meeting.
I had debated whether or not to let my students in on the significance of this semester, but finally decided what the hell. I informed my 12:30 class that this was my last first day, and gave some special love to my 3:30 class -- my last first class ever. I wish I could say I savored the entire day, as planned, but the truth is that it was a good day, but I am glad it's over. Pneumonia takes the starch out of you, big time. I could not help but notice how easy and comfortable I felt, with only a little bit of first day adrenaline.
And no midnight cockroach massacre in the kitchen this time.
My last first day of classes
And so my last semester begins. I am retiring at the end of the term, after over forty-two years in the classroom, all but a year and half at the university of Maryland. Yes, I have mixed feelings, but mostly I am looking forward to my next chapter, which I hope involves more writing and fewer citations, more teaching and less grading, and more community and collaboration but fewer formal meetings.
I want to take this semester slowly and savor it. I want to compare it with my beginnings (which I reflected on obsessively in my written journals long ago). The “slow" part has taken care of itself — a case of bronchitis turned into pneumonia a few days ago, so I am under doctor’s orders to take it easy for the next several weeks. That should give me time to think, and the physical demands of writing are light. I will take the diagnosis as a gift, and settle in.
More to come.
Over the last week, I have been revising my materials for the two courses I will be teaching this spring. One of them -- Fashion and Consumer Culture -- has required only the usual tinkering. Change the dates on the syllabus, shift and update a few readings, make minor updates on the website, and it's good to go. The other course has turned out to be a challenging mess, and one I thought at least some of my readers would enjoy hearing and thinking about.