8 On Grading, Efficiency, and Contingency
by Mary Klann
March 27, 2021
So many of our conversations about grading center around instructors’ desires to use our time as efficiently as possible. Although faculty desire to provide good, constructive, and substantive feedback, it takes time. Rubrics and super structured assignments are designed to make the grading process faster and more efficient. As Jesse Stommel writes in his chapter in Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), “so much of the language around grading emphasizes efficiency over the needs of individual learners.” (p. 32)
From my very first experience as a graduate student teaching assistant, efficiency was the language of teaching. The more time one spent in the classroom, grading student work, and preparing lesson plans, the less time one had for the “real” work, research. From the beginning of my time as a TA, I found it hard to balance the two. Mentioning this difficulty to a faculty member, they asked if there wasn’t some way I could just be a worse TA.
Grading workshops provided by faculty and advanced graduate students in the department suggested setting time limits for each paper or limiting the amount of marginal annotations and just focusing on comments at the end of the paper. It was all about reducing the amount of time spent engaging with student work, so you could use that time to focus on the work that mattered—your own.
In that sense, efficiency was a skill to hone, in the service of oneself. Indeed, Herb Childress has written in The Adjunct Underclass, if graduate students are paying attention, “they know their real success will come from the quality of their research…teaching is a secondary responsibility, to be done as efficiently as possible while they scan the horizon for jobs and grants.” (p. 46)
So, efficiency really isn’t about students.
But, despite what graduate students and their doctoral advisors may claim and think, it isn’t really about teachers either.
As a graduate student I did have great research success. I won a national dissertation fellowship, a graduate student article award, and published a paper in a respected peer-reviewed journal before I was finished. In the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad academic job market, that might have helped me get interviews, but now it’s four years later and I’m still out here adjuncting with no permanent position and a PhD rapidly approaching the end of its “shelf life.”
In my years as an adjunct, I’ve learned a lot about teaching. I’ve also learned that no matter how hard I try, I’m just not an “efficient” grader. But now…I just don’t care.
Adjuncts like me make higher education itself more “efficient.” It is more efficient (read: cost-effective) to employ an adjunct than to hire a tenure-track professor. Ultimately, the desire to grade more efficiently serves the institution’s larger goal, which is to exploit as much adjunct labor as possible, with the least possible amount of pay.
Yep. That sucks.
I didn’t understand the relationship between efficiency rhetoric and adjunctification until recently. But, looking back, it was clear from the beginning of my experiences as an adjunct.
At one institution, I was all set to teach a course that hadn’t been offered in the department for at least 5 years. It was a course highly desired by students and I was really excited to offer it. I noticed that my class was full at 49 students and the waitlist was growing. I asked if I could increase the enrollment, because from what I knew of the institution, with a class over 50, the department would employ a reader to help with the grading.
I was told that of course the enrollment could increase, but as a lecturer, I didn’t get a reader. Did I still want to increase the size?
Given the option, I said no. I knew that handling the grading load on my own would be too much, especially teaching the class for the first time, and with no increase in pay. A department administrator emailed me, cc’ing my chair, and wrote that they were “very disappointed in my decision.” They asked to meet with me in their office. After apologizing to me for even offering the option to decline the enrollment increase, they proceeded to lecture me for the better part of an hour, explaining that because the class was so highly desired, if I increased my enrollment (they suggested 70 students) I’d be “doing the department a solid.” They also planned on using the evaluations from my class to present their case for offering the course on a permanent basis. (Not by me, presumably, but by someone.) And didn’t I realize that as a lecturer I didn’t have research or service responsibilities, so the department could expect that I’d take on the extra grading?
I walked out of the office confused, demoralized, and barely able to hold back tears. I ultimately conceded to increasing the enrollment.
Explaining this predicament to friends and family produced a lot of outrage on my behalf, but ultimately I could do nothing. At that time it was the only class (and only paycheck) I had secured for the term. (I later picked up two classes at another institution two weeks before the start of the semester.)
I literally had no recourse. The administrator made it clear that I could go to the union, but it wouldn’t help. (Note: I did go to the union. It didn’t help.)
As I drove home from campus, I remember thinking that the admin hadn’t treated me like a member of the faculty, but rather like a graduate student. But now I realize that was wrong. They treated me like an adjunct.
In the span of four months since I’d graduated, I’d gone from someone who’d been advised for years to maximize the time spent on research and minimize the time spent on grading to someone whose sole purpose was to grade efficiently.
My grading load was part of what distinguished me from other faculty as a temporary lecturer. (Yes, my title was temporary lecturer. In fact, that’s what it said under my name on my office door.) Someone to fill a temporary departmental vacancy, to teach content that students had been asking for—to as many students as possible, as efficiently as possible, while they figured out a way for someone else to offer the course on a permanent basis.
In the end my class had 65 students.
Ungrading isn’t about making my job more efficient or about saving me time. It’s about asserting myself as a legitimate instructor, someone with a clear teaching philosophy, with skills and expertise. Someone to be valued and respected.
You know what’s better than “efficiency” in the service of an institution that clearly doesn’t care about you as a human?
Humane interactions with students.
Finding joy in teaching and learning.
Establishing meaningful relationships in the classroom.
People still ask me about efficiency. Of course they do. If you’re like me you might be working with more than 100 students each term. You might be applying for jobs and grants. You might be trying to do your own research. You might be worried that you’re spending too much time on a job that isn’t compensating you enough for that time. (You might be right.)
Ungrading isn’t more efficient. But, for me, that’s kind of the point.
It is time better spent. It’s more enjoyable. There are some elements of my approach that absolutely minimize busy work and therefore maximize the amount of time I’m able to interact with individual students, provide feedback on smaller projects, and just be there for students as they’re working. Ungrading helps me to build a community in my classroom, to establish trust between me and my students. Building a classroom community isn’t efficient.
Should it be?
Providing individual feedback is an essential part of my job. Indeed, it might be the most essential part. Finding ways to make it more efficient meant shortchanging both students and myself, missing out on establishing that community, growing our shared knowledge, and learning from each other.
Now, instead of sitting down in front of the Canvas “SpeedGrader,” (maybe the worst name for any learning management tool ever created) and plowing through as many papers as I can in a designated amount of time, all the while feeling guilty about how much time I’ve spent on grading, the class shares all their work with each other. We provide feedback for each other all the time. Students contribute to Padlets, they annotate texts, they post comments to one another about original research. We’re constantly talking to each other in online spaces (in the face to face classroom this happens through group discussions, opinion-based polls, synchronous collective annotation).
The comments I make on student work aren’t efficient. They don’t fit into a rubric. And I don’t waste energy on crafting them to justify a numerical grade.
Now, I ask questions.
I pose alternatives, provide context.
I exclaim with joy.
At the end of each major assignment we share our work, we celebrate the creativity and get inspired. We learn new things about each member of the class.
It’s not efficient. It’s…teaching.
If you’re thinking about how to make grading more efficient, ask yourself this: Who is benefitting from your efficiency? If you’re an adjunct like me, it isn’t you. It isn’t students either. Forget efficiency.
(And please respect adjuncts.)