Thursday, November 03, 2016


Friday Fragments

I don’t do much sports blogging, so those who prefer their reading sports-free should skip to the next fragment.

(clears throat)



In response to yesterday’s piece about colleges going “Full Florida” and allowing students to bypass developmental courses if they choose to, several readers commented that they’d expect to see instructors of 100-level classes, newly full of underprepared students, water down their standards to keep their pass rates steady.  It that happened, the pass rates might hold steady, but at the expense of actual learning.

There’s some truth in that; some faculty who feel under the gun -- correctly or not -- would be tempted to make the grade curve look however they think it’s supposed to look.  

But that’s hardly inevitable.  The relatively straightforward fix for that would be…

Trading papers.

In relatively large departments, which English departments usually are, there’s no shortage of people to do a sort of Secret Santa of grading.  The department could work out standards it would apply for different grades in various courses, and then distribute the papers internally for evaluation.  In other words, you might teach 25 students and grade 25 papers, but the 25 papers you grade wouldn’t be from your 25 students.  

Separating the teacher from the grader eliminates the conflict of interest that could tempt teachers to lower their standards.  It also recasts the teacher-student relationship from a psychologically complicated “I’m helping you, but I’m also judging you” to a psychologically simpler “I’m helping you; that shadowy figure in the corner is judging you.  Let’s impress him.”  

It wouldn’t even necessarily have to hold for every assignment.  Maybe do it for the second half of the semester, or on an alternating basis.   

The work involved in setting it up wouldn’t be trivial, but the payoff could be enormous.  If papers were put into the grading rotation without names, there would be a natural guard against bias, whether conscious or unconscious.  

Has anyone out there tried this?  It seems obvious, but I’ve never actually seen it done.


Last Saturday we drove to Staten Island and took the ferry to Manhattan.  

Parking near the ferry is a bit of a nightmare, but the ferry itself is free, and it passes the Statue of Liberty on the way, which isn’t bad, as views go.  We decided to walk to, and across, the Brooklyn Bridge.  A few observations about walking in lower Manhattan:

One problem with your "trading papers" idea: the point of grading papers is generally to provide detailed feedback on the writing, not to assign a grade. Most of the real teaching in a writing course happens in this individual feedback, not in lecture. So convincing people to swap grading is further complicated by deciding who gets credit for student improvement (or lack thereof).
I believe that our composition faculty have done that, or something similar to that, for outcomes assessment. They have established, after great effort, a common rubric backed by sample papers that can be used to calibrate new readers (such as new adjuncts). That way they can guide students toward meeting those standards during the semester even though paper swapping only happens with a specific item that gets assessed. My colleagues and I have a similar system for outcomes assessment in our classes, but those are more objective than the process of (say) evaluating lab reports or essays.

In a former life, paper swapping is effectively how we graded major exams. Each grader got one problem on all of the exams. We would consult another grader when we found something outside the rubric. That is also how papers are graded for AP exams, although those all get more than one reader on every problem and have a process for resolving divergent grades.
I'm not convinced that paper swapping would help when all the instructors are under the same pressure. If they're all seeing the same students, and they're all under the same gun to pass them all along, why do we think they'd grade someone else's students different than their own?
When I was the English and Communications Department Chair, I instituted this for our final essay. Students had three class hours to write their essay in class, two instructors of other sections would then both grade the essay (our rubric was set-up for a minimum passing grade of 70 on a rough draft). If there was a discrepancy in the grade, a third grader was used.
It was quicker and easier for the instructors (since we used a holistic grading rubric) and this ensured that students weren't passed "because they worked hard" even if they did not possess the skills to write competently.
We would have a grading meeting mid-term to discuss grading and expectations. It also served as a norming of expectations for the department.
This can fork for a midterm, or even a final, but some comp teachers assign 6 papers a semester, some assign 4. We don't all use the same text or focus on one particular strategy at the exact same point in the semester. There are many reasons for this, partly because teaching comp is as much art and adapting to one particular section. Some teachers try to get essays returned quickly; others (like adjuncts who have to teach at multiple schools), can't necessarily grade on the same schedule). Assignments vary based on the texts a teacher is using. It's not like math, where you move from A to B to C. Again, as a mid-term or final, that's more useful, and serves to norm the department at the same time (students would be able to choose from two topics, for example). But again, timing--especially for adjuncts--needs to be favored in.
I have always respected The Wife from your description of her, but now I think I love her too.
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