Monday, November 15, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Falling Behind on Grading

A new correspondent writes:

What constitutes “falling behind” on grading in a college classroom and what are the consequences?

It strikes me that there are two parts to this issue:
1. Pedagogically, timely feedback is crucial, most would probably agree. But what, exactly, constitutes “timely”? ASAP is far too simplistic an answer. I teach English FT at a CC, and I have between 120 and 150 students, depending on the semester. What is a reasonable amount of time to take with grading given such a workload? And on the other side, what constitutes “poor performance”? Where is the line?
2. Realistically, FT professors, at least at the CC level, often need to balance the demands of the grading and teaching workload with commitments outside the classroom, including committees, student clubs, faculty senate etc… Often, both inside and outside my particular institution, I hear that the path to tenure and promotion for CC profs has more to do with visibility to admin outside the classroom than with effectiveness inside it. I would love to hear about the ways others have managed these parts of the job in ways that allowed them to continue to be successful inside the classroom.

It’s a great question, and I’d love to hear from my wise and worldly readers on it.

In my teaching days, I set a self-imposed deadline of a week. Sometimes I’d beat that, but it ensured that even in the worst cases I’d have a weekend to grade. It required me to stagger assignments across my various classes so I wouldn’t have every class turn in a pile of papers at the same time, but that wasn’t prohibitive.

In my current role, though, I draw a distinction between “good practice” and “minimally acceptable practice.” Good practice would be something like a week. The next class would be even better, though that’s not always realistic. Minimally acceptable practice -- not great, but enough to keep you out of trouble -- would include the students having at least two graded assignments back before the end of the withdrawal deadline (usually around the 10th or 12th week of the semester), and adhering to any self-defined deadlines you’ve set. The latter could mean two weeks or even more, as long as the students know it’s coming. What gets them upset -- and I can’t entirely blame them -- is when they have no idea when their papers will come back, and the time just seems to stretch.

It’s largely about managing expectations. If a realistic timeframe for you is two weeks, say so upfront, and plan accordingly. The students may grumble a bit, but from my perspective, as long as you live up to it, you’re okay. (The same holds with student attendance policies. I can defer to almost anything reasonable in a syllabus, as long as you stick to it. But if you start making it up on the fly, or applying different standards to different students, I’ll have a harder time backing you up.)

In terms of promotion and tenure at cc’s, each context is different, but in the ones I’ve seen, the default assumption is that people on the tenure track will get tenure. Since there’s no publication requirement, and teaching quality (or lack thereof) is hard to prove legally, most people make it. In my years in administration, I haven’t seen anybody denied tenure yet. Admittedly, it could happen; I’ve heard of past cases on my own campus. But in those cases, there was usually either an over-the-top incident -- thou shalt not sexually harass students when angling for tenure -- or conspicuously awful teaching.

Promotion may be a different issue. Depending on how it’s handled on your campus, there may be a heavier burden of proof on you to show that you’ve earned it. If that’s the case, then greater visibility may matter.

For what it’s worth, neither I nor any admin I know buys the argument that excessive college service demands should excuse excessively slow grading. Your colleagues have the same obligations you do, yet they manage. If you’ve been put on so many committees that you simply can’t handle it -- this can happen to the first minority hire in a long time, who is suddenly put on every committee under the sun in the name of diversity -- ask for either a course release or a free pass to resign from a few. But don’t half-ass your teaching and then blame college service for it. Not impressive.

I imagine that different people in different contexts view this one very differently, so I’ll open it up. Wise and worldly readers, how would you define a reasonable amount of time to return graded assignments?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.