The world is burgeoning…

The world is burgeoning all around me! You remember those bulbs I planted last fall, the ones that I despaired of because everyone else was getting beautiful daffodils and tulips and I was getting nothing? Well, last week the first set of bulbs pushed up -- great expansive yellow tulips, streaked with crimson, with feathery petals. And this morning, the second set opened up -- charming little orange ones, nestled in striped leaves. And as if that weren't enough -- one of my fishies had babies!! I didn't even know it was pregnant! But I have no other explanation for the three tiny red fishies now swimming around in my tank. And it's so fortuitous, because just last week I was going to go get three more neon tetras -- instead, the tank has provided its own replacement fishies...

A good omen for the summer, I think. I'm finishing the grading today, and looking ahead to a lovely ten days in the Bay Area with Jed We can hope that the coming three months will be just as full of exuberantly lively projects and plans. (I think it's almost time to tell you about the new project. If I have time to do an entry tomorrow morning before I go to the airport, I think I'll tell you about it then).

I'm having a bit of a tough time with the grading. I really liked my classes this semester; I know a lot of the students pretty well, and I really want to give them all A's...but at the same time, I know that's unlikely to do them, or the academy, any good.

Grading has two main purposes, you know. (Feel free to tune out if you know this part already). One part is motivational -- the honest truth is that students are much more likely to work if they're being graded. Why? Well, because a) they know that someone later on will care how they did, and b) grading gets conflated with teacher commentary in most places, so that the students have evidence that someone cares about the work they're doing right now. That aspect becomes less and less necessary as you go on, of course. College is really a transitional time, where we're still encouraging them to do the work that's good for them. By grad school, law school, med school, etc., that theoretically shouldn't be a factor anymore -- because you should be doing advanced studies because *you* want to, not because someone else thinks you should. Which explains why in grad school you traditionally just get handed A's -- because the motivation isn't supposed to be coming from the grades anymore.

The other part of grading is evaluative. People will need to know whether you're competent in your field (or whether you excel). So you take tests to see if you're qualified for college, and you get grades that enable you to take more advanced classes in college, and even in advanced studies, med school and law school have their boards and bar exam. I'll have to pass oral and written exams in the third year of my Ph.D. to show that I have competency in my field, so that when I'm hired to teach, they know that I have the appropriate background. The evaluative component remains as you advance, though it may move from exams to evaluating your dissertation work (which is the real test of whether I'm likely to be hired -- the exams are merely a bar I have to hurdle -- the dissertation is what really lets people know just how good I am).

The point of all this? Well, sometimes the motivational aspects of grading and the evaluative come into conflict. Especially these days, where there's been so much grade inflation that any relatively bright student expects to get an 'A'. I had a student ask why writing teachers were so reluctant to give A's, and I could see that he was discouraged by his B+. The motivational answer would be to give him that A, because in his case, I think it would have encouraged him to work harder in the future (and yes, that ends up being a judgement call based on how well you know the student and their work, so that lazy or over-worked teachers just end up crunching the numbers). But the evaluative answer was that the work he did was B+ work, and that it would be lowering the standards of the course (and thereby devaluing the A's of other students) if I'd just given him one. If you go on that way (if all teachers do), the grades end up meaning nothing, and so they lose all their motivational power.

Some teachers compromise and give the A-. Some give up on evaluating and just give the A, figuring it's not worth the hassle. Right now, I tend to give the B+, and then write long commentary or have the student come talk to me so that I can explain exactly what they need to do to get an A next time. But if you do that for every student, it eats up an awful lot of time...and some of them don't need or want that kind of feedback. It's a balancing act, and sometimes it can be really difficult to decide whether to give that B+ or that A-.

But you know, despite the drudgework (my back is aching from all the grading I did yesterday and this morning) and the difficult decisions, I still love teaching. It makes such a difference to know that at least some of this work is worthwhile; I know that business work is worthwhile in some abstract sense, but I just can't bring myself to feel it in the same way. I think I need more concrete feedback than simply knowing that I'm oiling the wheels of business. When a student comes to me at the end of the semester and says that they really learned something in my class -- well, that pays for at least a few days of cramped hand and aching back and blurring eyes as I grade and comment on yet another paper.

No wonder so many people do teach, even though the pay is terrible and the work can be so frustrating. The rewards are immeasurable.

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