December 11, 2008

Grading

Grading papers and exams sucks. I always have high expectations for the work that will come out of undergraduates in a 400-level class. I don't expect them to write publishable papers or even come up with a new or original way of looking at a skeleton. But I do expect them to write in complete sentences, to check their paper for typos (particularly of anatomical terms), complete all aspects of the assignment, and, most importantly, fully cite their work and include a bibliography. Do undergraduate classes no longer require in-text citations? Only one student out of 15 cited things properly in her final paper for me: author, year, page number (if relevant). I gather that some of them are being taught a weird style, like APA, but honestly, I don't care about style as much as I care that they don't seem to know when it's appropriate or necessary to include a citation. They don't include them when they first mention a methodology they're using (e.g., the Phenice method for sexing the os coxae); they don't include them when they paraphrase a sentence from a published work (and, yes, it's easy to tell when this occurs); but most egregiously, some of them don't include them when they use quotation marks. These are juniors and seniors. Mostly anthropology majors. In a class that's geared towards senior majors and graduate students.

Maybe it's because I came out of an undergraduate program in classics that I learned quite quickly in my first year how to write a proper college paper, with appropriate citations and bibliography. I learned how to track down references in the days before fully online card catalogues and Google Scholar. I learned that quality work is rewarded not only by a good grade but by a sense of accomplishment at a job well done. But I went to college to enrich myself, not merely to get a B.A. Maybe in today's world where everyone needs a bachelor's degree to get a decent job, professors aren't holding students to as high a standard as I was. Maybe it's only classicists and other pedants who insist on papers free of typos, who won't stand for a simplistic comparative essay, who value a student's ability to make an argument rather than regurgitate what the textbook says.

But after reading 15 papers in which not even one student looked to a source outside of their primary textbooks (and did not even look to any of the books listed on the syllabus, which were on reserve in the library), I have lost much of my faith in undergraduate students' ability to write even the simplest paper. I will continue to hold them to the high standards I was taught (and yeah, I still have papers from my freshman year of college - they're far more rigorous than anything I've seen in years from my students). My hope is that they will take away from my class not only the ability to age and sex a skeleton but the ability to think critically about the methods they use to do so - and to be able to write coherently about their reasoning. But if they're not even being taught the basics of paper writing before they get to me, is it really my responsibility to teach them that or, worse, to condescend to grade them on what they know rather than what I think they should know?

5 comments:

Sara said...

Amen, sister.

I haven't been too disappointed by student's writing, but they haven't had to write actual papers for me--yet. I hear lots of complaints about students not being able to write.

Why should they know how to write? Consider how they write email (no complete sentences, little capitalization, no spell checking).

Doesn't everyone have to go through a course in their first year where they go through all of that citation information?

We're not *that* much older than these students, are we?

Still, I am surprised by what students aren't able to do, e.g., think for themselves. Or, unwilling to put the time into. I am distressing over the final grades I'm giving to a bunch of borderline students. I doubt the students were distressing over their work as much as I'm distressing over their grades.

American Nationalist said...

You can always do what I did -- mark the crap out of people's papers and then let them revise for half credit. It at least shows who will put forth an effort and who won't.

Of course, seems like I still gave a girl a negative grade for the semester...

Aaron Weber said...

Classes are too big and it's too much work to properly grade papers and teach people how to write, particularly longer-form assignments. And nobody will notice. The students certainly won't appreciate it, especially because giving someone a bad grade means an hour of listening to them cry in your office.

Profs not motivated to grade inflation by those factors will eventually be worn down by the fact that the profs who don't spend as much time teaching and grading have used the time to write and publish their own work, and have advanced their careers, while the prof who actually went the extra mile doesn't get tenure. Not to mention that any students you actually educate may eventually become academic competition for you, and lord knows there are few enough full-time positions left.

In short, there is a a significant penalty for teaching students anything they actually ought to know or need to know, particularly the ability to write an academic paper. So, students don't learn to write.

Kristina said...

I wonder if small, private, liberal arts schools have any better luck with this kind of thing. I can imagine that a professor at a large research school like UNC who is juggling three classes (since many anthro profs, even tenured ones, teach a 3 and 2), several graduate students, a research project with grants and publications, and committee responsibilities would buy into the notion of grade inflation and just pass students. Maybe I should set my sights on a different kind of job next year, one that comes with slightly better - or at least slightly more interested and conscientious - students. Who am I kidding? I will take whatever job is offered to me, since there are so few out there, get disenchanted with academia after a few years, have a midlife crisis, and decide to do something totally different with my life.

Lynn said...

Back in my day, we had to walk to the library through 4-foot snow drifts and type our papers on manual typewriters.

you all sound very crotchety--that is supposed to be the province of people old enough to join AARP. (And even the standards for that are substantially reduced these days.)

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