Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Bliss of Marking Papers


        So the way I like to tell the story, the disciples approach Jesus and say, "Hey. We want to get this enlightenment thing.  Do we tear our clothes? Do we eat gluten-free? Do we confess that we cheated on our taxes?"  And Jesus says, (and what follows is for real): "Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate." This is from the Gospel of Thomas in The Nag Hammadi Library, a series of scriptures found buried in urns that didn't make the cut for the Bible as we know it.  No wonder: Don't tell lies? Don't do what you hate? Institutions~whether family, school, church, government, business, or the local book club~would not exist unless we lied and did what we hated. Truly, think about it.  We all specialize in sailing down The River Denial. We lie to ourselves. We lie to each other.  And we drudge through things we hate. So the founders of the early church were not about to give these truth-telling gospels air time.

        So if what Jesus is purported to have said is the key to enlightenment, this means that teachers marking papers are destined for hell~or, at the very least, wrecked weekends and no time to watch "Lost" or "The Voice."  Because traditional ways of marking papers~copy-editing and co-writing student papers; assigning  numerical grades to everything; tabulating for report cards~are boring and onerous. The only way to keep doing it is to lie and do what you hate.

       In the beginning of my career, I truly hated marking papers, and I assumed the position that I just LOVED it~bled all over my students submissions (yes, that's the word for it) first in red ink, then in green (as if that was more "with it"), then in carbon pencil. I pored over every word as if it were the proverbial gospel truth.  I would end up putting more effort into responding, and often lay down more footage, than they did.

       Then I enrolled in a post-doc MFA program for poetry, and my over-zealous mentor bled all over one of my essays. I was a published author by then, had blissfully written a dissertation (no lie), was truly engaged in learning, and for a month I couldn't even read all the comments.  I couldn't revise.  I felt as though she had co-opted my work.  I was disenfranchised~literally, had lost my freedom of thought. If I was so affected, what about students who are insecure and discouraged~and therefore rebellious?

        WOW!  All those months and months of moiling over student papers~an agonizing, futile, backfiring waste. Then I read The Nag Hammadi Library.  Ever since, I have lived by that quote: "Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate."  OK.  I approximate that as best I can, so I can still have students to teach and draw a salary that allows for massages. I also teach students to not tell lies and not do what they hate. Yes. Read on.

       Surely, it is worthwhile to review how students are thinking, learning, "progressing."  As I have grown as a teacher~and learn how to support their creative and critical thinking~the papers have become much more engaging.  But still.  So I ask myself these questions:  What exactly do I hate about marking papers?  How am I telling myself and my students lies?  I ask the students corollary questions: "Do you hate writing papers?  If so, why? How are you living a lie with them?" Then I ask, "How can we do this so that we can tell the truth and love what we do?"

       From my point of view: I hate stacks of papers~they overwhelm me.  I hate marking every error.  I hate reading unreadable work. Students hate being isolated from each other. They hate writing papers that don't reflect who they are. That's a whole other topic, but focusing on marking papers, here are some strategies that helped me transform our experience.  And the guy was right~the teaching and the learning got much, much better.

      (1) For all assignments, we focus on audience and reader engagement.  I draw a line where I become disengaged in a paper. This is far more helpful and awakening than the lie of plodding on. I will ask, "Did you write this in a rush? Resent it? Not care? Why?"  The ensuing discussion is where the learning happens.  Then I send the student back to write a real paper.

      (2) This is important~we learn what we do.  I don't need practice in revising their papers for students.  THEY do.  Either for themselves or for each other. (And fragments can be more effective than "complete sentences.")  See (3). I will identify an error pattern, but not do the work of finding all of the instances of it.  I find ways to encourage them to teach each other.

      (3) We respond to assignments in person. This truly solves the problem of leaning towers of spilled papers. I will put the paper on an overhead projector, either on a tray or digitally.  Looking at the same screen is a powerful communal act.

      (4) We do workshop the first pages of first drafts. "Yes but the good stuff is on page 3!"  "Well then, bring it to the front.  It's your job to get and keep us engaged."  

      (5) On submission days, students gather in groups of four to read and respond to each other's papers, while I one-on-one privately for grades.  KNOW THIS: we can all tell by a quick look where a paper is going.  Study the literature, not their papers. I ask students to tell me what their peers said.  They report back to the groups what I said.  It might take more than one day.  But we're done.  

      (6) Students come to me with a proposed grade, referring to criteria that I sometimes give them, sometimes have them develop together.  It's rare that a student is off by more than a plus or minus.

       The Benefits: No stacks.  Students get immediate responses and ideas for revisions.  They practice writing and reading for audience. They teach each other (which is the best way to learn).  We tell each other the truth, and we do what we love~exercise the power of language and community.

       "Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate."  How can you be more authentic in the classroom?  How can you find bliss in your life?

© 2014 Susanna Rich


  1. I can be more original in the classroom by bringing original work to the classroom. I can also be original in the classroom by making more meaningful comments to help other writers. How I can find bliss in my life I do not know how I can find bliss in my life. Maybe I can just relax and calm myself. That is how I can find bliss in my life.

  2. I will use all my own ideas no matter how much or less there is. I will also use supporting details from the tex to support my ideas. I am finding bliss now know that life had got me unexpectly by relaxing, staying calm, and staying stress free.

  3. A blog about bliss and authenticity, huh? Well, I just love looking up words in the Thesaurus. (I especially love the right click on a PC? There’s just so much stuff in there, so the Thesaurus is always right at my fingertips. I digress.) Bliss is all about heaven, happiness, enjoyment, pleasure, and harmony. Authenticity is all about being genuine, valid, and truthful. When I put those two things together, I get my time in Advanced Poetry class. Where else can I enjoy a few things I love and the pure happiness I derive from those pleasures? Take it from me and know that there aren't that many places to accomplish those two things at once.

    To seek bliss in my life I try to live by a couple of simple rules: the Golden Rule takes care of my behavior, and I also try to not let people or events give me stress if it is out of my control. I’m not a control freak by any means, but there are times in my life when situations arise which could send me right over the edge. I just don’t let those situations get to me. If I caused the situation, I will try to remedy it as soon as possible. If it is out of my control, I just let it work itself out, which those situations tend to do. I also like to read these little books called “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, and It’s All Small Stuff.” There’s a lot of good words of wisdom in those little books. Qué será, será…what will be, will be.

    Being authentic comes easy to me, since I tend to speak my mind and can’t necessarily always control what comes out of my mouth at any given time. There’s a country song about a guy who can’t get his heart to tell his mind to tell his mouth what to say, but I don’t have that problem. My problem may be the opposite, and I can’t get my brain to tell my mouth to stay closed, because in my heart there’s something to be said, even though it may be better that it isn't said, but that’s part of me being me. Good old reliable me. I can always be counted on to say something inappropriate or opposite to those around me. It’s almost a curse on me, this whole being truthful the entire time thing. Maybe it’s just that I’m supposed to be truthful, so that it validates some point in a conversation, or to look at an alternate point, and that’s my point! I might just take the opposing view on something, so as not to just follow along. I like to hear opposing views, as long as there is no shouting, name calling, foul language, or bodily injury of any kind, and that’s the truth.