Writing Matters: From Best-Selling Author Melinda Rainey Thompson
As a writing teacher, sometimes I think I deserve combat pay. I’d ask for it if I didn’t know my request would be tacked to a bulletin board somewhere in the Berte Humanities Building as entertainment for the faculty. Nobody throws money at the college English department, I assure you. There is nothing more daunting than stacks of essays lurking in my office, waiting to be marked. These days, of course, those papers are mostly email attachments cluttering my in-box, but you know what I mean.
Grading essays is nothing like grading math or science exams. There are no answer keys. Grading essays involves more than red-ink bleeding on a page. Often, the comments I write are far longer and more detailed than the sentence containing the error. I read every word in my students’ essays, sometimes multiple times. I often spend more time reading and responding to my students’ essays than they spent writing them in the first place. This makes me want to take to my bed with an ice pack on my forehead.
I can only grade two essays at a go. After that, I need a break. I often walk the halls of the college seeking human contact, switch out the laundry from the washer to the dryer if I’m at home, or read a rewarding chapter of a just-for-fun book. It’s important to stay fresh when grading, to give the last paper I mark the same grace I gave the first one I read. I don’t want to begin as a benevolent Glinda-the-good-witch grader and finish up like the Red Queen from Alice In Wonderland, shouting “Off with his or her head!” at the smallest grammatical sin.
Students often complain that writing grades are subjective. That isn’t true. Sure, professors are human. We enjoy reading some essays more than others. Just last semester, one of my students suggested, as a final thought in her conclusion, that since so many people die on the donor list waiting for organs, we should just take them from prisoners on death row. At first, I thought she was making a stab at Jonathan Swift-style satire, and I got a little excited about that, but, alas, she was serious, and she doubled-down in our conference.
I occasionally demonstrate my grading theory to students by giving them a stack of papers, which include essays I’ve graded in previous years with an A, B, C, D, and F (the grades and names have been deleted, of course). I ask them to read the essays and assign them a fair grade. They don’t have to mark errors or justify the grades in any way.
Usually, the entire class is in agreement about the results, and students are pleased when I show them that my grades align with theirs. They may not be able to articulate why one essay is better than another, but they know instinctively which is good, better, and best when they read them.
I teach that lesson in an attempt to ward off any future complaints that I “just don’t like the paper” or that students received a poor grade because I “don’t agree with the opinion.” I argue that I don’t “give” grades at all. In almost every way, students determine their own grades. Success in my class is entirely up to them. For many students, this is a novel idea.
Grading is intense work. After reading a batch of papers, my brain feels like Jell-O—a big glob of shivering, non-substantive goo just taking up space on a hospital tray. I usually feel a headache begin about halfway through a long grading session; it builds right behind my eyeballs and radiates into my hairline like a brain freeze from sucking down a milkshake too quickly.
I can’t tell you how depressing it is to find errors in student papers that I’ve gone over and over in class. There are only three explanations for that, and I don’t like any of them. 1. The student didn’t get it. 2. I didn’t teach it well. Or 3. The student doesn’t care enough to get it right. All three of those options depress me.
Grading is often unrewarding. I see mistakes I’ve painstakingly addressed in a previous draft, a careless disregard for revision, and such poor word choice that the meaning of the syntax is obscured entirely. That’s fairly standard fare. It makes me want to throw things at my office door and grab random students walking by me on the quad and demand some answers.
There is no excuse for bad writing. Clear, concise, meaningful communication is what elevates us as a species. Every job in the world requires writing. Doctors, artists, bank tellers, and stay-at-home parents all have to write, and writers change the world, raise social awareness, and spread ideas to remote areas on the globe. Even writers like me who aren’t writing about war, famine, and politics provide a valuable service. We offer readers hours and hours of distraction from an often ugly world. To me, writing is a noble job. Its ugly cousin, grading, is the scullery maid. To make a living, writers like me do both.
Occasionally, I read an essay that is absolutely wonderful. It’s completely original in thought, context, or articulation, and it makes me laugh out loud with delight. When that happens, I am so proud of my student that I can’t wait to dish out compliments. Sometimes I stop what I’m doing and send a text or email. A perfect sentence is hard for professional writers to spit out, so it’s especially impressive when beginning writers do it well. I feel the urge to throw out candy like I’m riding with the krewe on a Mardi Gras float.
Mostly, however, I slog through hastily written, unexamined arguments that fail to live up to the student’s potential. I think that work is beneath me. As a teacher, my job is to inspire more than the mundane from my students.
When I succeed, I can honestly say I’ve made a difference in my student’s ability to communicate for the rest of his or her life. What could be more important than that? When they fail, either because of their inability to do the work or their unwillingness to put forth the effort, I feel depressed, frustrated, and weary to my bones.
I’m always searching for new ways to teach. Language, like life, is always evolving—for better or worse. Teachers like me have to be quick on our feet, adaptable, open to new ideas, and excited to be in the classroom with our students. I still feel that surge of adrenalin when I walk in a classroom, and I begin every class by saying: “I’m so glad to see you!” The day I can’t say that will be the day I quit teaching.
Melinda Rainey Thompson is the best-selling author of four books. She is also a member of the Birmingham-Southern College English department. She is currently finishing a new book, freelancing for magazines, and traveling to speaking events. The following is an excerpt from her newest work, Sweet-Life Lessons.