It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity… Dickens’s immortal words reverberate within my mind each and every time I sit down before a towering stack of essays. For me, grading is like walking a tightrope over an abyss. I feel as if I am constantly teetering on the precipice of madness or the verge of genius. Sometimes, like Icarus, I experience a meteoric fall to a grisly death, while other times I cross the void and stand as a titan among men. Grading is a very cathartic experience precisely because my mood oscillates between the despair of antique tragedy and the ineffability of Shakespearean comedy. There are times when I want to blot out my eyes and weakly moan to the gods, “No more, no more, will I look upon this world of misery.” There are also times, however, when I honestly hear the celestial choirs of seraphim break forth in sweet hosannas and thank God for the grace of teaching.
Grading is the bane of a teacher’s existence because it is a ritualistic annihilation of self-esteem. The teacher becomes acutely aware of his or her shortcomings as an instructor with each new batch of incoherent prose that pathetically attempts to pass for coherence. It IS ultimately the teacher’s fault because: (a) the student has the academic wherewithal to craft a satisfactory response and just doesn’t care to do so; this points to the teacher’s failure to inspire the student or present the material in a meaningful and relevant way to his or her pupil; or (b) that student is sincerely confused by the instruction or fails to have the requisite skills to communicate his or her ideas in a cogent manner; this indicates the teacher’s poor performance in information delivery and/or insufficient individualized instruction for the student to ameliorate his writing to the degree necessary for academic competency; or (c) a combination of both a and b. Grading can reveal an ugly reflection. This isn’t always a bad thing as it takes the teacher down a few notches and serves as a needed corrective to the narcissism that runs rampant in faculty lounges. We should all be striving to improve our craft and never be so complacent or obdurate or presumptuous as to feel that mastery is at hand and that we can now rest on our laurels.
Grading also functions as a kind of balm for the teacher’s battered mind and wounded ego. There are those luminous moments while grading when a teacher comes across a student that gets it, the quintessential aha moment! These experiences range from the simply gratifying to the sublime. A weak student may put together a grammatically correct sentence or a unified paragraph. There may be a glimpse of cognition and independent thought beyond rote regurgitation of the class notes, while for some students even such a rote regurgitation in a complete sentence is a breakthrough achievement. There are still other students whose prose sparkles with voice and style. Sometimes fewer spelling mistakes and a brokered peace with apostrophes and commas suffice for a victory. On rare occasions, there are moments of sheer brilliance where a student exceeds all expectations and pens a memorable sentence or puts forth an insight that even the teacher had not conceived of or mentioned in class. This is what teachers live for after all. We want students to surpass us. That’s our number one goal, or at least it should be. When this does occur, teachers should raise a toast to the image in the mirror rather than turning in terror or shame.