Why professors hate marking

You think writing papers is tough? Try grading them

Sitting on my desk are this year’s first piles of student papers waiting to be graded. But I’m not grading them. Instead, I’m writing this blog entry about why I dislike grading papers.

Many people assume that grading papers is the worst thing about being a professor. They are right, but for the wrong reason. People think it’s onerous because, as they often say to me, “some of them must be so bad.” And some of them are bad, but those aren’t the ones that make marking such a chore; in fact, really bad papers are almost a pleasure to grade because at least they get me excited — if only by rage.

No, the worst papers are the papers that populate the vast, bland wasteland of mediocrity. They are not good, mind you, and they are not bad. They are, to adapt Wolfgan Pauli’s famous quip, not even bad. They make no huge blunders, but they don’t say anything either. They are not off-track exactly; they just don’t know there is a track to be on. It’s hard to know where to even start with such essays. And they’re waiting in those piles to torment me with their insipidity.

Part of the difficulty comes from the fact that most essay grading involves a fictional bargain between student and professor. In theory, the student has worked hard on the paper: she’s thought through the topic, done relevant research, made notes and outlines, completed several drafts, and finally, at long last, handed it in. The professor evaluates the work, notes its strengths and weakness, and provides thoughtful advice for how to do even better next time. The student takes that advice gratefully and can’t wait ’til the next paper comes due to show off what she’s learned.

In reality, though, most students do only about as much as they think they need to pass the course, or stay in their program, or get into their next program. Similarly, professors know that their comments will go largely or entirely unread, and those that are read will not likely be taken to heart. They pretend to work hard; we pretend they want to get better.

This enduring game of academic make-believe was brought into focus for me the other day when I overheard a student amusedly complaining to her friend that her professor was suggesting ways to improve a paper that had already received a good grade. “I’m fine with an 80!” she laughed. Of course. Why settle for better when you can do good?

Every once in a while, there is a genuinely good paper to help break the monotony. I once had an excellent student whose name put her papers at the top of the pile (I grade in alphabetical order), but I always used to move her essay to the middle because I knew by then I would need an excellent paper to help keep me going. Maybe such a student is waiting patiently in one of those piles right now.

I guess it’s time to find out…