Here’s an open secret: professors do not go into teaching for the grading. Cliché, I know, but for most of us, grading is the necessary cost of doing what we love: leading lively discussions, preparing thought-provoking lectures, writing ground-breaking books or articles, and mentoring students.
Grading, on the other hand, is just, well, grating—at least it can be. You and a stack of papers. You making the same comments you’ve made on countless other papers countless other times. You reducing students’ ideas, time, and effort into number and letter grades.
Maybe it’s just me. But I don’t think so.
It’s not that I find grading difficult. Far from it. After nearly two decades of teaching literature and composition, I’ve gotten very good at it. And very fast. By conservative estimates, I’ve graded 10,000 essays, give or take. Grade enough of these things, and the sorting becomes second-nature, automatic, rote: an A looks like this, a B like this, and so on. These letter-grade standards have worn such a deep groove in my mind that individual instances of each quickly fall into their rightful place.
But therein lies my problem. I often find grading mechanical, impersonal, almost inhuman. When a new batch of papers comes in, I find myself easily clicking into routine, with a set number of papers to grade each day, templates for commonly used comments, rubrics for evaluation, and so on. With only so much time in a semester and only so much energy to give, I undertake the task of grading with a sense of mission: get it done and move on to the more enjoyable parts of the job.
There’s probably nothing inherently wrong with this approach. I stand by the grades I assign. I also offer solid feedback for students to use to improve their writing. I’ve seen them do just that, and students have told me they appreciate the help.
This summer, however, while re-reading Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, I felt convicted that I had bracketed this part of my life off from what I deemed to be “really important.” I had always had a hard time seeing this task as either part of my vocational calling or spiritually significant. It was just a hurdle to be overcome, an item on the to-do list to be checked off.
But Foster’s invitation to reconsider the nature of the spiritual life unsettled that notion. The vision he offered nagged at me, never more so than when I received my first batch of papers this term. To begin, he explains that spiritual growth happens where we are and is available for anyone: “people who have jobs, who care for children, who wash dishes and mow lawns.” To put a finer point on it, he says that “the Disciplines are best exercised in the midst of our relationships with our husband or wife, our brothers and sisters, our friends and neighbors.”1 And—I’ve come to learn—in the midst of grading student papers.
Reading Foster challenged me to reconsider how I spent this mundane, but not unsubstantial, portion of my time. My approach to grading, I realized, ceded too much to the pragmatic and transactional, to all the trends in education and modern culture that I claim to lament. By undertaking and persevering in such a practice, I reinforced (at least on a small scale) the very dehumanization of the academy and American society that I decried.
What I needed was just what Foster provided: a reminder that behind the words I encounter—behind the comma splices and typos, behind the soaring rhetoric and flat-footed phrasing, behind the well-developed arguments and misfires, too—are creatures made in the image of God. These precious souls have been placed in my charge for a short while, and God has something in store for them only I can provide at this particular moment.
Such weighty responsibility cannot help but lead one to prayer, “prayer simultaneous with work,” to quote Foster. Grading will necessarily be a different experience if it’s preceded, enfolded, and followed with prayer, as Foster advocates.2 This semester I have found it so.
Reading Celebration of Discipline also reminded me that everywhere and always—even while grading papers—I am a spiritual creature, in need of formation and of a touch from God. Importantly, such formation occurs via our mental and physical habits, what we practice, and whereby we “sow to the Spirit”3 and allow God’s transforming grace to do its inner work. And yes, that can occur miraculously enough while we grade.
Every paper I receive, I now intentionally remind myself, is another opportunity for me to put my faith into practice, to resist the pressures that tell me my time and attention are limited. With each paper I turn to, I have the choice either to affirm the humanity and vocation of the student at the receiving end of my feedback or to fall back into my old mechanistic practice. I can either commune with this student’s mind and surrender our interaction to the lordship of Christ or stand in detached judgment. Undertaking the grading process in prayer, in personal relationship with and in service to my students has opened up new vistas for me to inculcate patience, develop humility, and practice love.
Grading in this way is a conscious act of resistance, a pushing back against the technocratic and utilitarian dynamics of the marketplace. It is to declare with my actions that we live in an economy of grace, not one of competition, scarcity, and greed. It is to remind myself again and again that we are not bound to such parsimony.
There is an abundant life available to us here and now, yes even while grading. With our daily acts—even grading if spiritually disciplined—we can and do affirm and shape the world we want to live in, and we mold the selves, students and teachers alike, that inhabit that world.