End of the quarter grading used to make me sick to my stomach. By the second afternoon of my three-day grading marathon, I would be so hepped up on caffeine and sugared carbohydrates that I would begin to feel disoriented as if I had been flying for 24 hours with only fitful minutes of sleep in some locked and upright position. And yet, I would grind on grading for the rest of the day and into the next. I wanted it done and over with.
Yet I love the teaching part of the job. As an Industrial /Organizational psychologist, I taught graduate and undergraduate psychology and management courses over my 30-year career. Still, for the bulk of the time, I taught statistics and research methodology to doctoral psychology students, and I was on a mission from God to make statistics accessible and easy to understand. And I wanted it to be fun – I pictured myself as a stand-up comic working with limited material. I loved being in front of students feeding off their energy, seeing their eyes light up when they grasped some arcane aspect of multiple regression, or catching the occasional eye roll as they laughed at my corny jokes. But pedagogy was no laughing matter; I developed clear learning outcomes and assessments linked to them, all laid out in a matrix on the second page of each syllabus. My PowerPoint decks were polished, the classes well-paced with lots of room for engagement, and topics were chunked into seven to ten-minute explanations with appropriate breaks to practice what had just been presented with in-class study buddies. Students ended my three-course sequence with small-group research projects that were often presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.
But, still, I hated grading.
It was mainly because it never occurred to me that grading, as part of the academic vocation, was worthy of love. For my first 15 years of teaching, I thought of grading (and committee work) as the “dues” that I had to pay in order to do the “good stuff” – the teaching and writing that I saw as the real work of the professorate.
And I didn’t think grading was worthy of my love because I had wholly bought into an incomplete read of Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation as the “place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”1 Something as pedestrian as grading did not seem to meet the standard of “the world’s deep hunger.” It certainly brought me no deep gladness. It was just something to take seriously, do diligently (as unto the Lord), and get done quickly so I could get back to the aspects of the job that did give me deep joy.
And diligently, I did grade, or so I thought. I often found that with so much grading in such a short time, I would worry that with so many end-of-the-quarter assignments I would not remember why I had graded them as I did. So, I engaged in defensive grading, providing extensive marginalia in case the rare situation arose where I had to justify my grade to a growly student. It was just another reason to hate grading.
My death march approach to grading likely had another negative consequence for students. While not certain, I suspect that I was harder on students whose papers were closer to the bottom of the pile. A significant part of grading is making decisions: is the thesis clear?; is there a coherent narrative thread?; are the arguments well warranted?; have I justified the grade to my satisfaction? Making so many repetitive decisions during those days of grading no doubt led to what psychologists have labeled “decision fatigue,” a state of actual physical exhaustion also known as “ego-depletion,” that lowers self-control, which can give way to irritability, impulsivity, and less complex decision-making.2 Psychologists Jonathan Levav, Shai Danziger, and Liora Avnaim-Pesso3 demonstrated the costs of ego depletion when making judgments on others. In reviewing 1,112 judicial parole rulings of eight judges over ten months, and controlling for alternative explanations, they found the judges were more likely to grant parole at the beginning of the day or soon after food breaks and more likely to turn down parole requests before breaks and at the end of the day. The researchers noted that it takes less mental energy, time, and effort for the judges to make an unfavorable ruling. With ego-depletion, they were doing what other researchers have demonstrated in various experiments and field studies: mentally depleted from their work, they were making cognitive shortcuts.
I must have been in ego-depletion mode on the second afternoon of grading papers at the end of the 2006 Spring quarter. I don’t remember much except that I was tired, almost done, and disappointed that the doctoral students’ group papers were not more polished. When I got to my favorite group of students, I probably had higher hopes, but their paper was not much better than the others. My self-control worn to a nub, I was overly stringent with my feedback, which, in my mind, justified a lower grade. I added their graded paper to the completed pile and moved on to the next.
I would not have remembered that afternoon or that paper except the students, whom I really cared about, came into my office a week later to discuss their grade. They were genuinely hurt by the grade but also by me; I had broken trust with them. Stalling for time to answer their concerns, I started by telling them that I was grateful they felt they could come to talk to me. And, as soon as I had uttered those words, I knew my sentiments were genuine. I was grateful that they still trusted me; they showed me more grace than I had shown them. I went over my feedback in a more generous manner and raised their grade.
That 30-minute exchange altered how I would grade for the rest of my career. More importantly, it changed the way that I thought about vocation. Around that same time, I had picked up James McGoldrick’s book on Abraham Kuyper. I sat with Kuyper’s quote that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”4 I began to see that my callings within and across the realms of my life should be unified in their redemptive purposes, no longer dividing my life into vocation and the other “stuff.”Grading, that quarterly beast on my back, was worthy of God’s calling and thus worthy of being loved.
Loving the unlovable is a strange sort of love. I suspect most of us have heard many sermons and Sunday school lessons on loving unlovable people, both the Samaritan and the man who fell into the hands of the robbers. But I don’t remember hearing any teachings on loving unlovable acts. Living in a fallen, redeemed, and not yet perfected world, we are daily faced with doing things that are unpleasant to the downright awful; from taking out the garbage, to confronting a co-worker, spouse, or friend, to flunking a student or, for administrators, terminating someone’s employment. Even if such actions do not give great joy, done as acts of redemption, they bring God joy, so I try to do them well as an act of love toward God and humanity. Buechner’s often repeated quote that vocation is “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” is misleadingly truncated. The sentence starts with God; “The place where God calls you to is the place. . . .”5 My vocation was never meant to be just about me.
While grading is certainly not about assessing students, they’re still human beings who must ascribe meaning to those ABCs. It is a relational process. I came to learn that loving grading is part of loving students well. To do that, I changed almost all my assignments, making them smaller so I could more quickly give students useful feedback. I cut back on the ad nauseum written comments (which must have landed like a hammer) and would give more general feedback in audio form through Turnitin so that students could hear a caring tone of voice. On longer essays, I gave 80% of the grade on a first draft and the rest on the final draft due two weeks later, which gave students more ownership of their final grade. I also stopped the grading death marches, limiting my time to a maximum of five hours each day.
As a teacher, I can honestly say that I have learned from my students, and not always in the classroom. Those doctoral students were the ones who first taught me the lesson of strange love. Their lesson was the final learning outcome that Spring quarter. And for that I will be eternally grateful.
- Frederick Buechner. Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. (New York: HarperOne, 1993), 119.
- Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. (New York: Penguin Press, 2011).
- Shai Danziger, Jonathan Levav, and Liora Avnaim-Pesso. “Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – PNAS, 108, no. 17 (2011): 6889–6892.
- James McGoldrick. God’s Renaissance Man: The Life and Work of Abraham Kuyper (Auburn, MA: Evangelical Press, 2000).
- Buechner, 118-119.