Grading Papers is Fun

I'm Content Not to Understand Some Parts of My Students' Papers

One thing I’ve noticed about men: they don’t complain about work as much as women do. My brother-in-law who is a corporate lawyer made me
grotesquely aware of this when I visited him, my little sister, and nephews in Chicago in March. I knew they’d recently had a trip to Seattle during which he worked full days.

“So, how’d you break up your days?” I asked him. “Did you work some hours in the hotel and some in a café nearby?”

“I just worked from the hotel room,” he answered. That’s it. No attempt to fool himself into thinking work was fun or that he was in Paris. He just put in those 12-14-hour days in the beige constraints of a hotel room.

Many people will agree that grading papers sounds rough or is rough (depending on whether or not they’ve actually done it). Tracy, my dude, says each time I say the phrase he hears “grating papers,” which isn’t actually far from what many of us do. But after talking to my brother-in-law about his approach to work: working non-stop doing things that are probably as grating as grading papers, I decided to quit complaining.

Through the process of teaching a class called Women, Literature, and Society this semester, and specifically as a result of reading Toni Morrison’s article “What the Black Woman Thinks About Women’s Lib,” I’ve become conscious of the ways in which I’m a big baby. In her article that was published in the New York Times on August 22, 1971, Morrison explains how black women view(ed) white women (I don’t know which tense the word “view” should be in):

Black women have no abiding admiration of white women as competent, complete, people. Whether vying with them for the few professional slots available to women in general, or moving their dirt from one place to another, they regarded them as willful children, pretty children, mean children, ugly children, but never as real adults capable of handling real problems of the world.

She goes on to point out that white women have traditionally not been independent, but instead have been “totally dependent on marriage or male support (emotionally or economically).” In reading this, I realized how childish I have been my entire life. I think I’m so independent because I support myself, but why am I continuously surprised that I have to work hard–that grading papers, for instance, is difficult, taxing, painful, while men seem to expect these qualities in work?

Since I can’t complain about grading anymore, I have made some other changes, as well. One of them is that I am trying to make paper assignments lead to writing that is fun to read. I’ve actually succeeded in this with the final papers for Women, Literature, and Society.

The basic assignment was for each student to choose a writer we studied who had influenced him or her, write about what the influence was, and then write about another writer we studied who had an influence on that writer. For instance, one student, Randy Cannizzaro, wrote a smart, surprising, and utterly delightful paper on Virginia Woolf’s influence on Margaret Atwood and Atwood’s influence on him. The title of his paper is, “Basidiomycetes, Homunculi and Virginia Woolf.”

Randy is one of those genius scientist people, who began being invited to help with chemistry experiments at the Colorado School of Mines when he was still in high school. I was curious to see what he would think about literature. I heard from his brother (a brilliant poet and chemical engineering student who was also in the class) that Randy was frustrated that the quality of literature is not quantifiable.  I can’t help but be self-conscious about my devotion to reading and writing poetry and fiction at a school where people are making fuel from algae, building solar and hydrogen powered cars, and rewriting the laws of physics. I was happy to see a new way in which literature is actually useful while reading Randy’s paper.

When writing about Atwood’s effect on him, he admits that at first he questioned the accuracy of her description of a “blueblack and oval,” beetle: “Carrion beetles are orange in the States,” he writes. After doing some research, however, he discovered that in Canada and Alaska carrion beetles are blueblack and oval. This discovery resulted as follows:

I sat back in my chair and felt the familiar excitement that came from pouring over field guides and websites about Coleoptera, Polyphaga, Staphylinoidea, and Silphadae. This passage from Surfacing brought me back to my lapsed hobby of entomology and the insect world—if only momentarily.

But then his reading of Atwood’s Surfacing gets even more exciting. Randy appreciates Atwood’s knowledge of and attention to a basidiomycete:

Atwood describes in detail the hyphae that make up a mushroom—the invisible network of cells beneath the fruiting body that she compares to a “solid flower, temporary as an icicle.” Few could write accurately about such an esoteric subject. And so poetically! After reading this, I recalled my past fascination with mushrooms and fungi—the field guides and countless hours on the web. I remembered waking up early to search for fungi in the park and carefully inspecting the spores under the microscope before making my final identification.

Ultimately, Atwood influenced him, he writes, by “rekindling” his “interest in mycology and entomology” and by helping him see “the power of words to conjure specific but ancillary memories and thoughts in readers.”

So you can see how fun grading papers can be. Not only do I feel affirmed that literature is important and can improve the lives of those who read it, but I get to read genuinely beautiful writing packed with astute observations by these so-called students.

How do you manage being a grown up, and by this I mean tackling the challenging with grace? And, how has literature influenced you? How does it enrich your life?






  • Brett says:

    Great post, Shira. That paper was wonderful, and science/entomology/and mushrooms rule! I really think that a scientific viewpoint can really add a lot to one’s writing, as science, at its core, focuses on close observation. When that close observation is applied in the right words (and in the right order; shout out to Coleridge!), it can really make a piece work.

    As an aside, deadly mushrooms have perhaps some of the coolest names ever, the Destroying Angel, Death Cap, the European Panther, etc.

    • Shira Richman says:

      I thought of you as I wrote this post, Brett. I sense a science lover in you. This student is going to explore creative writing in the fall. I hope to read more of his work and to continue to learn about the the beauty of deadly mushrooms via literature.

      • Brett says:

        It’s true: I’m a science geek. I especially like geology/paleontology (agates!), astronomy, and ornithology (but I hardly get to see any birds because my feeders were knocked over–AGAIN!–by TUBBY MCSQUIRREL, my resident obese rodent. It’s time to build some baffles.)

        That’s what I get for editing field guides for the last few years. Some of them were really fun though. (We did a Saltwater Sportfish of the Gulf of Mexico field guide, and it was great, as I’m pretty used to all the freshwater fun that’s here in MN. My next-door neighbor is actually a Northern Pike.)

        The student clearly has promise, that’s for sure.

  • Jen Schneider says:

    I love this post, if only because I identify with it so readily! I especially like your approach of designing assignments that lead to writing that is fun to read. That is such a great philosophy.

    That said, I think it is a mistake to think only about women complaining about work. From my perspective, there is a very strong neoliberal impulse to make us all “productive,” to squeeze as much out of us as workers as possible. You’re right to call our attention to discrepancies between working class and middle-class work, and the privilege inherent in one (and the ungraceful complaints that go along with). Still, I think there is something to be said for resisting the kinds of work we are asked to do, if they don’t suit our souls, and with resisting the model of the guy-in-hotel-room-slaving-away if that means no sunshine or time to breathe. I’d like everyone to have more of this, if they want it, and am bothered when we don’t have choices because of how things are set up, with the rich just getting richer, and the culture of overwork going gangbusters while we just get caught up in it.

    That said, I am a whiny workaholic beeyotch a lot of the time and struggle to resist all this myself.


    • Shira Richman says:

      Feedback I’m getting is that men complain,too! Maybe just not to me.

      I agree that it is important to resist the tendency to become overly productive and that we should find ways to “suit our souls.” I imagine my brother-in-law could use a little more sunshine and time to breathe.

      About complaining, it can be a great way of becoming aware of what we want to alter in our lives. It just requires slowing down enough to hear what I’m saying and then devising solutions.

  • Shawn Vestal says:

    I’m a complete whiner, Shira. There ain’t no Gary Cooper in me.

    • Shira Richman says:

      You’re candid, Shawn. I love that about you! And why haven’t you ever complained to me about your job, then?

  • Elizabeth Powers says:

    Shira, I love this post. I’ve been thinking about this myself lately. I feel like I am always complaining to my boyfriend about my job. When I apologize for my whiny ways he says, “It’s ok, you work really hard.” But he works three jobs to support himself, so what’s wrong with that picture?

    I think I need to take a page from you’re book and find a way to complain less. While I can’t make grading algebra equations or GED essay’s a whole lot more interesting, you’re creativity has inspired me to try finding some of my own.

    • Shira Richman says:

      Ooh, I want to know about your job. I used to love teaching GED. Grading algebra equations is nice and straight forward.

      It’s so good to see you here.

  • I hate grading and complain about it endlessly, but when I think about handing it over to a workstudy student or making my assignments all multiple choice, I can’t do it. I actually like the insight it gives me on how students think. Sometimes I get a glimpse of a side of a student I’d never get in class, or a shy student really open up about a particular topic.

    Grading also shows me where I haven’t been effective as a teacher or when an assignment isn’t accomplishing what I thought it would do.

    I also think that the interesting responses on your papers show how good of a teacher you obviously are Shira. To make an assignment interesting and fun to grade, you kind of have to make it fun and interesting to the students.

    • Shira Richman says:

      Thanks, Asa. I like your thoughts on grading. It’s true that we learn so much about our students and our teaching through the act of looking closely at and evaluating their work. I have to admit that part of what pains me most about grading is being faced with the things I haven’t communicated as effectively as I wish I had.

      • I know that feeling. It’s amazing how directions that seemed so clear can be followed in a bunch of strange ways. Or, how things I’m sure everyone got in class turns out to be interpreted completely wrong. :-)

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