Vocation for Teachers Who Hate Grading

If you type “I hate grading” into google, you’ll get 5,800,000 hits. For many of us, evaluating students’ work is the part of our vocations that feels the least vocational. In part, that’s because there’s something fundamentally un-vocational in summing up students’ efforts to learn—their own current vocational work—with a letter or number. In part, it’s because grading reinforces power structures that most of us resist. But evaluation can also feel un-vocational because we just can’t do it as well as we want to. 

We know good feedback is precious: the voices of others often help us find our vocational ways, and comments on assignments can be one of the most effective conduits for mentorship. But because this work is so important, we can feel all the more sharply that our efforts at it are imperfect. We don’t have the time, perhaps we don’t have the wisdom or diplomatic savvy, to do it well enough. That’s true especially if we’re laboring in courses, course loads, or evaluation systems (like minimal GPAs for scholarships) that don’t fit our vision of vocation. Then the mountain of assignments waiting for our response becomes not an invitation to nurturing conversation but a burden, not the essence of teaching but a distraction from the aspects of teaching we value.

Some of us can find ways out of the worst of the system by adopting ungrading and contract grading. But even for those of us who can’t, there are ways to make the task of evaluation better fit our own vocations, and better nurture those of our students. 

Integrating ungraded self-reflection. Many reflective assignments can guide students to examine their vocations—obituaries, failure resumés, letters modeled on the one in which the Dalai Lama informed Choeaor Dondup that he was the reincarnation of a great spiritual leader. (On the latter, see Carter Aikin’s post, “Please Steal This Assignment.”). But grading personal reflections can require ample amounts of time, and daunting levels of delicacy, unless teachers surrender to the Oprah Method (“And you get an A! And you get an A!”). 

Some of the same reflective goals can be met by integrating short ungraded exercises into existing academic assignments—for instance, asking students to answer questions about their process and what they learned from it. Exercises like this don’t require the time most students put into polished writing and most teachers put into thoughtful grading. But they can promote vocation by asking students to identify gifts, interests, and failures; attending to virtues, if the course integrates them; reiterating that anything worth doing will probably entail difficulties; and clarifying that even the teacher knows that academic coursework is just one piece of a student’s life. Questions might include versions of some of these:

  • What went well as you were working on the different stages of this project?
  • What was difficult? How did you handle those difficulties?
  • What did you learn about yourself as a thinker, writer, global citizen, future nurse, . . .?
  • What virtue(s) are you working on this semester? How did that go on this assignment?
  • What would you like to learn more about or do differently next time?
  • None of us can give 100% to every project: we have relationships to sustain and enjoy, other classes to work on, and all kinds of other commitments; sometimes we put things off; and we all need to sleep, eat, and breathe. Given that reality, about how much of your best effort went into this project? This question isn’t intended to judge you, just to help me give the most helpful feedback. Feel free to use a percentage and explain if you like.

Often, students make thoughtful connections across and beyond the course. A first-semester student, reflecting on her essay about Jewish students who face obstacles in observing religious holidays, wrote, “I learned how much this course has impacted my new-found capability to deeply sympathize with those of other religions. In [my site-visit project earlier in the semester], which I visited the Sinai Synagogue for, I noted how much my faith impacts many of my decisions. Now, I feel that I am digging even deeper into my faith being the cornerstone to my decisions and reactions because I am actively sympathizing with someone facing persecution and wanted to bring attention to this.”

Responses to these reflection questions don’t require grading; instead, they invite conversation. If a student mentions something that excited them, it’s easy to suggest ways to nurture those interests through a particular angle on an upcoming assignment, another course, or a club. If they respond to a question on difficulties by listing the efforts they made, they can get a quick affirmation of virtues like persistence. If they say their work isn’t great because they had too much going on that week and could only give the project 20%, they can get a note affirming that “good enough” or “done” is a lot of what college, and life, requires, as well perhaps a thank you for their honesty. Exercises like this can also alleviate one of the greatest grading challenges, namely what to say to a student whose academic work is weak: almost always, they can be sincerely commended for the self-awareness in their reflections.

Returning projects with comments but no grades. Grades are evil. Among other things, they keep students from reading the comments in which we’ve carefully affirmed their virtues and thus their vocations. 

For those who have to give grades, not giving grades out right away is countercultural enough to need explanation in class. But I’ve found it doesn’t take much: most students readily admit that they do just what I did in college, namely jumping to the end to see The Grade, then either skipping the comments entirely or skimming the comments through the lens of disappointment, anger, or satisfaction provided by The Grade. So I ask students to first read through the comments and raise any questions or objections they have; then, if they like, they can email (or, in a physical classroom, just come up) to get a grade. Kristy Louden, a high-school English teacher writing on the helpful site Cult of Pedagogy, formalizes the process by having students complete the project rubric and then meet with her for an in-class conference.  Of course, I tell students they can always request their grades immediately if they don’t want to play along. But the majority of students never ask for their grades; and over many years, only a couple students have objected to this practice, and none with apparent anger.

Developing compassion. In an admirably honest blog written for Inside Higher Ed, John Warner confronts a stack of essays with the realization that his students face the same struggle he does:

Just like our students, when confronted with a big task, at the base of the mountain, all I can think about is the difficulty of the climb, which leads to procrastination. This increases the pressure and the time constraints, and intensifies the ultimate unpleasantness.

John Warner, “Sometimes I Don’t Hate Grading. Why?” Inside Higher Ed, May 2015.

Warner goes on to discuss ways to structure assignments so that he doesn’t hate grading them. That’s worthy work, and many of those 5,800,000 google hits can help us do that. But before Warner heads there, he starts with an inherently virtuous move: equating the burdensome work that makes up his vocation of teaching, with the burdensome work that makes up his students’ vocation of learning. Every vocation, all work, includes such burdens. The struggle is real. None of us is alone in it.

I came to climb this mountain. – Eboo Patel

I have no fairy dust to scatter on piles made of papers, my own or others’, and I haven’t yet learned how not to dread the mountain Warner describes. But in the meantime, I try to see the task of reading my students’ work as a task that’s at the heart of my calling as a teacher, glamourless but humbling and worthy. In this effort, I appreciate another image of a mountain, from Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Leadership: A Primer. Patel, the founder of Interfaith Youth Core, narrates a litany of difficult comments he’s heard at meetings he’s convened—prejudices, challenges, misunderstandings of face-palming proportions. For someone who’s gathering people to promote interfaith understanding and cooperation, each comment could be heard as an obstacle, something to fix so he can move on to the work he really wants to be doing. Instead, Patel sees those comments as the very reason he does the work he does. “Look at this situation,” he advises, “the way a mountain climber looks at a mountain. The first reaction is not, ‘Hey, how did that get there?’ It is, ‘I came to climb this mountain.’”

For other posts by Anita Houck see Failing and Failing Better, Part I Teaching Vocation when You Don’t Have Time and Failing Better Part II. For more from Eboo Patel, listen to the episode “Charisma and Craft” at the NetVUE podcast series, Callings.

 A former high-school teacher and parish lay minister, Anita Houck is Professor of Religious Studies and Theology and Joyce McMahon Hank Aquinas Chair in Catholic Theology at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. She co-founded Saint Mary’s long-running program in vocation, Real Life Calling, and participated in the 2018-2019 NetVUE faculty workshop. Her research explores religion and humor, vocation and single life, and pedagogy. She teaches comparative theology, spirituality and comedy, and interfaith studies, and has received the College Theology Society’s Monika Hellwig Award for Teaching Excellence.

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