Originally published in the July, 2011 issue of English Journal
by Christopher Cotton
The reason why one is so vastly more fortunate to be a teacher of English, versus the uncapitalized subjects, is the grading. Yes, the grading. It’s a burden, it’s a bugaboo, it’s a bear. It’s the slayer of weekends. As Macbeth’s Gaelic teacher said, it doth murder sleep. And yet, if we are lucky enough to work in a district that does not overwhelm us with students, it is a source of lightness and rejuvenation.
Not always. There are plenty of times when I would echo Marianne Moore: “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.” Grading can get in the way—of my family, of my sanity, of my students’ education. And, no matter with what enthusiasm I approach a stack of essays, I might get beaten down by it. The poet Marianne Moore was talking about our subject, of course, not our job, but I’ll continue the quote: “however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it after all, a place for the genuine.”
When I find myself in that place for the genuine, that’s when I love my job. The grading of an individual essay is an occasion, a moment cut out from the regular march of time, an event of heightened consciousness. And though it’s a public act, it’s intensely private. I explain it to my students this way: it’s a meeting of minds. I expect them to dig into their hearts, and to grope outward into the unknown world, in every essay. And, as a reader, I expect the same of myself. What makes the write a rite is this commitment of reader and writer to find each other in a place for the genuine.
Sometimes there is nothing genuine in an essay. The whole damn thing might have been cut and pasted from cheateressays.com. Or the student might be too frightened, too tired or too lazy to access their own authenticity. But with good planning and good luck, these problems can be minimized. More likely impediments are on our side of the red pen: our own fear, fatigue and laziness.
The solution isn’t coffee, though that might help. Rather, we, like many of our students, may need an attitude adjustment. For those who love tinkering with car engines, that is a self-energizing activity. The attitude with which they approach the work refreshes them psychically. But other people groan when they pop the hood, and curse under their breath as they gaze down at the old clunker. The chore depletes energy. With grading, the trick is to acquire that attitude which makes it energy-producing.
My trick is to take a moment before I begin a stack of essays and say, quietly, Namaste.
It’s a very old Sanskrit word and a traditional Hindu greeting: literally, “I bow to you.” But many writers in English, especially those of a spiritual bent, get a little carried away, and maybe something gets found in translation. One yoga teacher offered: “That which is sacred within me salutes that which is sacred within you.” It’s a lovely sentiment, and perhaps for some Hindus, that is the deep power of the word. In any case, it works for me when I modify it as a pre-grading mantra: “That which is genuine within me, may it find that which is genuine within each essay.”
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Our assignments can be obstacles. If we make no invitation to the genuine, the student will either be obediently banal or be genuine in a destructive way. Either way, we lose—the grading is misery.
Formulae can have the same numbing effect. While boiler plates such as the five-paragraph essay may sometimes be unavoidable, and occasionally even useful, for our own sakes we have to minimize such institutionalized deadness. If the very structure we force students into is a cliché, we shouldn’t expect much originality.
Then there’s our method of grading. Rubrics have their place, but it isn’t a genuine one. They offer a tempting shortcut—and bypass the rougher, higher ground where minds can meet. By taking an essay as the sum of its parts, the rubric denies the essential mystery of any sincere piece of writing. I use rubrics for one-dimensional assignments that need a quick grade rather than a meaningful response—presentations, posters, etc.
Rubrics provide the comforting illusion of objectivity. But we can’t escape our subjectivity. And we shouldn’t commence our grading with the lie that we can. No student falls for it, even if we convince ourselves. We must continually inventory ourselves for favoritism, faulty assumptions and sloppy thinking. When we make a mistake, we must promptly admit it, fix it if we can, and learn from it. But we must accept our subjectivity. There’s no other route to the genuine.
Then there’s consistency, another bugaboo. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it “the hobgoblin of little minds.” Later in “Self-Reliance” he wrote: “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” I may not be a great soul, but I would like to grade soulfully. And this means, in effect, that I am open to be changed by a piece of writing. If the old proverb is correct, “You can never step into the same river twice,” then we will just have to admit: Two essays can never be graded by the same teacher.
* * *
We encourage our student-writers to take risks. Should we not take our own advice—and take risks in our grading? It might sound shocking at first. But if we don’t, aren’t we assuming that we’ve already reached some promised land of master teacher perfection? That we don’t need to grow? That the essay is a form without mystery? That the art of writing is a measurable, limited field of knowledge—a spreadsheet of words—and that we have the algorithm for converting it into a point value?
I must admit that a certain selfishness underlies this approach to grading. I believe that I have the basic human right to enjoy my work. I also believe that teacher and student are embarked upon a joint venture, and teachers lead not so much by knowing the way, but by being unafraid of the dark.
There’s a certain amount of idealism here, surely. I don’t live up to it all the time, maybe not half the time, but it’s what I always strive for. It’s the ideal I aspire to, and the sincerity of the labor is all I have to offer. That’s hard enough, anyway. Even now, as I do what is for me the pleasurable task of tinkering with my own writing, I’m procrastinating from a stack of essays.
But I will get to it. And I will start by taking a moment for my word.
Namaste. The word itself bows to us across the millennia and across the curving earth. The suffix, te, will be a familiar object to you if you know Spanish or French. It means “you,” in the familiar form, as direct object. It’s the long-lost twin sister of Shakespeare’s thee. The Indo-Europeans—that Stone Age people we know only by the linguistic record—carried this steadfast syllable, always the familiar, sometimes the object, and it became tu in Urdu, Gaelic and Latin, toe in Farsi, ti in Russian and Welsh. Language is full of such hidden connections, and who knows what doors and passages are still secret from us. Students, when they write, inhabit this ancient and amorphous structure that is ever being clumped, unclumped and reclumped together by the collective endeavor of human consciousness. They invite us in. How can we turn them down?