I must say that my least favorite part of my job is grading. Not so much the reading-and-commenting-on-papers part; that's fine, although the time constraints imposed on it sometimes mean that I can't do as intricate a job as I would like. But the actual assignment of grades is something I continually struggle with -- in part because I'd prefer to simply give feedback and let people improve their essays based on that feedback, in part because letter grades are a rather blunt instrument for expressing someone's performance, and in part because there's a temptation with grades to compare people to one another rather than comparing them to the assigned task. A rubric helps, as does a specific outline of what I am looking for, but those are only guidelines; they do not spare one from the agonizing moment beyond any and all systems of rules when one has to decide on the application of the rules and judge what applies in which context. Wittgenstein was right: there is no such thing as a self-executing rule, and no such thing as a rule-system finely enough detailed to cover all possible contingencies.

People say that grades are "subjective." Not quite. Grades are certainly not objective in the sense that they flow from the Nature Of Things; this is true even in mathematics and physics, where notions like "partial credit" and "elegance" are verbal fillers that cover over those places where the rule-system does not specify precisely how to "go on" in the situation. It's like those unappealable "judgment calls" that umpires make in baseball games; you can disagree, but there's no recourse. A good umpire can use those moments to produce an exciting and fair game, as when Don Larsen's last pitch of his World Series perfect game was called a strike even though it appears that it was well outside of the strike zone (Stephen Jay Gould has a great essay about this in his book Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville). I'd like to think that this is what I do when grading: use my judgment to produce a better performance, a better game overall.

But that still doesn't diminish how frustrating and difficult a job it is. Sigh. Only about half of the research prospecti left to grade…

[Posted with ecto]

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