By Rich Russell
As an English teacher, no matter how many times you have taught a class, fussed and fretted with the lesson plans like a nervous parent, there will always be more papers to grade. One of the scenes I remember most vividly from the movie Sylvia was Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, slouched down in a chair despondently, with a bright reading lamp burning upon her like a reckoning, a pile of unmarked papers before her, while Ted Hughes was off gallivanting about somewhere. (See minutes 4-7 here.) At that moment, I understood the pain of Sylvia Plath more than I ever had from just reading her poetry. For I have been there myself, Sylvia, in that same chair with those same unmarked papers, all whining, demanding attention—a frantic sea of run-on sentences and half-articulated conceits of what might be but isn’t.
You’re thinking: “Where is your thesis statement in this?” (I’m getting there.)
In the early days of online education, grades were all crudely administered through Microsoft Word. Earlier still, I remember my mom actually printing out student work, assigning comments with her trusty red pen, and mailing back papers to her students through the Post Office; remember the Post Office?
By the time I started teaching online, there was Grademark. A new age had dawned! Still, no software can actually grade the papers for us: this is why I feel fairly certain that online education will never entirely replace the English teacher. Someone, after all, must sit behind the burnished glow of the computer screen, and assess the content of the work; a computer cannot account for acceptable risks, for intricate variations in sentence structure, for the sentence fragments that just might work, for the hours of unpaid toil. Yet. Still, in Grademark there was a new method for being able to comment in-text with Quickmarks, a series of pre-loaded and custom comments for the teacher to click and neatly insert directly overtop the student’s own work. Rubrics could be attached. Summative comments provided. It all seemed so civilized!
Until this past summer, when Grademark unexpectedly and most indecently turned against me. (Et tu, Grademark?) I wrote to the company, reporting the bugs. “Is it just me?” I asked, and was assured it was not. They were working on the problem. I didn’t hear back. This September, I returned to Grademark like an expectant husband ready for dinner (“Honey, I’m home!”), only to find that, in the few short weeks after the end of my summer classes, but before the beginning of this fall term, a new version of Grademark had been launched. There’s an option to return to the old, still-glitchy version, but I decided to embrace the new. What did I have to lose? Colleagues groused, “Oh, are you using the new Grademark?”
But I am here to say that, after two months’ time now, I think I like the new version, and here is why.
First, I find the new color scheme (the listless blues and grays) calming. The Quickmarks are still there, and it’s easier to quickly search for the ones you want by throwing a few characters (even just a punctuation mark) into the search box and getting a series of choices; then you need only decide whether you want to tell the student “No comma,” “Missing comma,” or “Comma splice,” for example. Second, the rubric and summative comments are in a frame on the right side of the paper. Thus, it’s easier to see both the paper itself and what I’m writing; I can scroll through the student’s work to find the major errors that I have noted and need to further stress in the summation and on the rubric. But here’s the real gem. New Grademark allows me to switch, almost seamlessly, between the Originality Report (courtesy of Turnitin, the plagiarism detection software) and the comments I am making; you can even layer the Originality report on top of Grademark! Better still, there’s a drop-down menu that allows me to easily toggle between a revised paper and an earlier draft, so that I can note if the student has heeded my counsel for the revision or just turned in the same paper again, hoping that I wouldn’t notice that nothing much had changed except a few miscreant commas replaced here and there. (FYI students: I notice!)
There are a few things I miss, when I sit with my coffee in the morning, staring out the rain-dappled window remembering Old Grademark. I miss how the Old Grademark allowed me to cross out parts of the student’s paper: there are often times when it’s more direct (and authentic) just to cross out all those unnecessary words and phrases than to ramble on to the student about less being more and you need to weed the garden and such. (I hope the reader doesn’t find this too disingenuous, coming from me, this less being more business: projection, perhaps.) In addition, I haven’t figured out yet how to highlight student text in the new version, even though you can. And I will (figure it out), I’m sure, given enough time.
Moving forward: I’m sure as soon as I’ve mastered New Grademark, an even newer, sexier version will be launched. (“Honey, I’m — hey, you’re not the Grademark I was expecting!”) Wondering who will be there, waiting for me on the other side of the Turnitin door, heightens the anxious feeling I always have when grading that first batch of papers each term. When, after all,
so much depends upon that first batch of papers,
graded in blue-gray Grademark,
So no time to be chicken.
About the Teacher in Pajamas: Rich Russell earned associate degrees in liberal arts and general studies from Atlantic Cape, a bachelor’s in English and creative writing from New York University, a master’s in secondary education from New School University and a master’s in English literature from University College at the University of London. Russell has been an adjunct instructor at Atlantic Cape since 2007 and served as co-advisor of Atlantic Cape’s student-run literary magazine, Rewrites.