Adjuncts and Grading Writing

One of the factors defining academic writing, and distinguishing it from writing in the rest of the world, is that it is graded. Grading is an area of ongoing debate in academia, especially grading writing. Do a search on grading and you’ll find discussions of methods, criteria, standards—as well as a steady string of anti-plagiarism screeds and the occasional wincing humorous (or is it “humorous”?) essay on student bloopers and accidental self-exposure. Grading is time-consuming, exhausting, and marked by student resistance in particularly vivid ways.

One of the more complicated and under-examined aspects of the swamp that is grading is how it is changing as adjuncts make up an increasingly larger percentage of academics. This change shows up in multiple areas.

I teach for more than one school, and each school wants to serve its students well. However, what “well” means varies according to context. What’s more, several of the schools also want to help their adjuncts teach well, and several of them want uniformity across the curriculum. In practice, this means providing things like rubrics to help adjuncts grade.

That’s all well and good, but it is another place where good intentions lead…well, let’s just say elsewhere. I’ll focus on rubrics as an example. Each school that I teach for that provides rubrics provides two things: flawed rubrics and standards I don’t completely believe in. Both are understandable. It’s hard to imagine a perfect grading rubric, and it’s equally unlikely that your basic cranky and opinionated composition instructor (me) would agree fully with anyone else’s standards. However…there’s also a third factor in place, and a fourth, and a fifth, and maybe more.

The third factor is that the rubrics I’m using aren’t just imperfect (that’s the nature of reality). They are someone else’s imperfection, to the point where there are items on the grading scale I don’t understand. My rule of thumb is, if I don’t understand it, my students likely don’t understand it.

The fourth factor is that these rubrics come from different sources at the different schools, and those sources are often a) collective, b) unknown, and c) likely to change over time. In practice, this means that there is no one to ask if I don’t understand a rubric I’ve been given in most instances, because those handing it on don’t know how it was produced, or know who wrote it but that person is gone, etc.

The fifth factor is that only one of the schools I teach for (Baker College) has been willing to pay for the time needed for the adjuncts to grade as a group and achieve some degree of uniformity. That means that in practice, even clearly articulated rubrics that I think I understand vary wildly in application. (For example, I’ve been told to fail students for 1 plagiarized line and to not deduct points for anything below 16 percent plagiarism…by administrators in the same school. I’ve also had another administrator tell me that an A in spelling and mechanics meant a paper was excellent, and a B meant it was good, C average and so on…but when I quantified that, I was told that 40 spelling errors wouldn’t lower the grade below A in that category. )

Taken together, the result is grading writing that is inorganic to the instructor and more time-consuming than allowing adjuncts to generate their own rubrics. It creates the side effects of control (fear of failure, a sense of being watched) without any of the raised quality or uniformity it is intended to produce. It is also, quite frankly, a model of wretched scholarship. These rubrics are written by…someone. Somewhere. They appear and are to be applied, like Wikipedia entries, but with the power to distort your GPA.

Don’t get me wrong. I had tenured faculty do a wretched job of grading my writing on both the undergraduate and graduate level. Some of those experiences are legendary. But those standards and experiences were not institutionally imposed. They were the result of quirky faculty members.

This new structure of writing grading creates a kind of weary and bureaucratic hypocrisy for the adjuncts who grade writing.

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  1. Hey VB.
    I think the issue isn’t rubrics, but standardized rubrics in a standardized program. I’ve seen great success in skill development using rubrics that are fitted to specific assignments. However, creating a college-wide rubric produces just another form.

    So, the issue isn’t the rubric, it is how rubrics are used.

  2. Hi Greg, I always appreciate reading your thoughts in this blog. This particular entry prompts a few questions: Does it seem to you that there is a causal relationship between rubrics (and the implied standardization of curriculum) and skills not improving in composition courses? Were composition skills better before rubrics entered the picture? Of course, too many factors are in the mix to sort out all of that, but my intuition tells me rubrics sure aren’t contributing to learning and mastery of skills. Right now, I’m not seeing a way through to the next, improved method of assessment. Ideas?

  3. That’s very cool, Candy, and I’m glad the post was helpful.

    Please let us know what the faculty response is.


  4. This article seem particularly significant to me as I am a Director of Adjunct and Faculty Services at a university. I have passed this along to the fulltime faculty members who are in charge of creating grading rubics for their course development. Thank you as always for providing insights to the “adjunct” state of mind.

  5. I hear this, loud and clear. I teach high school, where uniformity is pressed upon us from above in effort to squeeze out some recognizable better performance (i.e., test scores). We are all but forced to defend our grading practices with rubrics…often to the death of any legitimate feedback or sensible grades for the students.

    Worse, we know that once they hit college, it is a total crapshoot for whether all of the quantified, orderly, “good writing” will get them anywhere with whoever grades them next.

  6. Right on. From one old school cranky comp teacher with 25 years of grading papers who still believes in academic freedom, personalized commentary, and idiosyncratic teaching, which keeps learning alive and diverse and innovative.

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