Hi, I’m your “Grader”: The Dehumanized University

Oilstick monotype by Eric Waldemar, Bewigged magistrate figure? Tent?

Everyone says they hate to judge other people, but for many people, that’s obviously untrue. I really can’t stand it, though. I’ve been grading almost continuously for weeks, for five different university classes, only one of which I’m actually teaching. What hurts is that I’m obliged to judge people’s ideas in a way that discourages insight and rewards obedience more than engagement. 

Last semester, many already large class sizes were doubled, and many adjuncts like myself were laid off. I was given the opportunity not to teach, but to grade papers for the Art History class that I’d been teaching and developing for several years (to often rave reviews). (An adjunct is not fired or laid off, merely not renewed, a crucial distinction when presenting staff cuts to the public and the press. Formally, no positions were eliminated.) In lean times, I felt I had to accept what was offered, enthusiastically, you bet, love to, yep. In any case, I obviously already know the material inside out, so I might as well do it, despite the indignity and the pay cut.

These “restructured” Art History courses are now massive (one class has 125 students), and when I introduce myself to the class as the “grader,” I have to let them know that, if the course they’re in seems dehumanizing, that’s because it is, by design, and they need to keep it in mind when they write essays. When a course is expanded to this astonishing size, it’s impossible to do much more than see whether students have “checked the boxes” and followed instructions carefully.

Genius can’t be rewarded in this situation. A brilliant, sensitive, publishable response may very well fail on the assignment, because in a situation like this one, all evaluation has to be strict. literal, and clear. There is little room for subtlety when one is spending 3 days straight, morning to night, grading 500-or-so short papers with strictly defined specs.

The shrewdest students, even if they’re capable of insight and subtle thought in other contexts, will write something that fills in each of the necessary blanks, obviously and immediately, knowing that I will very likely come across their particular paper after spending 8 hours working my way through a stack of material, on day 3 of grading. Don’t be too clever, please. I will miss your point if it’s not stripped down to something simple. Brilliant insights can only hurt your grade, because they might distract me as I numbly scan the page to see if you’ve “checked all the boxes.”

I didn’t decide to put this many people in the class, but I feel like I have some obligation to tell it like it is, so they know how to do well if they want to. If you forget the dehumanizing reality that’s built into the structure of the course, you may do poorly, even though you’re deeply engaged in the material. For this class, write prose like you’re filling out a form. I may try to dress it up a little when talking to the actual crowd, but that’s what it amounts to, honestly.

Don’t misunderstand – the current instructor does a great job, but with this many people, a separate grader is essential, and my personal attention has to be mechanized. I thought the classes I’d been teaching, with 65 people in the room, were large, but this is a giant step beyond. For an excellent art department, it seems problematic to have shockingly large lecture courses be most students’ first experience of the university’s art program. (Faculty had no part in the decision.) The department’s studio courses and Art History program are excellent, but if one wants to recruit possible arts majors from the introductory courses, one has to first reassure them that the rest of the courses will be smaller, more intimate, and that their unique point of view will be celebrated and developed. Despite their first impressions.

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1 reply
  1. carl fuermann
    carl fuermann says:

    this is clearly a frustrating scenario and so much is wrapped up into it that ultimately funnels down to you and a pile of papers that must be mechanically evaluated for the ultimate stamp of approval that must fit into the required bell curve.

    you are a valuable player and others like you that unfortunately have to deal with a system that has evolved to such a level that is far from what should be coming out of the concept of “higher education”

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