Grading Burnout

Day 13 of #100DaysToOffload


It is wrap-up time in academia, at least for me, and I have gotten to the point with grading where it is a torture to sift through the online gradebook. Some of this is self-inflicted, as I tend to favor high-frequency low stakes assessments. So lots of assignments that count for very little means better learning for students but more of a slow burn for me. (The alternative would be epic grading sessions to plow through a small number of high stakes assignments) Over the past few years, my ability to punch grades and feedback into the system online has degraded to the point that I seem to be having some sort of traumatic reaction any time I launch the platform. I grow immediately angry and resentful and want to do anything in the world that is not this.

It's burnout, textbook-case, obvious and long-simmering.

But it's more than that too.

At first I thought that I was procrastinating a bit with final grades because of some sort of lingering fear of transitions. It is the last major thing I have to do before leaving. Everything after this is clean-up and tidying. It's the last publicly professorial act that I do before heading out of academia after [large number redacted] years. A student in one of my classes this term mentioned that she didn't want us to skimp on class sessions at the end — even though everyone was tired and worn down from the semester over video chat — because she was graduating and she kind of didn't want it to end. I thought about that, considered it. But that's not what's going on for me. I have some emotions and such about ending and transitioning but they are mostly relief. Endless relief that I don't have to worry about the ridiculous things that I have had to pretend to care about for so long. Relief followed quickly by hope and excitement and feelings of freedom and possibility as I haven't felt in nearly 10 years. So, no, not really holding on to anything there.

Grading is the part of the gig where I most visibly started to stumble. Other parts of burnout I could hide, but grading was where I knew that I had nothing left to give. It's the part of the academic gig where there has always been the biggest distance between what I'm told I have to do and what I want to do. Grading is one of those systems that has become, for the students at my institution, purely transactional. I don't blame them for that; it's how they've been conditioned to treat grades. But it gets in the way of learning, and that annoys me. Yes, I also have grown weary of the constant attempts at grade negotiation come the end of the term. But ultimately I think that grading has become symbolic for me of some sort of mismatch between a mission which is about learning and one that is about fulfilling requirements and satisfying bureaucratic mechanisms. I didn't get into this gig to be a cog in a grading machine. It's why I can still speak with students individually and give feedback across hours and days or correspond with them and interact, but I can't do it if it's just to feed the system. I could keep teaching ad infinitum if that grading and “requirements” component were removed; but locked in a system where teaching is inextricable from requirements and a very traditioanl grading structure, I can't do any of that for another minute. I'm already broken. That says something about me and my personality but also something about higher ed and the difficulty of teching at scale in the current environment.

Of grading tools in particular, in the last 20 years we've gone from systems where students would have at least some responsibility for tracking their own grades to online systems where students assume that some external tool will track every minute detail of their performance in a class. This is a separate topic, but underscores my frustration. I have a note to students at the beginning of a course about how they are responsible for tracking their grades and the online gradebook should be treated as a convenience, but I don't think that sinks in. They expect everything auto-calculated, auto-recorded, immediately updated (forgetting of course that there is a person — namely me — who has to do hours upon hours of labor in order to feed that apparently “automatic” system). This has a lot of negative consequences for students. They become passive witnesses to their performance in a class. It also means that, as in so many things in higher ed, responsibility has shifted from students to professors. And it hides my labor, which I of course find frustrating. My time is spent oiling the gears of an online grading tool, trying to cajole it to display what it should, and wondering whether the machine is serving me or I the machine.

Those are the components of burnout — frustration with the tools, mismatch of mission, feeling like labor isn't acknowledged or visible. And maybe that is all the small stuff that together feeds my rage at grading. I am grasping for something more than that because I think that it's not just a me thing. This past year in particular has seen a huge rise of interest in alternative online education. In some areas of professional skills training — coding, data science, design, etc. — the kind of training one can get on these non-university platforms is both robust and cost effective. Universities should be on high alert; these alternatives are compelling. All that universities have over online platforms is the inertia of their credentialing, i.e. being able to offer a degree, and a certain kind of experience that they might be selling. Some universities may have brand loyalty and, of course, the top universities are in a different category. The Ivies, etc. aren't going anywhere. But in general, grading is one of the most visible distinctions between online learning platforms and higher ed. In a strange way, online learning platforms do more to focus on actual teaching and making sure people learn skills than, in my experience, my institution has done in its classes. We're required, as faculty, to waste endless effort on structuring requirements and on the minute details of grading. Sending course proposals through the curriculum committees leaves me thinking always that they don't really care about the teaching. They really just care about the logistics.

The time I waste thinking about grading, oiling the rusty gears of the online grading tool, feels like one small creaking groan as the university slips off its lofty peak further down towards ruin. That is hyperbolic I suppose, but also what has been floating around at the edge of my mind as I get this last round of grading done. This sort of labor is wasted, but it's also a sign of what's wrong with the university. So much effort on the epiphenomena of education, to the detriment of other things. So, yes, I resent it as a personal time waster, but not just because it feels like that for me, or out of some sense of selfishness. I want students to have feedback on their learning. That's what I signed up for. But grading is now something else. It's just gears spinning in the air, useless and counterproductive. Fuel for the voracious maw of the institution, justified because that's how things have been done and propelled by the inertia that keeps higher ed chugging along, oblivious to all else.