A Litany for Essay-Grading

Nov 29, 2017

When the Grading Session begins:

Remember that writing is not like mathematics or grammar, but like music and sports. It is learned not by problem-solving and checking, but by practice and coaching. 

Remember that, as in coaching, not all errors or weakness should be addressed at one time. I must limit my critique so my students can focus their practice.

Remember that, as in music and sports, no performance is ever “perfect”: all performances reach for a Platonic ideal that ever surpasses them. Remember I must not diminish this ideal in students’ minds by giving them easy A’s, and yet must not embitter them towards it by demanding they accomplish the unattainable.

Remember that, as in music and sports, technical perfection alone does not constitute greatness; as Arthur Rubenstein said, “I’m after the music, not after perfection.” Remember I must encourage students to chase the music in their writing, even when they can’t quite overcome comma splices. 

Remember that wise feedback is not like the Delphic Oracle (impressive but vague), nor like  Pharisaical law (detailed but overwhelming), but like Aslan’s instructions to Jill and Eustace in The Silver Chair: sufficient for hearts that attend. 

Remember St. Augustine’s testimony that he “endeavor[ed] to be one of those who write because they have made some progress, and who, by means of writing, make further progress.”

Remember that the small things make the great ones: great paintings are formed from unexceptional brushstrokes on plain canvas; great symphonies by brief notes from indistinguishable instruments; and great sculptures by imperceptible flecks from a simple chisel. Just so, the tedious, unglamorous labor of correcting misplaced modifiers, suggesting stronger verbs, and explaining the effects of dashes and semicolons is true participation in the great art of writing. 

Remember Aristotle believed that whatever has a beginning will have an end—even the most daunting stack of essays. 

When the Grading Session waxes long:

Remember that the patience of God commissioned countless prophets and judgments to repeat the same warnings to the same nation for the same senseless sins; remember that I practice God-like-ness by marking the same silly errors in the same students’ writing times past counting. 

Remember that even God’s patience does not negate His final judgment: recalcitrant warning-scoffers must be made to face it at the end of days, and students who continually disregard all instruction will earn a failing grade at end of quarter.

Remember the teachers who shaped my own soul through patient reading and attentive critique. 

Remember that I am a body, not a grading machine, and I will grade too harshly if my attitude is poor, my back tired, or my blood sugar low.

When the Grading Session is triumphantly finished and the essays turned in, only to be immediately replaced by a fresh stack of essays in need of grading: 

Remember that a vocation does not concern itself with completion, but faithfulness.

Remember that “Word become flesh” is the great Truth towards which all writing points by analogy; that an incarnational kind of union exists between words and persons; that in dealing with students’ words I am, truly, dealing with their souls. 

Remember that teaching souls to use words is a high calling of which I am unworthy.

Remember that, in helping students learn to write, I am helping them learn to think, to imagine, to contemplate, to consider, to discern, to judge, to savor, to understand, to wonder. 

Remember that I really would not trade the depth of relationship which writing makes possible for the ease of Scantron tests which I too often envy. 

Remember that, as the night cometh when no man may work, so the holidays cometh when no teacher must grade. 

Lindsey Brigham Knott

Lindsey Brigham Knott

Lindsey Knott relishes the chance to learn literature, composition, rhetoric, and logic alongside her students at a classical school in her North Florida hometown. She and her husband Alex keep a home filled with books, instruments, and good company.