There are many different stories of my teaching life, but any truthful version has to include this moment when I sit at the coffee shop, stack of papers in hand, on the clock. I have promised students that I will return their papers to them today, with grades and substantial feedback, but two hours before class begins, I haven’t even looked at the papers. I have plenty of excuses and a couple of very good reasons. But then I always do.
I know that two hours isn’t going to be enough time to get through the stack. The zippiest pace I ever manage when I comment on student papers is ten minutes a paper, and I can only go that fast once I’ve read a few, I know what I’m looking for, I’m in the rhythm. The first four papers will easily take me a full hour. Which means that the two hours I’ve given myself today is perhaps enough time to get through one-quarter of the stack. But I always engage in the magical thinking that it’s not going to take as much time as it always has every other time I’ve ever commented on papers over the last fifteen years.
I always tell myself I’m going to go fast, limit my commenting, use a rubric. But then when I sit down with that stack of papers and start reading, I can’t. A human being wrote that paper to try to communicate something to someone, and I am the someone who needs to engage, encourage, challenge, talk, talk back. The margins become the space for our conversation, and I fill the white space with blue ink as I try to be the teacher I wish I’d had–the one who engages in the ideas and content of the piece, the one who takes the writer seriously as a thinker and writer, the one who never rewrites a sentence to sound more like me, the one who can forgive typos, the one who notices particularly felicitous phrasings and underlines and stars and exclamation marks with abandon.
I dread the work of grading before I start. I carry that stack of papers around with me for a week before I can bring myself to start reading them, but once I start, I wonder why it took me so long. Once I start, I want to keep going, keep reading, keep talking and talking back.
On my teaching evaluations, no one ever “strongly agrees” with the statement, “Returns assignments promptly.”
I’m not entirely sure what to make of this procrastination. Every year, I vow I’m going to change. I’m going to become that teacher who turns around a set of papers in 24 hours. Or if I am going to take five days to get through a set, I’m going to comment on five a day for five days rather than twenty-five at once. I am going to be disciplined, organized, orderly.
I tell my writing students that procrastination is part of the writing process. It’s not actually procrastination: it’s percolation. We need time to mull and sit with an idea before we write. The piece may be growing in our minds when we don’t even realize it. We don’t need to hurry the percolation, and we don’t have to feel like failed writers and human beings because we need time.
If you’re doing it right, the act of grading is really an act of thinking and writing as well. But no amount of magical thinking can convince me that I need percolation time before I can comment on a stack of papers.
I make a valiant effort, but I only finish a fraction of the papers before it’s time to set them aside and prepare for class. I don’t have their papers to return to them as I promised, and I apologize and bite my tongue to keep the excuses and very good reasons inside. There are no recriminations from students. They don’t seem to require my guilt, but I feel guilty anyway.
And I vow to myself that next time, things are going to be different. I am going to start grading that next set of papers the very day I receive them. Really. I mean it. For sure this time.
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