One woman's trash is another woman's fashion

It’s a gray and rainy day–a damp, drizzly November in my soul–and I spent most of my office hours grading papers. We’re at the point of the semester when I could grade 24/7, and the bottom of my paper-pile would still be far, far away.

Sadly, I have things to do besides grade, so I chip away at my paper-piles during the smidgens of time between classes, meetings with students, and the perpetual need to prep class after class. (The biggest challenge in teaching six classes isn’t that you have six classes’ worth of papers to grade; it’s that every moment you spend in class teaching is a moment you aren’t reading papers.)

I’m writing these words in a notebook while my first-year writing students are crafting opening anecdotes for the essay draft that’s due next week: another batch of papers for my pile. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Toledo, I sometimes would go to University Hall late at night with nothing but a notebook, and I’d sit at the front of an empty classroom writing, imagining the day when I’d be a college professor sitting at my desk writing while my students sat quietly working at theirs.

This was the late 1980s, so I had no idea my eventual students would compose on laptops, tablets, and phones more often than with pen and paper. And I had no idea then how many papers I’d be reading now. How could I have known? Grading papers is invisible work: I never actually saw my professors doing it. Instead, I saw them lecturing in class or looking profound during office hours, when they were invariably poring over a book, never student papers or that more recent bane of modern academic life: email.

When I was an undergraduate, I never took freshman composition, the class I now primarily teach: the adjunct’s bread and butter. I never wrote drafts that were commented on then returned to revise. Instead, I took Honors Readings Conference my freshman year, and I met with my instructor face-to-face to talk about every paper I wrote. There might have been comments on those essays: honestly, I can’t recall. What I remember were the conversations I had with my professors and the awe-inspiring realization that they took my ideas seriously enough to encourage me to think about them even more deeply.

I’m not sure I’ve ever accomplished that in any of my written comments on student drafts: I’m not sure (ultimately) that these comments are even the point. What I had no way of knowing when I sat writing at the front of those empty late-night classrooms when I was an undergraduate in Ohio was how much of my life would be frittered away grading papers and how little of it would be spent face-to-face with my students, having the kind of deep conversations I so enjoyed. My expectations then seem as removed from my current reality as the height of today’s paper-pile.

Beginning and end

The past month or so has been crazy. Days after we put Bobbi to sleep, J left for a two-week business trip, leaving me to tend the house and pets during the busiest time of the semester…and while J was gone, Toivo spent an unplanned week at the Angell Animal Medical Center being treated for a massive abscess in one of her hind legs. Toivo’s been home for a week, J’s been home a little more than that, and today I submitted the first of two batches of final grades: not yet the end of my semester, but another step closer.

Hairpin turns

This past month or so has felt like a marathon with an ever-shifting finish line. Weeks ago while J was out of town, one of our neighbors invited me to an Easter gathering at her house, and I begged out, choosing to focus on my chores and paper piles instead. I finished those chores and those papers, but others appeared in their place: this is, after all, the nature of both housework and paper-grading. Every time I see our neighbor, she asks whether I’m done grading, and every time, I say the same thing: not yet, not yet. It’s not that I’m not making progress; it’s that there always is more.

For good or ill, this is what it’s like to teach college composition at multiple institutions: as soon as you finish reading one batch of papers, there’s another coming in. I’ve come to see my workload as being like the tide: first one wave, then the next, then the next.

Turns

Today when I submitted final grades for my classes at Babson College, I took a minute to breathe a sigh of relief…and then I wrote an updated to-do list with the final papers and projects my Framingham State students are submitting today and Thursday. My final Framingham State grades are due next Monday, and that is when I can gratefully collapse into an exhausted heap of relief. Until then, I keep my head down and count every item crossed off my list as another step closer to done.

I took these photos of the memorial labyrinth at Boston College weeks ago, after J had left for his business trip and before Toivo’s unplanned stint at Angell. It was a pretty day when I felt like I had my life and to-do list under control, and then things took a proverbial turn.

Baltimore oriole

I taught my final class of the semester last Thursday, and today I collected my first batch of final portfolios. In between, I spent the weekend catching up on sleep, readying myself for this week’s final onslaught of paper-grading.

Halcyon Lake

I never know how to describe the final weeks of the semester. Are things winding up, or are they winding down? My students’ anxiety and caffeine levels are rising as they study for exams and submit final papers and projects, but other academic activities are slowing to a halt. At the end of every semester, I look forward to Finals Week, when I have piles of papers to read but no classes, committee meetings, or other academic obligations.

Robin in redbud

So whether the semester is winding up or down, I’m looking forward to a chance to unwind. Last week I met Leslee at Mount Auburn Cemetery for a quick walk after work: the first time I’d been there all semester. It was delightful to take a brief stroll among flowers and birdsong before heading back to my desk, a cup of tea, and my waiting paper-piles.

My favorite part is the wrapping

We’ve reached the almost-end of another semester:  I taught my last Fall semester class this past Tuesday, and now I’m hunkered down at home with my end-term grading.  English professors love to complain about their grading piles, and I’m no exception…but even grading piles of exams and essay portfolios isn’t too terribly bad when you can lounge around the house doing it.

Supermarket snowman

After more than two decades (!!!) of college teaching, I’ve established a tried-and-true routine for the almost-end of the semester. The last week or two of classes, I lose sleep commenting on student papers, offering last-minute feedback on rough drafts my students will revise and re-submit to me in their final portfolios. This final push to the end of the semester feels like the end, but it’s only the first step: I liken it to a mountaineer’s trek to base camp. The way is all uphill, but you haven’t even begun the real climb.

Pellegrino Christmas tree

Finals week is when the big paper piles roll in, but before I get down to the business of grading, grading, grading, I invariably spend an inordinate amount of time getting all my organizational ducks in a row. In the past, I’ve likened this to a painter preparing a canvas: before I can tackle my grading piles, there is a long laundry-list of other, unrelated tasks to tend to, like sending Christmas cards, wrapping presents, and sorting through the bills and other mail that accumulated over the sleep-deprived final weeks of the semester.

Today I almost-finished these mundane chores, so tomorrow I’ll start grading in earnest, my proverbial deck cleared of other demands. So far, the weather has cooperated: today was snowy, so I left the house only when J and I walked to lunch, and tomorrow is supposed to be warm and rainy, a sloppy, snow-melting day that will offer the perfect backdrop for a day at my desk, reading exams and essay portfolios over a bottomless cup of tea.

2016 Boston Marathon

This coming week is the last week of classes, and I’ve been buried in student essay drafts. My first-year writing students have been writing essay drafts all semester, and I need to comment on those drafts before my students revise them for inclusion in their final portfolios. My students are always shocked to see in retrospect how much they’ve written over the course of the semester: when you write one paper (and one page) at a time, it’s easy to lose track of how many words you’ve produced.

2016 Boston Marathon

A college semester is a marathon, not a sprint. The only way to write a college essay is word by word, and that’s also the only way to read and comment on student essay drafts. For most of the semester, I drag my feet and do anything in my power to avoid my paper-piles, but during the last few weeks of the term, I turn into a paper-reading machine. Every year, I wonder why I assign so much writing; every year, I wonder why I went into English, a field where assigning and reading student papers is unavoidable. Whereas my students are shocked to realize how much writing they’ve done, the cumulative weight of their words comes as no surprise to me. The marathon that is a college semester is a course I’ve run many times before.

Click here for my complete photo set from this year’s Boston Marathon. Enjoy!

Tea and chocolate

Every year, I eagerly anticipate Thanksgiving, when a brief break from teaching gives me a chance to tackle my paper-piles. All this week, I’ve repeated my usual mid-November mantra of “It’s almost Thanksgiving,” and on Tuesday, I went to Trader Joe’s to stock up on chocolate bars. Today, a shipment of assorted black and herbal teas J ordered for his office arrived, and I set aside a dozen of my favorite varieties–both caffeinated and herbal–to fuel next week’s marathon grading sessions.

It's a dog's life

Because of today’s Veterans’ Day holiday, I’ve spent the day at home commenting on papers and prepping tomorrow’s classes: the kind of thing you do on a gray, drizzly day when you’re up to your eyeballs in essay drafts.

Morning fluffiness

Gray, drizzly days are perfect for napping, towering piles of student papers are unbelievably soporific, and staying awake on a stay-at-home grading day isn’t any easier when you’re surrounding by sleeping pets who have perfected the fine art of rainy-day snoozing. When I used to teach online, I’d sometimes refer to our menagerie of pets as my “teaching assistants,” but today, my so-called assistants have done nothing more taxing than snore.

Scooby and Groucho

Today is Veteran’s Day, so I have a rare weekday off. My ideal schedule would be to teach on campus a couple days a week while spending the other days working from home, grading and prepping for classes, but at the moment I teach somewhere five days a week. This means I direly miss the grading days I used to have when I had a lighter teaching schedule: days when I could sleep in, catch up with housework, and grade papers in a leisurely fashion, never changing out of sweatpants if I didn’t feel like it.

Snowflake lounges

Although I’ve done it for several semesters now, teaching five days a week still feels alien to me. Folks who work nine-to-five jobs have to show up for work five days a week, but they get their weekends off and aren’t necessarily required to give presentations every day. (Indeed, the number of weekday Facebook posts shared by my nine-to-five friends suggests they have quite a bit of downtime while sitting in their office cubes.) Perhaps because I’m a closet introvert, teaching five days a week is tiring: a constant drain. It feels like I constantly have to stay “on” as I perform in front of a class, without enough time to regenerate my game face.

Rocco in window

Truth be told, I didn’t become an English major because I wanted to spend lots of time standing in front of classrooms of often-indifferent undergraduates talking about commas and apostrophes; I became an English major because I like to spend time alone reading and writing. At this point of the semester, I feel starved for unstructured quiet time, even if all I’m doing with that time is grading papers. Grading, after all, is where I meet my students’ work individually, and it’s where I feel like I can make the most difference, apart from the group dynamic of the classroom. In the classroom, it’s a constant effort to keep my students entertained, awake, and engaged. The real work in a writing class, however, happens in the quiet space between an individual student and her or his writing, and that’s what you encounter when you read your students’ work.

Groucho

So this morning I slept in, and I’ve been spending the day grading papers in sweatpants, catching up with housework, and otherwise enjoying a day when I don’t have to stand in front of a classroom and talk. It feels like something I’ve been sorely missing.

This is my Day Eleven contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Film the police

I’m back teaching today after having cancelled several days’ classes due to sickness last week. My lungs are still phlegmy and my voice is still froggy, but I’m slowly getting my energy back. There was a point last week when I didn’t know whether I had either the energy or the motivation to draw another breath, so after hitting that sort of rock-bottom, anything better is a vast improvement.

Black tags

While I was sick, I didn’t get much done in the way of paper-grading: I barely had enough energy to cough, do a middling-job with household chores, and drag my tired body to the classes I did hold. At this point of the semester, I’m usually feeling completely overwhelmed with grading, but this semester, being sick has shifted my priorities. I’m more behind with paper-grading than ever: I was falling behind when I got sick, and getting sick made me fall even further behind. Normally, this would be a source of unending stress: I hate being behind. But this term, I’m recalibrating my own expectations, having learned (or been reminded) that I can do only so much work before my body says “Enough.”

Somes

By this point in a typical semester, I’d be a slave to my to-do list, marshalling out an impossible list of tasks for each day in a vain attempt to catch up, then growing increasingly discouraged as I inevitably fail to check off each day’s ambitious goals. Today, I updated my daily to-do lists so that each day includes the generic list item “Read papers.” The item doesn’t say how many papers I need to read each day: it just says I need to spend some time doing it. Even such a subtle shift in to-do list nomenclature feels incredibly freeing. Compared to, say, lying in bed coughing, sitting and quietly reading papers sounds almost relaxing, at least when you have the energy to do it.

Graffiti wall

I’m learning, in other words, that what I dislike about paper-grading isn’t the actual reading and commenting on papers: it’s my obsessive fixation on the bottom of the paper pile. When I focus on how many more papers I have to read, I grow tired and anxious, eager for the work to be done. But when I focus on the top of the current paper pile—the paper I’m currently reading, and possibly the one immediately after that—reading papers isn’t too onerous a chore. You just sit there and read papers until you’re tired, and then you do something else: a lesson only being sick can teach you.

This is my Day Ten contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Works on paper

It’s been just under a month since I submitted the last of my spring semester grades, and I still feel like I’m decompressing from the term.

Works on paper

I always spend the first few weeks of any academic break catching up with the mundane chores that fall by the wayside during a busy semester: only come summer do I have time for doctor visits and cleaning the bathroom and weeding through cluttered closets. In the immediate aftermath of a semester spent grading piles of student papers, it feels good to devote myself to something less cerebral: even the simple act of sorting, shredding, and recycling old paperwork feels productive in a way that paper-grading never does.

Works on paper

It usually takes me a few weeks after the end of any given semester to feel like writing again. One of the unfortunate occupational hazards of being a writing instructor is your brain often feels like it’s filled to overflowing with words, words, words, and spending time on even your own work only exacerbates the problem. These past few weeks I’ve been walking a lot, reading a lot, and scribbling a lot in my journal, but I haven’t felt like writing anything worth sharing.

Works on paper

Today I went to Framingham State for a professional development workshop: summer is, after all, when college professors take time to evaluate their teaching methods and make adjustments for the coming year. In the gallery next to the room where my colleagues and I met to discuss strategies for encouraging critical thinking, a new exhibit of “Textured Assemblages” by Robert Johnson, Jr. features canvases covered with crumpled paper, the lines of composition “written” in three dimensions rather than two.

Works on paper

I sometimes wonder how many pages of student prose I’ve read over the twenty years I’ve been teaching; I’ve never been brave enough to crunch the numbers. But if I were to assemble all the papers I’ve read, commented on, and then graded, surely I’d be able to cover countless canvases in innumerable galleries. Is it any wonder it takes me a while to decompress at the end of an academic year when I’ve been crowded, crumpled, and (yes) compressed by such a workload?