Glass globes with shop window reflections

It’s Finals Week at Keene State, so after holding one last round of office hours last night, today I’ll collect two batches of student essay portfolios, followed by a third on Thursday. Although I complain every year about my paper piles, I actually like Finals Week. After three months running myself ragged commenting on endless piles of student drafts, it’s nice to have an entire week devoted to one last read-through of final papers. Everything my students and I have been doing for the past three months culminates in these final portfolios, which represent a semester’s worth of procrastination, sweat, and tears.

Horse and Buggy Feeds with tree-shadow

One of my favorite pictures from this year’s Boston Marathon shows someone holding a hand-lettered sign at the base of Heartbreak Hill: “Get to it and do it!” Runners train for months, if not longer, for any given marathon, and runners training for the Boston Marathon steel themselves for the series of four hills they’ll face in Newton, approximately 16 to 20 miles into the race. Heartbreak Hill isn’t steep, with a vertical rise of “only” 88 feet, but it comes right at the moment when many runners are starting to lag. The mental challenge of any marathon is to get to any obstacle and do it, even (especially!) when you’re feeling the most tired.

For college students and instructors alike, Finals Week is a bit like Heartbreak Hill: most of the challenge is mental. After three months of writing and re-writing (or reading and re-reading) the same semester-long projects, students and instructors alike are eager for this race to be over. But between now and the finish line are a finite number of steps, and none can be skipped: the way you surmount the heartbreaking hill at mile 20 is the same way you ran all the previous miles, one step at a time.

Alley with graffiti

Last Thursday when I gave my final set of rough draft comments to my Thinking & Writing students, I could see in their body language how well these first-year “runners” were holding up in this semester’s “race.” Several of my students read my draft comments, sighed with determination, and put their papers down with a nod: yes. Seeing the contours of this particular hill, they resigned themselves to do it, knowing this last burst of sleepless nights and early morning revisions would sail them through the semester’s finish-line.

A few other students, though, were feeling the race weigh heavy in their bones: I could see it in the slump of their shoulders. “Is this a D paper,” one student glumly asked in response to my rough draft comments, and my assurances that it could be a much better paper if she applied to it the same self-confidence and assurance she demonstrated in several in-class freewriting sessions did little to cheer her. Knowing you have an uphill climb right when you’re feeling the most tired and demoralized is heartbreaking, and it takes more than reminders to keep going to keep your spirits up. Now that we’ve entered the final push of the semester, the main thing separating the students who end up doing well and the ones who end up crumpled and cramped on the side of the road is the sheer willpower and determination to keep running, step by step and word by word.

What I get paid to read

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, and in this case, that’s a conservative estimate. This is what three writing classes’ worth of end-term grading looks like, minus a few latecomers, lollygaggers, and incompletes.

The left and middle piles are from my first-year Thinking & Writing classes. Those folders contain the final version of each student’s 15- to 20-page research project, all the rough drafts that went into said project, and a final reflective essay. The small pile on the right is from my intermediate-level Expository Writing class. That stack is smaller because students submitted only final drafts of a 10-page research project, a handful of short essays, and a final reflective essay.

Grading portfolios isn’t as bad as all my complaining would suggest: it just takes a lot of time. As Jo(e) has said about watching student presentations, you learn a lot when you read research projects on topics that students are genuinely interested in, and grading papers is infinitely easier than comment on drafts. When you comment on drafts, you’re still steering the car, trying to communicate to students how they can/should improve a particular piece of writing. When you grade a portfolio, you’re riding in the car. The student is presenting their best shot at the Perfect Project, and you as teacher get to watch like a director in the audience of a one night performance. Yes, you see the mistakes; yes, you make note of them. But any improvements will wait until the next play or project: as in baseball, there’s always next year. For now, you sit back, watch the show, clap when the performance is good, and wring your hands when any given actor plays a scene differently from how you had directed it.

Ultimately, you see, it’s their show, not mine. Those portfolios on my desk? I’m just borrowing them.

Click here for last spring’s markedly different visual depiction of “Piled Higher & Deeper.” And if you want to learn even more about what I do with my first-year Thinking & Writing students, click here to read an alumni magazine article about Keene State’s new Integrated Studies program, illustrated with a picture of Yours Truly conferencing with one of last year’s first-year students. Enjoy!