The grading game

There was a pretty good discussion of grading Tuesday in the composition practicum that I’ve been auditing as part of an independent study on how to teach such a course.

Lately I’ve been think of grading in football terms. I’m not sure why, but I think that class kicked a neuron out of alignment.

The teacher is the quarterback. The assignment is a pass from shotgun. The student is the receiver on a pattern that aims for a 10-yard gain. The situation is 1st and 10.

An A happens when the student catches the pass 10 yards out like it was in their backyard, and runs it in for a touchdown.

A B occurs when the student catches the pass, dodges a few defenders, and gets tackled 12 yards out. It’s a first down with some gain.

A C is when the student gets slowed down by a meddling cornerback, catches the pass 7-8 yards out and is immediately nailed in midair by one defender and then buried beneath two others. The student is carried off the field in a stretcher and after the ball is found, it’s 2nd and 3.

A D is when the student maybe gets a piece of the ball but gets hit hard, it bounces out of their hands, a defender scoops it up and runs the ball back to the line of scrimmage when the quarterback manages to trip them, causing another fumble. No gain, maybe even a loss. 2nd and 10+.

An F is an interception. The student is not there to catch the ball, or the quarterback (me) was not clear enough about what play it was and threw into traffic.

Football does allow revision; that’s what the downs are. I try my best to tell my students that a D is not the end of the world. They can revise. There is another down. Even an F, an interception, is salvageable on the next possession.

This metaphor also works for lesson plans that just don’t work. Those, of course, are sacks.

What I really like about this metaphor, though, is that in football a pass is much more complicated than one person throwing a ball to another. There are other players on the field – the offensive team is all the student and I know about writing, and the defensive team is all the pitfalls teachers and students can fall into.

Also, there is dual yet separate responsibility. As the quarterback it’s my job to throw the ball in the right place, making adjustments based on how fast the student is running and the direction they’re going in, and the student’s job is to catch that ball. Once the assignment leaves my hands, they have to do something with it; I can’t change its trajectory in mid-flight. The quarterback is the most useless player on the field after that ball is in the air (discounting the pump-fake, which I don’t think translates well, although I’m sure there’s a brilliant teacher out there that has something that maps).

Now, I have to hand out the same assignment to all my students, so grading becomes, if I have a class with 26 students, analysis of 26 different variations on the same pass, all in their own parallel universes with their own contexts. My judgments must be individually tailored. The quarterback becomes a referee, trying to give a very complicated act a numerical value.

But not all 10-yard passes are the same. Some are hard-fought, some are screens, some are faked kicks, some start with fumbles that are recovered, and some are the quarterback not finding a pass and running 10 yards (use your imagination for that one). Should they all get the same grade? There are more than five kinds of passes, but expediency – papers should be measured only by the end result – demands that there be only a few in the grading game. Effort vanishes. Investment vanishes. The grade mercilessly reduces as it judges, spilling hundreds and thousands of words into a single letter.

I used to use the +/- system, but the UoM does not give extra GPA credit to students who earn an A+ and it penalizes the GPA of those with an A-, so I stopped that quick for final grade, and it’s carried over into individual assignments. The 6-1 scale is ok, and perhaps I will convert to it at some point, but I don’t like using numbers if I don’t have to.

So I default to A-B-C-D-F. It is a unsatisfying system, for the most part, only bearable if personalized by commentary. I’m tempted to just assign yardage. But any system is problematic. Writing is never numbers, nice and neat; writing is ideas, irregular and chaotic. The best writing is not in perfect order but strains to breaks its chains; it is not content with 10 yards. It wants 30, 40, 50, the end zone. Fortunately, the easiest of the five grades to give is the touchdown.


I’ve seen every single one of the Bond movies, and in the last ten years or so I’ve seen the new ones all in the theater. I’ve also read a fair number of Fleming’s novels, including Casino Royale. In other words… I like the formula. I also think it’s a important franchise that, when the formula is done well, reflects the state of the culture that produced it.

I saw the movie today with H and was quite pleased. The core of the brief, brutal book is there, right down to the torture scene. The book’s Russians are now generic terrorists that like to blow up planes, the game is hold ‘em instead of baccarat (which is fortunate as I can actually follow poker), and Bond’s Aston Martin is the new model, but the “this is why Bond is the way he is” elements are intact.

Craig doesn’t stick out as an interloper in Connery’s tux; his clothing is actually a recurring motif, with him going through about four dress shirts during the poker game alone, and spending a fair amount of time without a shirt at all. He is certainly the most physical actor to play Bond – regardless of stuntmen or not, I didn’t have the usual “Oh, yeah, like Pierce Brosnan/Roger Moore did THAT jump.”

One disappointment was that the torture scene was rewritten to make Bond look a lot tougher than Fleming’s Bond, who barely survived, almost permanently lost certain… assets, and came away with a much stronger sense of his own mortality. I don’t have a copy of the book anymore but I recall it was painful to even read, especially as I had an idea of Bond as basically invulnerable. Craig’s Bond didn’t have his ego checked nearly as much. I figure the writers and producers wanted to show Bond vulnerable, but not too vulnerable. Fleming’s Bond ends the book more or less broken, despite his ‘the bitch is dead’ bravado. The Craigian Bond ends the film in what appears to be, at least, full control, emotionally dried solid at the rate of super glue.

Still, it was extremely good overall, I think, with some nitpicking. Bond would have had a greater chance of being struck by lightning than drawing an inside straight flush on the turn with a pair on the board and then having three other players go all in for $104 million… good god. I would have preferred the bad guy catch him earlier with something more basic, say a flush over a straight, and then have Bond return and beat his full house with a four-of-a-kind. That actually happens occasionally. But, then again, he’s Bond, and he did check at least twice.

H was not happy that I casually mentioned ten minutes before the movie started that there might be a scene with a chair with no bottom and a cane. I owe her 8 Disney movies.

“It was a thumpin’”

The above quote reveals that even Bush, the stubbornest man currently alive, knows that the biggest political ass-kicking since Watergate has just occurred. The next couple of weeks will test the strength and resolve of Pelosi and Reid and if they can get all these new conservative Democrats to heel and challenge Bush right from the get-go on Iraq.
But for now I’m happy. Winning the House, the Senate, and forcing Rumsfeld to resign… wow. This should have happened in ‘04, of course, and it would be nice if my state was capable of electing a black senator, but I’ll take it.

Eve of the election

I don’t think there is any doubt the Democrats will take the House tomorrow. The only question is by how much. Wild guess – they’ll end up 20 seats ahead with Pelosi as speaker. The Senate is more iffy, though. Anything could happen there, including a 50-50 split with Cheney as tiebreaker.

I will vote Democratic across the board, which I’ve never done before – I usually find some way to be independent. The Corker ads in particular have annoyed me enough to vote for Ford for Senate.

There is still no full transcript of John Kerry’s hugely gaffed speech available online. One exists, certainly, as I have noted several reporters referencing one (Matthews, of course, and a reporter questioning Tony Snow); but I’d hoped to have one tonight for class. I’ll have to make do. If you, the denizens of the Internet, know of one, send it my way.