Grading papers and apologizing when I'm way behind the power curve
March 18, 2008 8:35 AM   Subscribe

Help! How do I face my employer and students when I've really f*cked up!

A friend recommended me as a distance learning coordinator (read, elevated grader) for an online MBA course at a large university in another state. I thought it was a great idea although I didn't realize exactly what would be involved. As it turns out, although I've taught at the graduate level before and LOVED it, when I'm not actually teaching, merely grading, and I'm not in front of a live classroom, I HATE it! As a result, I've completely procrastinated and haven't done much of anything for 3 weeks. Suffice to say, the students are not happy (understandably) and have complained to my employer. I readily agree, I suck! I definitely need to rectify the situation but I'm soooo behind, it's hard to even begin.
So, first, any suggestions on how to force myself to tackle my backload of grading? Second, what is the best way to eat crow to my employer? Third, should I send an email to my students apologizing for the delay in my grading and responses to them?
posted by notcomputersavvy06 to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Admit it.
Fix it.
You're halfway there.

Some of those questions are really down to you to answer.

Oh, and dont lie. But maybe dont also outright say "I am incompetent".
posted by daveyt at 8:40 AM on March 18, 2008

1] Just start. Pick up a piece of paper from the pile, and mark it/shred it/do whatever needs to be done with it. Then do another. Repeat until whenever. If you find yourself procrastinating, grab a piece of paper, and repeat.

Don't think you have to do the whole job in one go. Just do bits of it. That's all you can do, really, when you're doing a job. Think of it as a marathon - you have to run each mile individually, in the correct order. You can't run 30 miles in one mile. You have to go through one to get to two, etc.

2] Contact your employer and explain the situation ASAP. Don't try to dish the blame onto anyone else. Make it clear to them that you're accepting full responsibility (which you are). Have a plan ready to deal with all the papers, etc, and make sure you outline this to them. Apologise profoundly. If you think you can swing it, ask them if they have any advice. Be honest with them and tell them that you procrastinated. They'll probably be impressed with your ability to own the situation.

3] Yes. The kids deserve an explanation. Perhaps CC them on the email to your boss? They'll appreciate knowing what it is you're going to do about the situation.

I hope this doesn't come across as judgemental, because I really don't mean it to be. you're aware of the problem, and you've asked for help in solving it. Those are the two most important first steps.
posted by Solomon at 8:47 AM on March 18, 2008

First thing, stop messing around on Metafilter and start grading!!! :)

Secondly, yes, apologize to your students and be upfront with your employer. Which will be much easier to do once you've started making progress on getting the grading done. It sounds a lot better to say, "I'm sorry, I got kind of bogged down, but I've got x amount of work graded" than to say "Ack, I'm totally backlogged, but I promise I will start soon, really I will."

If you really are dedicated to fixing things, then set a (realistic) date to return grades to students, then meet that deadline. Letting them know when to expect their work back will appease them and keep them from bugging you every other second. But make sure you really do get the work back by the date you say you will, because you can bet they'll hold you to it.
posted by missjenny at 8:51 AM on March 18, 2008

Yep, just own up to it, apologize, and quickly set about fixing the problem. You can send an email apologizing if you want, but it might come across a little weird, and really it's best to just to do the stuff you should be doing. An empty apology is not going to fix anything, and it might piss people off even more. Therefore, any email you do send should have some results in it, e.g. "I'm so sorry for the backlog, but I'm happy to announce that the grades for projects x through y are now posted, and projects 4 through 10 will be posted by Monday." And then make sure you meet that goal.

As for how to make yourself do it - well, it's your job. If this is the first time you've had a job you hate, consider yourself pretty lucky.
posted by boomchicka at 8:54 AM on March 18, 2008 [3 favorites]

The kids deserve an explanation

But they're not kids, they're adults. They don't want to send you to the corner for misbehaving. They want the feedback you're contractually obligated to give to them, so give it to them. Simple as that.
posted by boomchicka at 8:57 AM on March 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You have my sympathy. Grading for people you've never met is no kind of fun at all. And a massive pile of ungraded papers is incredibly hard to get stuck into.

Something that worked for me last time I was in this kind of fix was to divide the papers into bunches of ten. Then put the huge pile of ungraded papers out of your line of vision. Then put the first ten on the desk, and start marking, thinking to yourself 'Ill just get through these ten". With the first one you mark, start a new pile of graded papers. All the graded papers go into that new pile, which will soon be much higher than the pile of ten from which you are working.

The thing is, if you try and grade while looking at that huge pile, it seems that it never gets any smaller, which is really discouraging. Controlling what's in your line of vision, and rigging it so that you get some visual feedback, and a small sense of achievement, for every paper you grade, really helps.
posted by tiny crocodile at 8:58 AM on March 18, 2008 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Be absolutely open with your employer, as Solomon noted. All employees screw up; the good ones know how to deal with it effectively.

Re: Communicating with your students. Apologize, but do not excuse. By which I mean, it's proper and expected that you should send them a full and honest apology, but do not go into any kind of detail about why their grades are late. Nothing even so innocuous as "I was very busy"- to be perfectly honest, no one cares. Doing so only opens the door to further questions and disgruntlement from the students, which is not going to help anyone. It can be as brief as,

"I understand that many of you have not been receiving your grades on time, and for that I apologize. All prior assignments should be graded and back to you by [DATE AGREED BY YOU AND SUP]. Thanks for your understanding."
posted by mkultra at 9:01 AM on March 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've been a TA many times myself, and the best advice I can give to make grading more interesting for you is to provide feedback. Read what the students wrote, without just skipping to the final answer. If there's something particularly clever in there, make a note of it. If they get the answer wrong, try to figure out whether it was just a silly math error or whether they have some fundamental misconception that needs to be corrected. Normally, I would write these comments on the papers the students hand in; this might not be an option with an online course, of course, but I'm sure you can figure out some way to do this.

The point of problem sets & papers is not just for you to assign the students a numerical; it's to see what the students understand and what they don't. It does take longer to do this than it does to just put a bunch of check marks on the paper, of course, but it engages you in the process of grading, and the students will appreciate it. Think of it this way: if the part of the job you enjoy is the teaching, then by providing feedback to the students you're essentially making grading part of the teaching, and turning it from a passive process into a more active one.
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:11 AM on March 18, 2008

Everything Solomon and others said except this:

3] Yes. The kids deserve an explanation. Perhaps CC them on the email to your boss? They'll appreciate knowing what it is you're going to do about the situation.

They deserve an explanation, yes. But don't cc them on an e-mail to your boss. At best, it's inappropriate (your role as teacher and your role as someone else's employee are not the same thing.) At worst, you devalue your apology by making it look like you're using them to suck up to your boss.

Also seconding what mkultra said about not to give the students excuses as to why you're late with the grading.
posted by desuetude at 9:14 AM on March 18, 2008

This might border on the unethical, but do you have a friend/colleague who might share the load in exchange for, say, an Amazon gift certificate? No only would it reduce yr workload, but having some help would sorta encourage you to get it done and perhaps ease your feelings of helplessness and desperation. Other than that the advice above (mkultra's) is most excellent.
posted by dawson at 9:17 AM on March 18, 2008

A technique I often find that works is to tell myself that I'm going to do 30 minutes of an unpleasant but necessary task. For 30 minutes, I suck it up and do it. I've promised myself that, after those 30 minutes, I can stop for a while.

What I often find is that, at 31 minutes, I think, "Why stop? I've made so much progress already!" And even if I don't, well, I've done 30 minutes of work. And since I told myself that I could stop after 30 minutes, I actually work hard for 30 minutes, so I have something to show for it.

Also, it might be best to do it assignment-by-assignment. Grade the first assignment they've handed in, and send all those out. That way the students will see something coming back to them. And then apologize to them. mkultra's advice is spot-on here.

For some reason, when you get really behind on something, it stresses you out even more to think about it, so you procrastinate it more and more. I do this a lot, to be honest. But just sit down and start it, and you'll feel all that accumulated stress melting away!
posted by fogster at 9:37 AM on March 18, 2008

1. Get off the internet
2. Make what progress you can against the backlog
3. Talk to your employer and admit your mistakes
4. Show that you're on track to fix them (#2).

That last step will help you immensely in the conversation. Things happen. If you can rectify this, it will simply be a mulligan. If you procrastinate further and avoid facing the music, it's wrong on top of wrong.

Get out of here and get to work. Seriously. Now.
posted by scarabic at 9:45 AM on March 18, 2008

Bribe yourself.

When I've got alot to grade, I break it down into a few pieces (assignment, problems within an assignment, etc). And then I give myself mini-rewards for finishing each chunk (a walk outside, a snack, whatever).

Set a reasonable pace. If you've missed 4 assigments, rather than try to return all 5 (4 plus the new one) at once, return 2 per time until you catch up.

Also yes, grading sucks, and it's unfortunate that's most of what you do. When you write to your employer you might mention that you, or future employees, would do better with more student interaction.
posted by nat at 10:02 AM on March 18, 2008

You aren't doing the pontificating part of teaching, but grading is an opportunity to teach also. Focus on giving feedback to help your students.

Send an email to your students communicating when their grades will be available. Do NOT slip on this date. Apologize for the delay without going into explanations.

Send an email to your employer saying that you'll complete the backlog by X date and that you have communicated that to your students. Apologize for not being more timely and for creating a problem.

Apologize to the person who was your reference. Your performance reflects on their judgment and credibility. If nothing else can get you moving, then think of your friend's reputation.
posted by 26.2 at 10:15 AM on March 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

You're judging yourself far more than your students are going to judge you - or rather, you're personally invested in yourself and your successes and failures in a way that your students (and your employer) are not going to be. Apologize, don't make excuses, do the work, get it done, and don't sweat it. Don't get trapped in a loop of anxiety - you'll just get further lost.

Hopefully, though, you've already run far away from the Internet!
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:25 AM on March 18, 2008

If the backlog is such that it will take you a while to catch up, be sure not to let new assignments become part of the backlog too. In other words, be on time or even early with all new assignments going forward, while you also work extra time to get older ones finished. So each week, a student gets his/her most recent assignment returned, plus an older one(s).
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:58 AM on March 18, 2008

26.2: Apologize to the person who was your reference. Your performance reflects on their judgment and credibility. If nothing else can get you moving, then think of your friend's reputation.

Seconding this.
posted by lunaazul at 11:16 AM on March 18, 2008

Hmm...if I was in your situation I would, as others have mentioned, email my students, letting them know when they should expect their work back and apologizing for the delay. I would not, however, let them in on to my email to my boss as that seems be a good way to lose some of the little credibility you have left in the classroom/online message boards/class chats.

As desuetude says above, your roles as employee and as instructor are different and should be treated as such. So, also emailing your employer would not be a bad idea as well, letting them know that you are aware of the problem, are sorry, and are taking active steps to fix it now, and active steps to not let it happen again in the future. I would also make sure to not make excuses for yourself in the email to your employer. Chances are, unless you had a recent trauma (illness, death in the family), they don't care why you didn't do your work, just that you didn't.

As for how to set about getting through the ginormous pile of papers to grade? When I have let my grading get a bit behind, I usually choose a night where I am going to do nothing but grade. I pick out a few movies I have seen before, pop them in the DVD player for background noise and something to focus on when I feel the need to claw out my brain, pour a glass of wine (also helps with the brain clawing) and just start grading. I find I get into a better rhythm if I do a large chunk at a time. I know others who use the "ten papers at a time" method ,mentioned above by tiny crocodile, to great success.

You can do this. It is going to be boring and suck, but you can do it. You just have to actually sit down and grade. Simple as that.
posted by Bibliogeek at 11:38 AM on March 18, 2008

first, any suggestions on how to force myself to tackle my backload of grading?

What always helped me was to start reading papers over WITHOUT writing anything on them or assigning any grades. This took some of the pressure off as far as worrying whether I was grading too strictly or not strictly enough. (This was always with essays and the like.) Once I'd read through a small number in this way, I had a much better feel for where the "average" of the responses were, and I would feel much better about starting with the actual assigning of grades (as well as writing comments).
posted by splendid animal at 12:04 PM on March 18, 2008

Seconding tiny crocodile's method. I think I used to do piles of 5, even. The point is to break it down into small enough chunks that you can face one chunk. And after each chunk, get up and stretch if you feel like it. But you'll often find you get some momentum going and plow though several chunks before you need a break.
posted by bricoleur at 4:20 PM on March 18, 2008

Thirding tiny crocodile and bricoleur. One slight amplification: in my case, at least, I have to adopt a rule that until I am done with the pile of 10, I cannot leave my seat, which I position away from the computer and the telephone.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 1:36 PM on March 20, 2008

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