Adjuncts! Local Non-Mom Cut Her Grading WAY Down With This Weird Old Trick

If your school is on early semesters (as most are–Godspeed, quarter-system friends, and read this again in a month and a half!), that means you are smack in the middle of Grading Thunderdome.

Last Grading Thunderdome, I was so frazzled I published this, which made me Enemy #1 of the Entire Discipline of Composition and Rhetoric, Always and Forever. One of these days I’m going to apologize about that, if only certain individuals from comp/rhet would stop being assholes to me for five seconds and reminding me that, thanks to them, when I see the words “comp/rhet” I IMMEDIATELY think “asshole,” and–you know what, forget those assholes, I regret nothing!!!!! No, seriously, one of these days I will write about how my lesson has been learned (I’m lying; “one of these days” is tomorrow, in conjunction with a new article I’ve got coming out).

AT ANY RATE. Grading Thunderdome can cause existential meltdowns in Slate, snapping at family members, excessive caffeine and alcohol consumption at the same time (which makes for some unforgettable marginal comments), and general ennui. But with THIS ONE WEIRD OLD TRICK, that I will sell you for exactly zero dollars, it doesn’t have to.

Adjuncts: How much do you get paid? Probably not very much. If you’ve ever done the math, you’ve figured out that during grading weeks, you’re actually paying the school $15/hour for the privilege to teach there.

This year, I decided that I was going to enact a one-person grading revolution. This is what I did, for every class, every semester, and nobody complained, and I didn’t get fired (although I am taking the next year off from teaching, for unrelated reasons). If you, too, would like to cut tens of hours off your grading, but still help the students who actually want your help, do this! Note: this only works if you have some measure of grading autonomy and do not have to surrender copies of marked-up essays to your Higher Power, which I have had to do in the past, so I know it’s possible. 

1. Dude-ric, use a rubric. Make your own. They can be harsh, programatic, fun, clever, dull–anything you want, as long as they are as detailed as possible about the kind of essay that you actually want. Here are some of the rubrics I used this year (and yes, by the time I got to the final essay, I WAS a little punchy, thank you very much):

This was for our first essay, which was a “lens” assignment where they chose one non-literary text or thing with which to “view” a literary text:


This was for their second essay, which was a write-up of a day where they (with a partner) taught the class for 45 minutes:


And this is the project they just finished, which I am grading RIGHT NOW (hence the punchiness):


2. Check off the rubric boxes, and make additional one-line comments if your rubric software (or worksheet, if you insist on using paper) allows.

3. Let the rubric choose a letter or number for you, and “nudge” up or down if the student was on the cusp between categories; make this note when you pass the paper back.

4. DO NOT MAKE A SINGLE LINE COMMENT on the paper yet. Pass it back with a two-line summary about the paper in general, and then this note: “I would be delighted to give this paper an extensive line-by-line reading in my office hours, or by appointment!” The students who want this will come to you. For me, it’s between one and ten students per paper, out of 35-60 total.

This method is unassailable, because any student who wishes to have line comments gets them–they just have to make a slight time commitment about it, too, which every Dean would think is fair. Any student who just wants to look at the letter and some general comments gets to do that, but the rubric makes sure that they know where their main issues lie. If a student’s paper is so problematic–like D quality–that you can’t use this method in good conscience, simply withhold a grade and replace it with a “See Me” and insist they get the f2f line-reading.

The Academic Martyr Squad is going to hate this method, because without their crowns of grading thorns, their red-pen stigmata, they feel empty and unnecessary, but I assure you that every student who actually wants comments gets them–and they self-select!–so there is no job-flouting involved here.

So, my only question to you now is: WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO with all those newly-won hours of time I just saved you? Oh, yeah, that’s right, commute between your adjunct jobs. #HaHaHaSob

31 thoughts on “Adjuncts! Local Non-Mom Cut Her Grading WAY Down With This Weird Old Trick

  1. Rubrics rock! They also give the students the tools to evaluate their own performance, and lead them to give relevant evidence if they want to argue their grades. Which is another argument you can use to support this time-saving practice.


  2. I ❤ rubrics. Yours are much more fun than mine, though. I tell my kids straight up I provide no comments on final projects/drafts and if they want to talk to me about them, I'm more than happy to see them in my office hours or via appointment. Only a couple take me up on it, and it makes 8-10 page research papers much faster to grade.


      1. Exactly! And I don’t weep the tears of the pathetic professor who poured hours of work into providing thoughtful comments on a paper that gets unceremoniously chucked into the recycle bin upon leaving the classroom.


  3. Rubrics are great for giving the appearance of objectivity on an entirely subjective task. Before I used them, students complained about grades all the time. Since: not one complaint over a writing assignment in 4 years. And higher teaching evaluations. And teaching awards.

    Another trick I just shared with a novice teacher: if students are clearly and A or clearly an F before the final paper/exam, grade the exam last (when you have no focus or energy) or not at all (!).


  4. I’m developing a numerical rubric. Thunderdome will ease. My numbers will be things like “1” – purpose statement needs work or “7” – run on sentence. Group like items, such as: 1 – 6 will be items relating to the intro, purpose, set up; 7 – 14 will be grammar, spelling, etc; etc. Numbers are much faster! I have offered students a similar option to yours (re: no marginal comments). If they want comments, they need to indicate that at the top of the first page. Otherwise: no comments, just summary (“Many spelling errors; arguments unsupported by evidence from our texts…”), a grade, and a rubric. YAY! Most students do not read the comments and thus our labor seems better used elsewhere.


    1. FWIW, I also had a different method when grading work in German, where you really are expected to mark grammar. In that case, I had a five-color highlight code. It was stil labor-intensive, but the classes were smaller.


  5. The single best, if not the only palatable, use of rubrics I’ve seen. The worst is this apparently unironic Twitter rubric. Hswildesttps://


  6. you may be interested in this:
    – I will try to use rubrics again. I stopped, since I found myself unable to follow them, for a variety of reasons (the grades became even higher–too high! and it took too long. I will simply have to devise new rubrics).


    1. How do you grade anonymously? Genuine question. I know how to use some tech, but I’ve not heard of how to use it to grade anonymously and attribute the right grade to students.


      1. I have done it only with essays. I ask students to use a pen name. It helps me combat bias. But it only works for the first essay. Come the second essay, and I begin to know who writes what. Also, if a student asks a question about the essay topic, she gives herself away…


  7. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I’m revamping a whole curriculum right now, and you’ve outlined what has been in my head because of the time issues I had this semester. Bonus points for offering the term Academic Martyr Squad.


  8. A graduate student TA taught me to use rubrics (she has not landed a tenure track job to date, though she has defended) (was not my student). But anyway, single most useful piece of teaching advice I ever got. It immediately structures the discussion for students who do come in — both the sincere “wants to improve” ones and the “waaaaah I NEED an A in this class” ones.


  9. 1) I really enjoy the comment box directions. I should do that in my teaching evaluations!

    2) Now that you’ve done it this way, could you tell me what you do to combat ‘grade grubbing’ for students who didn’t ask for comments/feedback on the first essay and are now at your door saying that their second essay was graded unfairly because the first essay didn’t get feedback OR they want you to change the grade now because you clearly didn’t understand something about what they wrote,etc. Does this happen to you?

    I am a scientist, so my ‘essays’ are ‘lab reports’ and I grade with a rubric, but for technical writing I feel I have to further explain why its wrong. Maybe I should just revamp my rubric?


  10. Oh, God! This is wonderful! I have been teaching for 21 years in a social science department with 2,000 majors (I’m one of those tenured people you hate). You are BRILLIANT!

    This has everything going for it: the content is nonsense that can mean anything to anybody, the students can’t complain about “feedback”, and it looks like something some asshole Vice Vice Associate Provost of Provostery (Interim) who gets paid $200k per year would come up with, so the admins will probably literally KILL a student who complains to them about it!

    You, Dr. Schuman, should be a Dean! And no, that is not meant as an insult.


  11. PS: can I shamelessly steal your first rubric without giving you credit for it? LIke I said, I’ve been teaching for 21 years now at a HUGE university and always have at least 60 students per class. This is a great idea. Thanks again.


  12. Reblogged this on Star Thrower and commented:
    I had an instructor in my master’s program that would just give us our grades online. However, if you wanted to get actual feedback he would gladly meet with you during his office hours. As a student, I really liked this method of getting feedback. I find instructor’s comments quite confusing sometimes. But when you sit with the instructor as they read through the paper and get comments that way, it can lead to conversation and a deeper understanding. Since this is my first semester teaching I did not feel bold enough to enact such a system. I spend a long time not just leaving line comments on each students’ paper but also providing them with references to their writing guide, complete with page numbers, so they can look up the correct way. Maybe, next semester?


  13. I’m a mathematician. Calculus exam problems are essentially mini-essays–and I find it often helps to make a rubric for each problem: so many points for getting this argument right, so many points off for omitting this bit.

    I especially like to teach the class on learning to read and write proofs–which I teach explicitly as a writing course. Oy, how I cover their attempts with red ink! But there’s no alternative: They have to know what’s missing, what misfires and why. The problem is to not overwhelm them with so many critiques that they get discouraged.


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