Grading with Love: an open letter to my first-year writers

I hate grading papers. This revulsion led me to innovate, so maybe misery is the real mother of invention. My thought process went like this:

they hate writing them;
we hate reading them.
What’s wrong with this picture?

So I tried to change the picture. I turned to WordPress, a platform whose beauty and flexibility I hoped would make students more excited about writing, so that I could be more excited about grading.

It’s not a perfect fix, but with with practice, I’ve learned ways to use the platform to motivate students to take more interest in their writing. Your curation essays are a case in point: these are interesting essays because you are interested—not only in what you’re writing about but also in how you’re writing.

But I still hate grading. I can step into an essay and immediately get tripped up by tangled syntax, awkward grammar, and improper punctuation, so that I fail to see the idea straining for articulation.

I’m trying to change this process, too. I asked advice from Dr. Elizabeth Mills, a wise English professor who just retired from Davidson.

Me: “How do you approach grading essays? How do you keep from getting irritated and distracted by bungled grammar, clutter, and clichĂ©s?”

E. M.: “I try to see the person behind the essay. I try to think about what he or she is trying to accomplish and get across.”

As I turned that idea over in my mind, like a floury wad of dough between my hands, a realization began to rise: Dr. Mills grades with love.

When I read your curation essays, I tried to look for you and figure out what you were trying to say. Because if you have put something of yourself into an essay, there will be something to love in it. There will also be flaws, which are part of your humanness and your growing as a writer, and are therefore also something to love. Poet and playwright Kevin Kling tells a story about a cracked pot that reminds us why we should love the flaws. Listen:


drought-277453_640When I read your essays, I look for you. But when I attach the grade, I don’t grade you, I grade the essay, based on the extent to which it achieves the goals outlined in the assignment. You may not have achieved all those goals, but in attempting to meet them, I hope you have discovered something that more valuable than an A on an essay.


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