In my Planning classes, I talk about the importance of defining your priorities and setting boundaries. An email from a client reminded me how hard that is in practice.
This client was finding it hard to juggle her priorities as the end of term approaches:
- She has a conference paper to write and deliver
- She has exams to mark and final grades to determine for her classes
- She has an important family thing
The timing on these things cannot be moved. There is a hard deadline for submitting final grades. The conference happens when the conference happens. Same with the family thing. They all happen in the last 2 weeks of April.
Two phrases stood out in her account:
- “I am very committed to being thorough and fair”
- “Do you think I should just grit my teeth, cut some corners (on marking), sacrifice some sleep and just get it all done on time, somehow?”
You know my opinion on sacrificing sleep, but I fear that you may think that the only alternative to that is “cutting corners”.
What if you don’t have to cut corners?
The reason priorities and boundaries are so hard is because of identity: “I am very committed to being thorough and fair”.
Of course you are committed to being thorough and fair, many academics are.
So how do you juggle maintaining your identity as a good teacher who is thorough and fair, without burning out completely (sacrificing sleep at this point in the term when you are already tired) or sacrificing your identity as a good family member or a good researcher?
Step one: stop calling it “cutting corners”.
You can remain committed to “thorough and fair” and take less time to grade.
An abstract ideal is impossible to meet.
Even when you spend lots of time on your grading, while putting your research, family, and self-care lower down the priority list, do you ever feel like you achieve your ideal? Does even one grade challenge make you feel like you failed somehow?
The trick to being “thorough and fair” without burning out, is to be more specific about what that means in practice. Once you know what “thorough and fair” looks like in concrete terms, you can prioritize the most important elements.
Here are some questions to help you get a more detailed and concrete picture of what being committed to being thorough and fair looks like for you. List everything that comes to mind, even if you think it makes you look petty or insecure or whatever. You don’t have to share the answers with anyone.
- What do you mean by thorough?
- How would students or colleagues know you are thorough?
- What do you mean by fair?
- How would students or colleagues know you are fair?
- What does your usual grading practice look like, in detail. What do you do? How long does that take?
- How do those practices relate to being thorough and/or fair?
Make sure you are being specific in all of this. No: “I know it when I see it” stuff. Be super clear with yourself about what it looks like in a way that means someone else could read your list, look at what you do, and evaluate. Not that you will ever ask someone to do that but you want to be able to do that yourself.
Now that you’ve written all that out clearly, you can identify the most important practices. Then you can keep those while letting go of some of the things that take a lot of time for not a lot of added value.
- Can you see anything that is not in alignment with your commitment?
- What would happen if you stopped doing just those things that are not directly related to being thorough and fair?
- Is there anything that feels like it’s in alignment, but where the time and effort seem out of proportion to the outcome in terms of thoroughness and fairness?
- Can you brainstorm some ideas for how you could achieve similar goals without taking so much time?
- Could you try one of those instead?
Identity goes deeper than that.
There may also be something else going on underneath that is not quite so practical. Perhaps you or a friend had a bad experience when you were a student that you don’t want to repeat? Or maybe you have less teaching experience than others and feel less confident about grading?
If this is the case, try to pinpoint how you feel when you think about taking less time and whether there is a deeper need underlying that feeling.
- Is there a way to meet that deeper need that doesn’t involve taking as much time over the grading itself?
- Is there a mentor in your department who might be willing to moderate your grades (i.e. look at a sample across the range to confirm that your standards are within norms) for example?
Warning: Gremlins might turn up with all kinds of other objections to you taking less time for your grading. I’m not sure why your gremlins don’t want you to sleep but if you need to, write their comments on a separate note, or one of my downloadable colouring pages. At the very least that will remind you that those thoughts are gremlin talk and not necessarily true.
This post has been added to one of my themed Spotlights all about Grading Season. Click for the introduction and all associated posts.
Don’t do your best! a bit of a pep talk on why abstract ideals like “best” are unhelpful.
Thoughts on the emotional toll of grading: The bit about specifying what you are looking for in each grade band beforehand might also help you be “thorough and fair” in a way that doesn’t require as much time.
All or Nothing thinking may help with the way that even one grade challenge means you didn’t do it right.
Edited March 28, 2016. Further edited October 28, 2021.