Grading, Reviewing, and the TBR Challenge

by Sunita

Academics who teach always complain about grading, in my experience. I’ve never met anyone who said they enjoyed it. And I’m not here to provide the exception; I hate hate hate grading. No matter how much I try, I always wind up grading papers, exams, etc. at the last possible moment. When I’m in the rhythm of it, I can almost find it worthwhile, but I never like the process.

I’m not entirely sure why I find it so unpleasant. It’s not physically painful, like getting a root canal. The students who do well make me feel good about my teaching, and I often learn something from the ones who are doing poorly. The reason I don’t turn all the grading over to teaching assistants whenever possible is that on the rare occasions I’ve done that I’ve felt out of touch. I need to do some myself in order to understand what is going on in the classroom. One of my professors once said to me that teaching is only half the process; learning is the other half. Grading helps me know if students are indeed learning what I’m attempting to teach them.

Since I’m teaching an introductory undergraduate course this semester, the grading almost never ends. I’m much luckier than many of my colleagues at liberal arts colleges and universities below the R1 rank because I teach fewer courses and I get TA help. And I’m in a medium-sized private university so my “large” class has 100 students. Believe me, I’m well aware that I’m fortunate. But by our standards, I’m pretty much grading all the time.

Given my predispositions, it should not come as a surprise that I find assigning grades to books I review at Dear Author to be a difficult and arduous process. Not only do I get some grades wrong in retrospect, I second guess even the ones I’m pretty sure I got right. And I sometimes feel uncomfortable giving two very different types of books the same grade. I can see why some reviewers avoid grades altogether, it’s very tempting. I think the most appealing system is SonomaLass‘s win/pass/fail, but I’d probably wimp out and only use win/pass.

Over the past few months, I’ve discovered a weird convergence in my teaching and reviewing grading patterns. The grade inflation endemic in colleges is mirrored in my book reviews. In highly selective, expensive institutions like mine, undergrads work hard and worry endlessly about their grades, since most plan to go on for post-graduate work in equally selective professional schools. No one institution can choose to hold the line against grade inflation without disadvantaging their students in the graduate application process.  This combination has meant that grades have crept upward in the last two decades, from an average below 3.0 to closer to 3.4 or 3.5.

My review grades seem to average around a B as well. I try to use the entire grade range of A-F, so a B grade is a good grade from me, but I just don’t write many reviews at C or below, because my reading and review-writing time is scarce, and I don’t want to spend it on books I don’t plan to recommend and want to forget I read. But then I look like a cheerleader or an uncritical reader, especially since authors I read a lot get consistently good grades from me.

Enter the TBR Challenge to my rescue! My first and second reads of the year received straight C reviews, but I enjoyed reading both of them and will definitely read other books by the authors. I thought long and hard about the grades, and I think that they were appropriate to the books (for somewhat different reasons).

It was freeing to read a book this way. Since my main goal was to choose a book which I wanted to read and which fit the TBR category, more or less, I didn’t worry as much about whether I was going to like it. If it turned out to be a recommendation, great. If not, it was still one less book on the TBR pile. I see the Challenge as a way of revisiting all those books we’ve forgotten we have, or we keep meaning to read but never do, and so just reading it and talking about the experience is the goal.

There is no reason I shouldn’t go into every book this way, but of course I haven’t. I’m going to see if I can get closer to that frame of mind, though. It’s hard to keep alive that wonderful sense of discovery when one has spent many years reading in a genre. I’ve experienced it in discovering new sub-genres like gay romance, in finding a new-to-me author or in encountering a truly unusual and excellent book. And now my once-a-month exercise is providing it as well.

So thanks, Wendy, and I’ll see you on the other side of a TBR next month!

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