Grading, Reviewing, and the TBR Challenge

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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8 thoughts on “Grading, Reviewing, and the TBR Challenge

  1. Yes, there is something freeing about getting a book out of the TBR pile – regardless of how much you “enjoyed” it. At one point during last year’s challenge, I pulled out two historical romances and DNF’ed both of them! I finally switched gears, pulled out a contemporary erotica, and it ended up being a C. I was a little bummed at first but then thought, “Hey, that’s 3 books out of the TBR Mountain Range!”

  2. I too try to review across the whole range of numbers. A gut reaction to a book may change on writing the review as I try to put my feelings into words. In some cases this meant what I thought was an average read boosts up the scale and sometimes what I thought was a good read falls down the scale (very rare, but it does happen).

    I also like to think of grades like movie critic grades… I never agree with them… or well I rarely do. It happens because the wrong person reviews – like a guy reviewing a romcom directed at women – and so I take it to heart that my grade means something to some but not to everyone. Some will disagree and some will disagree drastically even while others are agreeing with me.

  3. I’m with you on disliking grading. It’s probably my least favorite part of reviewing. I hem and haw over grades and sometimes I even mention in the review that it was hard to grade the book, either because my mind and heart were split on the book (it appealed to me intellectually but not emotionally, or vice versa), or because one aspect or one part of the book was much stronger than another.

    I’m also with you on not wanting to read bad books. I don’t finish most of the F, D and C- books I start. In fact with most of them I don’t even get far enough for a DNF review, although I’ve done some of those. Usually I get through a chapter or so and then give up. Consequently I too probably come across as an easy grader, more so than I actually am.

    I participated in Keishon’s TBR challenge a few years back and it did help a bit in this regard, but I found it hard to stick with both because new and shiny books were always calling to me and because I had to read books in a specific subgenre or trope for the challenge each month and I found I wasn’t always in the mood to read that particular trope the week of the challenge.

    I only lasted six months at Keishon’s TBR Challenge, so I’m reluctant to undertake another one but if Wendy’s is less structured, maybe I should give it a try.

  4. I have decided that no matter how bad the book, I am gutting out the TBR Challenge ones. Okay, I’m cherrypicking so that it’s not as likely to happen, but still …

    I would probably DNF my March book because it’s in dire need of a strong red pencil, but it’s a good book otherwise, so I’m plugging along.

    I really did not expect to have this much fun with it. All your fault.

  5. Janine, I am treating the categories as “advisory” to some degree, as are some other participants. For example, my Feb. “ugly duckling” was a recovering alcoholic, and I know when others have not found an appropriate book they’ve gone with another TBR book. For me, what I like about the Challenge is it takes me back to that “close your eyes and pick and see what happens” feeling that gets harder to find the longer you read in a genre.

  6. Janine: The only structure I have is that there is an “assigned” day to post your thoughts on your read – although I know more than one person who is participating “informally” and posting their commentary whenever they get around to it :)

    The themes seem to be hanging up a lot of folks. I kept them in place because it felt like tradition – but even with me saying multiple times that “they’re voluntary!” some readers seem to think they’re “required.” Uh, no. I think last year when Keishon was hosting I followed the themes 3 out of 12 months. I’m trying to stick with the themes this year because….well….I’m hosting, and sorta feel like I should. Certainly not theme is going to appeal to every single participant out there – so folks should just read what jumps out of their TBR and bites them :)

  7. I like the themes because otherwise I would be paralyzed by choice. Of course, I clearly don’t feel bound by them. :-) But my TBR is so big and varied that I can get pretty close to the theme for all the months.

  8. I’m one of those rule-following people who finds it hard to deviate from instructions. I suspect the others who are struggling with the themes have a similar personality characteristic. I will give the TBR challenge some thought. There are books in my TBR that I would love to make time to read.

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