Grading Hacks, Or, Unleashing Your Inner “Continental”

Christopher Walken has a famous recurring skit on SNL called “The Continental.” If you haven’t seen it, you need to take care of that right now.

GIANT DISCLAIMER: As somebody who studies gender and sexuality, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the very premise of the skit is indeed disturbing. Walken is, after all, portraying a physical manifestation of all things rapey. In 2012, “comedian” Daniel Tosh got in trouble for telling a “joke” about raping a woman who walked out in the middle of his show. His (utterly unacceptable) rape joke prompted a larger much larger conversation, centered around a difficult question: can you tell a funny rape joke? Personally, I think “The Continental” suggests that it is indeed possible to tell a funny rape joke. The comedy in this skit does not exploit the various women that The Continental attempts to victimize. Christopher Walken’s character—and his creepy, inappropriate behavior—IS the joke, and the joke is only funny because the women he tries to coerce always get away (humiliating him in the process).

Nothing better than a blog post that starts with a tangent… sorry folks.

Back to the subject at hand. I bring up “The Continental” because I feel like that skit captures my relationship with one of the most basic elements of my job as a teaching assistant and occasional course instructor: grading.

I hate grading with a passion. I love teaching, I love my students, and I even love reading their writing, but grading is awful. I almost always leave it to the last minute, which means hours of torture.

At least, that’s how it used to be.

I think I’ve finally found a hack for grading dread, and that hack is mood setting. When I sit down to grade these days, I hear Christopher Walken’s voice in my head saying his famous line from “The Continental”:

“Sit back. Relax. Champagne.”

Now, the fact that I have Christopher Walken’s voice in my head may be a problem, but it’s not one I plan on doing anything about any time soon, because over the course of the past year mood setting has helped become a more efficient AND a happier TA.

So how do you set the mood?

  1. Location, Location, Location. I’m going against conventional wisdom in several ways with this piece of advice, so bear with me. I am most comfortable in my bed, so I grade there, snuggled up in my comforter. We’ve all heard it said that you’ll sleep better if you make your bed a space reserved for sleep and sex; similarly, a lot of grad students feel it’s important to do all their work in their office, so that home is an exclusively personal space. These are both valid pieces of advice, but they don’t work for me. Sitting at a desk hunched over papers makes my back and neck ache. This makes me cranky. When I’m sitting in my bed, I have more support, and—as a result—fewer “physiological distractions” from the task at hand. 

    Okay, maybe cowbell isn't the best choice, but I wouldn't be me if I let the opportunity to include a Christopher Walken gif pass me by.

    Okay, maybe cowbell isn’t the best musical choice for grading, but I wouldn’t be me if I let the opportunity to include a Christopher Walken gif pass me by.

  2. Seductive tunes, baby. If I’m listening to classical music (or instrumental jazz, if I’m feeling crazy), whatever I’m doing becomes automatically classier. It borders on Pavlovian: as soon as I hear these genres of music, I know that I need to calm down and get to work. This only works, of course, because I don’t listen to classical music when I’m punking around on Facebook
  3. FIRE! I’m a bit of a pyromaniac, but this is actually a trick that I think will work for everybody. It’s common for meditative types to stare into a flame when meditating, because it calms you down. I heard about a study a million years ago (which I, naturally, can’t find now) that suggested that this is yet another reason why smokers sometimes find it hard to quit… the act of lighting a lighter is and of of itself calming. I light scented candles when I’m grading, and make a point of looking at them from time to time. Because I associate candles with calm and quiet, having them around is great for the moment when you stumble onto an essay or exam that’s truly rage inducing (it happens… trust me). Now that I know how to chill myself out, the red ink I spill all over my student’s work are consistently less destructive, and more constructive. I’ve never been a mean grader, but I’m sure adjusting my attitude impacts the tone of my comments.
  4. Timing, Part One: I am at my best grading in the evenings before bed, or right after I wake up in the morning. The rest of the time I’m more likely to lose focus, get annoyed, or spend an hour staring slack-jawed at the same two sentences over and over again. Find the time that works best for you and stick with it.
  5. Timing, Part Deux: Before I do any grading, I decide exactly how much time I’m going to spend on each exam/essay/assignment, and what kind of comments I’m going to provide. I then set a timer, and stick to it. For example, I’m currently grading a short essay assignment. I’m not supposed to grade on composition, so I decided in advance that I am not doing line edits. Accordingly, it makes more sense to type out substantive comments, print them, and attach them to the student’s paper. I wrote out a series of questions that I have to answer for each student (re: the quality of the thesis, evidence selection, etc.), and determined that—since I have that template pre-made, I should be able to give each student about ¾ page worth of typed comments on their assignment… in ten minutes. It’s cut my stress in half, and I think the student will be pretty happy to see the amount of feedback they’re receiving.

Walken2So there you have it. Find the mood that works for you, set it, and then unleash your inner Continental. Every time you feel like getting up and running away, lure yourself back to the task at hand. Be as creepy as you need to be. After all, the only person you’re coercing into grading… is you!

Sit back. Relax. Champagne.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

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