Notes for the Book of Me (Grading Edition)

Havi Brooks has a really useful practice she calls The Book of Me; basically it’s a notebook where she jots down things she notices about herself–her feelings, body, attitudes, productivity, and more–so that she can revisit her observations and improve her future experiences with a place, event, person, etc.  You can read more about it in her post The Book of You, although if you search her blog for the phrase “book of me,” you’ll find quite a bit of elaboration on, and examples of, the practice.

I’ve been taking mental notes for The Book of Me for quite some time, but I admit I’ve been pretty lazy about writing them down.

That ends today.

One of my recurring frustrations is–surprise!–grading my students’ essays.  You’d think that after 12 years of being in the college classroom, including three years as a faculty consultant where I helped professors improve their own grading practices, that I’d have a better sense of what works for me.


Every time I have to comment on undergraduate student work, I end up with a giant stack of essays the night before I wish to return them to students.  (Note: Despite the practices I’m about to describe, I am pretty successful at returning essays within one week if the class has fewer than 40 students; more than that and I tend to need nine days.)

At that point I’m usually worn down, both by my actual work and the thought of having to do all that grading.  Then I read the first really awful essay and start to spiral into a depression.  This feeling is made worse when I’ve taken the time (as I do 95% of the time) to coach students on how to construct an argument and support it with evidence from primary and secondary sources–because hey, then I’ve failed, too.

I took some notes for the Book of (Grading) Me when I was 35 essays into my most recent 45-paper stack, in the hopes they help me avoid some discomfort at semester’s end, when the next big batch comes in.  Here they are:

Even though the end is in sight, I’m teetering on that brink of depression thanks to all the frustration and anger I let myself feel.

My Facebook status currently expresses my desire to scrawl “WTF?!?” across several pages of students’ papers.  (It also reads “GRADING HULK SMASH BULLSHITTING ABOUT PURITANS.”)

I’d like to remind myself, then, of a few things that ease the process.  Some of these I discovered on my own; some were tips from wiser faculty than myself; and others I learned from Havi (can you tell I’m a big fan of hers?):

Things that help:

  • a timer with a nice chime (iPhone for the win)
  • a cushion on the chair if I’m sitting in the kitchen
  •  Shiva Nata
  • dancing to release anger and frustration
  • stretching to release pent-up stress in neck and back
  • rolling around on the floor (my version of Old Turkish Lady yoga)
  • entry and exit rituals (gentleness vs.”steeling myself”)
  • iced tea or hot chocolate
  • fresh fruit and/or yogurt

Things that don’t help:

  • soda, sugar, and high-carb foods in general
  • avoidance
  • staying up very late to grade (waking up early works better, in an emergency)
  • trying to grade with Lucas sitting in the same room (there will be cuteness and conversation)
  • beating myself up for procrastinating
  • having a computer nearby to check for plagiarism, as I will inevitably drift elsewhere online

What about you?  What works for you when you’re facing a stiff sentence in grading jail?


  1. The cafe at the library was meant for grading. It has nice tables, coffee, food, and you don’t feel like you’re in jail. Students can visit you to look at their paper, and other people can come by and cheer you up. Yet nobody stays too long since they have other things to do, and you can really click along.

    I also just invented this trick: grade during what would be your writing hours. Yes I know that’s sacrilege but in your best time, you have to do what’s hardest. Research and writing are relatively easy for me so although it’s fun to put it at my best time, it’s not outright necessary: I can schedule it for when I’m not quite at peak, but to be lucid for grading or other really hard work you have to be at your very best, I have decided.

  2. I love your list. In fact, I just stumbled on it while drifting aimlessly online after using a search engine to discover that a student whose paper I was in the process of grading had, as I suspected, plagiarized part of his essay. As someone who is currently staying up late to grade papers, depressed because some of the papers in question are still showing the same problems that we just spent 2 weeks focusing on in class, I want to thank you for sharing some amazingly good advice. I am going to go make hot chocolate now and maybe take a dance break. :)

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