Thursday, June 13, 2019

Grading Across State Lines

I spent the last week down in Louisville grading AP exams, which is a strange way to spend some of your summer vacation but there were about 1700 of us so there is some safety in numbers I suppose.  It’s a long drive, but it was better than trying to squeeze in a short flight and probably faster when you figure in all the things you have to do just to get onto a plane these days.

They put us up in a giant hotel right on the Ohio River, about two blocks from the convention center.  I spent most of my time shuttling back and forth between those two places, so I can’t really tell you much of what Louisville is like beyond that.

They did throw us out into the city for dinner one night and my roommate’s former student had recommended a barbecue place called Momma’s Mustard, Pickles, & BBQ so we found it – it’s way out in a nice little neighborhood, far from the downtown area – and had a marvelous meal, undoubtedly the best one I had in my time there.  On the way back we stopped at a place called The Manhattan Project – mostly for the name, I’ll confess – and sampled some bourbons because that’s what one does in Louisville.  They were good bourbons, in good company.  Plus, the waitress let me keep a menu to show my students next time we do the atomic bomb class, so win all around.

For those of you who have not had the pleasure of grading APUSH exams, it’s quite a process.  They train you pretty hard the first day since consistency is critical, but then they just keep bringing you folders full of essays and you grade and grade and grade and they spot-check you here and there but after a while they mostly figure you’ve got it.  And you do.  My total for the week was 778 essays, which was pretty good for a new guy, I was told.  Not up to the veterans, but there you go.

I liked my tablemates – they were friendly people.  A mix of high school teachers (all of whom teach the APUSH class), college teachers like me, and graduate students, we all got along fine.  My table leader was supportive and good to us.  The runners who brought us the folders full of exams were nice as well.  And my hotel roommate was a lot of fun – whoever paired us up did a bang-up job of it. 

Still not sure I’ll do it again next year, but I gather that’s a common reaction to the process.  It really is a grinding thing to grade essays for a week solid.  Ask me in January.

You’re not allowed to talk about specific essays in a public forum like this one – even if you take out the identifying details – because really, they’re kids and you shouldn’t be doing that to kids.  The part I ended up grading is, for most of them, the last thing they do on an exam that has lasted all morning and which comes at the end of a year-long class designed specifically to take this exam.  It is, as my statistics professor once described the process of putting final edits on a textbook, “the very end of the very end of a reasonably horrible process.”

So no details.

But there were a few general things I learned during this process, things not connected to any particular essay, and I figure those are mine to share. 

1. When I am Grand Vizier of Creation, one of my first actions – not in the first month, but up there on the agenda somewhere – will be to impose mandatory penmanship classes. 

2. If I remember only one thing about the grading process it will likely be my ID number, which I had to write down and then fill in bubbles for on every score sheet.  It got to the point where I’d put the number down in the slot for my name and have to go back and erase it.

3. Somewhere last month there was a sale on scratchy black pens, and most of them were purchased by high school students across the country.

4. Sometimes you look at an essay that’s about [Not The Question] and you think to yourself, “Well, they’re not wrong…”

5. My next band will be named “John Locke and the Social Contract.”

6. The exams come grouped by school and you can really tell when a teacher has a catch phrase.  Students remember.

7. Benjamin Franklin was a man of many talents, some of which probably would have come as a surprise to him if we’re being honest here.

I also learned a few things about Louisville itself while I was there.

1. There is good food in Louisville if you get far enough away from the convention center.

2. The place is famous for its bourbon for good reason, too.  Oh yes, those were tasty.

3. Downtown Louisville is not good for pedestrians.  Drivers there don’t really watch out for you.  No, no they do not.

4. On the other hand, if you get a chance to walk around downtown Louisville you might as well take it.  There are some interesting buildings and artwork, and you just might decide to get a closer look at a particular statue in a public plaza and stumble across a photographer and two topless models working on a project.  I’m not sure if this is something that happens all the time in Louisville, but it certainly brightened the day for me and my roommate.


Ewan said...

It would delight me if Aidan's APUSH exam had ended up with you. Seems unlikely - they presumably are not sent *that* far? - but I know nothing of the system, so perhaps.

As I've mentioned, this is the class that he likes least, by far. His brain does math better, it seems. I did point out that getting a 5 on this might well mean that he could skip AHIS101, and that seemed to motivate :-). His teacher is a pretty hard grader, I think - *I* thought his essays were better than they scored, anyway, and my ratemyprofessor will tell you that I am "harsh, and occasionally evil." So perhaps this will turn out to have been relatively easy, as the SATs did. Enough has stuck, regardless, that it makes him a more informed discussant in several areas, a walking ad for the liberal arts education even of proto-engineers.

LucyInDisguise said...

Re: General Things

1. Unless you are corrupt and usurping the power of Creation itself, I’m not all that sure that being the grand secretary/advisor to Creation is going to bestow all that much power on you, but, whatever floats your life raft. And penmanship classes won’t help. I took penmanship classes. There is a reason why you can’t read anything I write: penmanship class.

4. Some dance to a song no one else can hear.

5. Next band? What happened to the last one, oh, pray tell …

7. I rather think that most historical figures would be astonished by what has been written about them. (See Facebook, Twitter, et al.)

Re: Observations about Louisville and life and other places in general

1. There is good food in any town once you get away from the tourist attractions.

2. All bourbon is good after the fourth shot, but there is only one Vodka.

3. Downtown Anywhere is not good for pedestrians. If you’re afoot, you’re on your own.

4. 😀

Happy Father’s Day, my fiend*.


* Quite a difference that little r makes, Huh? 😉

David said...

Hi Ewan –

Adrian’s APUSH exam was in the room with me somewhere, but there were a hundred people grading my question so the odds of me getting it were fairly low. They all come to a central location. We were in Louisville this year – next year Tampa, I think. Lauren’s essay was in the room somewhere as well, but I made sure to memorize her school code so I wouldn’t grade it. I got very few from Wisconsin in general, for some reason. I did get a lot from your state, so perhaps one was his!

You take your motivation where you can find it. :) There’s a reason why we have distribution requirements in college, even for engineers, and I’m glad you’re seeing that reason pan out in him. The liberal arts are those things required of a free citizen, and we lose sight of that at our peril in this day of “what can you do with that?” thinking. I will say that far too often history is taught in a way calculated to make people dislike it, which saddens me. It’s stories about people. It should be fun.

David said...

Hi Lucy –

1. I expect to hold all power, absolutely and forever, which by definition will corrupt me. I’m going to enjoy the ride. After having attempted to decipher almost 800 handwritten essays – some of which required second or even third readers to parse out, and I’m good at reading bad handwriting – I say the classes can’t hurt and might help and that’s enough for me.

Seriously – I tell my students that their job on an exam is to communicate to the reader what they know, and I can’t read it they have by definition failed.

4. There were a few rather entertaining essays.

5. Atrophied over the course of life, alas.

7. Absolutely. Though for some reason Ben Franklin (consistently voted “Founding Father You’d Most Like to Have a Beer With”) seems to get the lion’s share of that for some reason.


1. The food at the convention center was a particular sore point, though. I ended up buying several unreimbursed meals toward the end of the process just because I couldn’t deal with what they were serving. Also, you’d play hell trying to get a cup of tea in that place, which is a general problem in this country but even so.

2. These bourbons were good on the first shot, and that’s why the place is famous. My problem with vodka is that the better it is the less it tastes like anything.

3. I’m a city guy and I like walking around downtowns. Yes, you’re on your own. But I’ve walked around a lot of cities – some of them with world-wide reputations for insane drivers – and never had the experiences of Louisville. By the end of the week we were down several graders, in fact.

And a happy Father’s Day to you as well!