So, I have officially finished the semester, and survived! Grades are in, and no one seems to be panicking about what they got. I realized something about grading this time round - one of my pedagogical principles is to assign a lot of small- to mid-sized things, as I'm opposed to the kind of course where students just have a couple of really big projects (say, a midterm worth 30%, a final worth 50%, and a paper worth 20%); the latter kind of course means that one bad day, one illness, misunderstanding one set of instructions, not quite getting one particular subject, whatever, can really torpedo a whole's semester's grade, and that's always seemed unfair to me.* But I've only just now realized the corollary - that if the course has lots of small assignments that all contribute to the final grade, it's kind of hard to do badly. You have to work to do badly in my classes. I mean, you have to work to do well, also; I do not give a lot of straight As at all. But it's hard to sink yourself in my classes.
Granted, some students manage it. But they're definitely the exception rather than the rule, especially here, where for so many students "doing badly" means getting some variety of B.
I'm still sticking with my lots-of-small-things approach, because I do firmly believe that small, regular steps are much more useful pedagogically, in helping students develop reading, writing, and critical thinking skills, than infrequent cramming sessions. Someone training for a sport can't schedule three 5-hour sessions over the course of a month and expect to improve significantly (or avoid injury!); brief, regular sessions are necessary. Thinking is the same way. (One of my favorite pieces of pedagogical wisdom ever came from a friend of mine, when some of my students were complaining about too much work or the work being too hard or something. She shrugged and said, "If you use new muscles, you're going to get sore.") But it's kind of useful to realize that it's not that I'm just an easy grader (or least, not only that I'm an easy grader!), but that my courses are designed for students not to do badly.
But you know, I also think that you have to work to do really badly in history classes generally. Before all you historians out there run me out of the blogosphere on a virtual rail, let me add that, again, you have to work hard to do well. Not everyone can "do" history just because they can read a history book! And certainly, if you're someone who has issues with reading or writing, yeah, history's going to be a problem for you. But what sets history apart from something like math or chemistry or languages is that - ironically, given its chronological focus - it's not cumulative. If you're taking U.S. History I, and you miss the colonial section, sure, that's a problem in the grand scheme of understanding U.S. history. And it'll probably be a problem for your grade, in that you won't be able to answer exam/paper questions about the colonial stuff. But you can still read about the War of 1812 or the beginnings of the Civil War and understand what's going on. Your understanding may not be as nuanced as it would have been if you'd had the colonial section. But you'll probably do fine. If you don't read the first book assigned in my course, you can pick up with the second and pretty much catch right up.
There are lots of disciplines that aren't like this. If you don't learn the first two weeks of material in Calc I (although I have no idea what they would be), you will not be able to understand what comes after. If you don't learn how to tell the difference between the masculine and feminine genders in the first few weeks of French, you will never understand when to use le or la or how to form the correct adjective. Okay, eventually you can catch up. But it's harder than just picking up the second book in one of my history classes. For instance, I had an advisee who had literally not been on campus a week this semester when he broke his ankle (really badly. Like, shattered. He's got all kinds of pins and crap in there now). He missed the first three weeks of class in a semester in which he was taking one math class and one language class, and man oh man, did he struggle to catch up. It's pretty much killed his whole semester. His history class? Not a problem.
So, these are some thoughts that came to me as I was surveying the sea of Bs and low As in my courses this semester. Yes, I may simply be an easy grader, but honestly, my students, by and large, did what I wanted them to do. What I really wish is that I could make greater distinctions within the Bs - assign a B+/A-, or a B++, or a B/B+, or a B--. Maybe I'll mess with my students' heads and start doing just that. Then again, maybe not.
*Remember that I only teach undergraduates, so graduate courses are another beast entirely, one about which I know nothing from the instructor's point of view.