On the Emotional Labor of Assertiveness (in Grading)

On the Emotional Labor of Assertiveness (in Grading)

Greetings! I still have 14 final papers to grade before tomorrow for my interpersonal communication class, but since it’s #TeacherAppreciationWeek, I wanted to take a short break to talk about the emotional labor involved in assertive grading.

Especially for us recovering avoider-accommodators, but also I think for recovering aggressors as well, it’s not easy to tell students their work doesn’t meet the standards I’ve laid out. It’s just not.

I say this having taken many steps over the years to make it a clearer and easier and less shame-inducing process for both parties:

  1. How I plan to grade everyone is pretty clearly laid out: in the syllabus, long detailed assignment descriptions, and in specific rubrics that the students can see when they get the feedback. My syllabus states clearly at the beginning that by signing up for the class, they agree to have solicited my advice and assessment of their ideas and communication styles.
  2. I’m able to help them understand my grading policies in class: Since I teach communication classes, I have the privilege of teaching my way to helping my students understand why healthy disagreement is important in light of and as part of the actual subject matter of the course as well as laying the groundwork for my expertise.
  3. I use the spinach metaphor in class: A particularly helpful metaphor I’ve started using about grading is the “spinach in one’s teeth” metaphor. Framing my grading in light of being a helpful friend who doesn’t let them embarrass themselves in front of others by continuing with spinach in their teeth has reduced grade complaints significantly.
  4. I practice what I teach in my feedback style: And work very hard to practice what I teach in my feedback. I guard myself from both passivity and aggression in my grading responses, though I do still often second-guess whether I’m doing this well along the way (because recovering avoider accommodator–the demons are strong and don’t give up their grip easily).

There are lots of other strategies I use as well, including moving the listening unit as close to the beginning of all my classes as possible to make it likelier that my messages will be heard.

And yet–and yet–my classes are all general education classes, and alternatives to public speaking. This means there are many blocks to my message being heard. Both in the students themselves and in how they’ve been socialized to think about my discipline and general education classes.

And the cost of tuition these days has driven up stress on these students, which means they don’t always react well to honest assessments of their outputs when the score shows their work doesn’t deserve an A. All of this means their behaviors combined with their socialization sometimes get in their own way of hearing the message.

The truth is, part of my message in giving a grade is a humiliation–after all, they didn’t create the stressful system they live in. And I’m fully aware that telling a student that they will have to take my class will literally cost them. It’s an expensive lesson in the world being unfair as well as a call to build their own resilience in the ways they can.

After all, we all have unhealthy stress responses at times. And sometimes they are socialized so deeply into their own conflict styles and/or shame messages that even with the best of intentions and the hardest of work, they simply don’t catch up to their classmates enough for their scores to pass.

So there are always some students with whom I have to be assertive through grades at the end of the semester, communicating through a “failure” that they’ll likely have to retake the class to move on in their schooling. And as a recovering avoider-accommodator who knows the toll that stress and trauma and the rest of it takes, it’s not easy to sit with these particularly tough cases and communicate to them, whether digitally or in-person during office hours, that their work just isn’t measuring up to the standards I’ve set.

It doesn’t help that as a recovering perfectionist, I know the shame that can come with a bad grade.

It’s worth it to go through with it–for them to see the spinach in their own teeth as well as to think through some of the outside systems that put some of it there–but…yeah. As I said about my BOGO Chipotle burrito bowl deal earlier this week on teaching appreciation day proper, emotional labor is real, and some days it tastes like umami.

Having learned to name this particular form of stress is helping me cope with it. Shout out to other educators and assertive people in general that have a lot of this sort of emotional labor attached to their practices of assertiveness!

Go team assertiveness! We’ve got this thing.

(And we’re more likely to get there if we give ourselves permission to name and dwell with the discomforts of the process even while we determine not to give into the fear of potentially negative reactions. Hang in there, assertive friends! You are not alone in finding this assertiveness hard. It’s so tempting to think we can change the system and make everything better for all our students. But we can only do what we can do.)

Okay, back to those 14 papers. GO TEAM ASSERTIVELY GRADE ALL THE THINGS! EVEN WHEN IT’S A CHALLENGE TO DO SO! (Sorry if the all caps is difficult for you–I get a little squirrelly at the end of the semester.)

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On the Emotional Lab…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 4 min
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