Grading in Purgatory? How about a Change of Scenery? (A Little Levity and Thought for the End of the School Year) by Sara Frykenberg

Sara FrykenbergI am sitting on the patio in front of my apartment as I write this blog. It’s hot-ish and windy. Ventura is always windy. The jasmine vine in my garden (also known as my strip of dirt, or ‘the facilities’ for all neighborhood cats) is in full bloom and my potato bush is covered in purple flowers. When I planted this bush, that is now taller than my head, it was just a stick—a stick that can apparently become a tree-size monster; but, it is my favorite plant monster and it hosts the loudly buzzing, giant black bees that visit my home. No bees today though, just a badly needed change of scenery…

Many of the teachers and professors who read this blog can probably empathize with me when I say that I have been trapped in my office for weeks grading. The last day of classes this semester was Friday of the past week. I’m not quite sure how I managed to so fully and completely overestimate my ability to read, comment on and score hundreds of pages, but I did, and so, I am sentenced to ‘hard time’ at my desk. As the Arcade Fire song The Well and the Lighthouse goes, “I’m serving time all for a crime I did commit.”

My twin sister rubbed this in a bit. She called me as I sat in my office Monday morning after a long weekend of grading and asked me what I was doing. I told her, “grading,” and she promptly started laughing at me and bellowed, “You’re in purgatory!!” She continued to laugh for some time; and then proceeded to post references to purgatory on my Facebook page throughout the day. (Consequently, she later noted my lack of response to her posts. Of course, I had been too busy to reply—see above comments on overestimating, end of semester and grading.)

My sister posted this picture on my Facebook page, "Purgatory" by Surgey Tyukanov sourced from:

My sister posted this picture on my Facebook page, “Purgatory” by Surgey Tyukanov
sourced from:

(Btw- My bee neighbor has decided to visit! So, you can ignore my previous note of absence.)

Amused by my sister, I also felt prompted to seriously contemplate the implications of this attitude of mine of late. What does it mean, really, to say that I am “in purgatory” or “sentenced to my desk?” Well, for one thing, it means I’ve a talent for over-exaggerating. I do. I once watched my students’ mouths collectively drop after I made a particularly strong overstated comment. I replied, “…but I exaggerate,” and they laughed their collective relief. (I’ve taken to warning my students about my this not so helpful habit since the incident.) My attitude might also suggest, perhaps, maybe… that I’ve been whining a bit. This is also true. No excuses. I am totally whining; and generally, trying to make light of my overtaxed, over-committed predicament.

(By the way, I moved back inside. It’s too hot. The bee left and my bum hurts from sitting too long in one place. I am currently lying on my stomach on the living room floor. It’s deliciously cool—okay, cooler—in here. And dark, and not so blaring.)

However, the ethicist in me, the feminist teacher and the part of me that stubbornly refuses to skim, or cheat, or give everyone A’s just for the heck of it reminds me of something very important that I can forget when I’m tired and grouchy. I actually really like reading what my students have to say—particularly when they say it well! I sometimes think of education in general (teaching and learning) as a very long process of learning how to read; and every stage of education teaches us another way that this reading can be done. I love watching my students make connections and slide puzzles pieces of theory and evidence together. It excites me. Looking for these puzzle pieces, I also recognize language as a tool myself, and this helps me to encourage my students’ development of the skill (not the gift) of writing.

"Labyrinth Puzzle" by xkcd, sourced from

“Labyrinth Puzzle” by xkcd, sourced from

The women and men that I teach also give me gifts. They are so smart, creative. I am sometimes amazed to watch people learn. I see big ideas start to float into confusing and lightly held amalgamations as students incorporate new thought into old patterns. The process literally conjures images or feelings in my head of swirling pressure that is light and hard to gather together. I am witness to great questions; and I get to testify of their existence to the very questioners who created them. I love what I do. Moreover, I actually miss my student’s words when I don’t hear or read them. I have lamented my inability to read journals for more than one class—though the process of reading too many of these journals every week can lead to the very purgatorial feelings I mention above.

I do not mean to say that I love every piece of writing or assignment that crosses my desk (or floor for that matter). I do not. I hate lazy work or half-ass work. I am disappointed when I know a student can do better, or when I have to admit that perhaps, a student’s lack of effort in a course corresponds to his, her or their feelings of its lack of importance. I am not a big fan of assessing though I realize this too is often crucial to skill development. I find some rubrics confusing and frustrating—though my sister also reminded me this week that, as she put it: “You learn quickly, but you do not always make yourself teachable.” Check (as she would also say). I hear what you are trying to tell me.

(Okay. I’m back outside again.)

I plan to plan better. I am reminded of a favorite quote from the move Dune at this juncture:

“They tried and failed?”

“They tried and died.”

Alight, I’m exaggerating again. “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” (I just can’t help myself here.) Love is not always easy and work is not always hard. I can hold my passion and my challenges in the same space because they are a part of one another. I don’t always have to like it; but, perhaps, I can enjoy it a little more if I mix up the scenery every now and then.

I’d love to hear how you are managing your (end of school-year?) trials and holding onto love-ing.  Thank you for reading my post.

Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

Categories: Academy, college, Education, General

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15 replies

  1. ‘;you learn quickly but you are not always teachable’ – that resonates with me too. I wonder if it’s because I am mostly self-taught – from books and on-line courses – and that I am good at holding information that I find the final essay part so unattractive.
    Of course, if you just wanted to know what I think – the essay would be rattled out in no time.
    But if you ask me to get the referencing right – then I might be some time.
    A good friend says that she despairs of students like me – so, to please her, I’m digging back into my required reading once again.
    My sympathies for all who mark!


    • I actually thought it was funny that my sister said that to me– because I tend to think of myself as learning slowly (I wrote about this in a previous post)…. BUT, she definitely made her point.
      I don’t want to learn rubrics– so I don’t ;) but this slows me down even more.
      I also agonize over citations! We who write and grade have many languages to learn indeed!
      Thank you for your reply!


  2. Right there with you in purgatory … Too busy to comment because my classes ended today. I hope you have a wonderful summer!


  3. Like you I always put off grading. One of my friends once told me she gave everyone A’s if she knew they were trying, in order to encourage them to try harder. I could never see my way to that. So I struggled over As and Aminuses, and on down the line. Grading always seemed arbitrary with time and other constraints added in. And then, so few of my students write well. At SJSU , I suspected plagarism if there were no spelling or grammar errors on the first page. Now of course with purchased papers, students can purchase the errors too. Siggghhh.


    • Carol, Grading was a trial for me, too, for the same reasons you suggest. But a (teacher) friend of mine is visiting right now, and she told me about how one of her colleagues told his/her class at the beginning of the semester that s/he would give them all A’s, but only if they wrote a short essay the first week describing everything they had learned in the class (as if it were already over). Then the professor then watched as the students tried their utmost to do what they had written about. Great technique, it seems to me!


  4. I’m right there with you too, Sara and Karen! I think I have been grading for full three weeks! One way or another this has to all be over by Friday – I can’t wait. Then I get to return to my own dissertation. We’re hanging in there!


  5. I hear you! My biggest stint is yet to come—this time next week I’ll have at least 450 pages of papers to read and assess, plus the final exams (for which I always have essays. My choice to do and then I wonder about my sanity…). I actually had a bit of a crying fit to my husband yesterday, feeling misunderstood and non-supported in my purgatory. I teach on an 8-week session though, not 16, so I do this five times a year! And, after this batch is over, classes start again June 2nd!

    (This is Molly from FAR writing, but I’m logged in with my primary wordpress acct, not my FAR one)


  6. We all seem to be sharing purgatory. My family (every semester it seems) asks me why I keep requiring so many writing assignments, as it just makes my job harder. Somehow I can’t bring myself to take the easy way out when many of my students need practice writing (with supportive and critical feedback), and it violates my sense of integrity to assign a grade without assessing the quality. Ok, guess what I have to do now!


  7. Very good! I can remember being a brand-new high school English teacher. I assigned term papers due the day before Christmas break…and spent my break at my mother-in-law’s dining room table grading those term papers. That was purgatory for sure! I’m glad you’re getting a change of scenery, be it every so small. Good for you!


  8. No grading for me! But I just sold the house I’ve lived in since 1978 – the longest I’ve lived in one place. Now I’m packing and moving, and waking up at 2 or 3 a.m. thinking of what needs to be done. Or worrying about the growth that has erupted on my dog’s back or whether or not she will pee on the new carpet in the apartment I’ve rented. Did I mention I’m also moving out of town? I’m totally exhausted and just want to run away to a spa and hide out there.

    OTOH … I’ve got so many good friends offering to help, taking me out to lunches, lugging heavy cartons and moving the furniture. It feels like I’m conning them. With email and being only 90 minutes down the highway, it doesn’t feel like I’m leaving.

    But I am. And who knows what is over the horizon.

    Good luck with the grading!


    • Hi Barbara, nice to read something of your journey at home, at FAR. I’ve lived in the same tiny apartment most of my adult life, so I just want to say you can really get attached to a small space too and I do love it. Right now it needs a thorough organization, it’s so packed with clutter, but maybe your post has provided the inspiration and tomorrow, I’ll get going with that.


  9. Thank you for all of the encouraging replies! And, for all of you working in your own ‘purgatory,’ hang in there!!!


  10. Hi Sara,

    I can relate to what you wrote, and to living in Ventura, because I grew up in Camarillo and lived in other parts of Ventura County too. I now live in Maine. Anyway, I wanted to teach college until I took a course in feminist pedagogy, which involved student teaching.. After dealing with some difficult students and grading papers I decided I wasn’t cut out to teach, at least not in a formal setting. So kudos to you and all the others who slog through classes and papers every semester! You have my sympathy.


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