Grading Blues

Every grader of blue books was once a writer of blue books, so it might help to think about the process from that end.

I remember, with particular shame, a certain undergraduate essay exam of my own for a course in “Modern Moral Philosophy.” The professor was Philippa Foot, who must have been in her early 60s at the time. I was wholly convinced by her attempt to renew Aristotelian virtue ethics (I still am), and that was part of the problem.

In answer to her essay question, I parroted her anti-Humean line without really making much of an argument — as if I were an academic peer chit-chatting or a grad student sucking up. In the margin next to precisely the paragraph where I should have made some substantive argument, she wrote in her strong cursive hand, “But why was Hume wrong here?” and gave me a B or maybe even a B-, along with a note at the end of the exam expressing measured disappointment.

At the time, I was ashamed for having failed to really “do philosophy,” as we were taught to say. Now I am ashamed for a different reason. How could I have wasted her time like that?

Professor Foot — after a good 30 or so years of serious teaching, writing, and thinking, and at 25 years past my present age — was still correcting the glib meanderings of 19-year-olds. As a student, I owed her more, and as a teacher I wonder whether I will practice the same patience and attention to detail (two of the pedagogical virtues) when I am at that stage of my career.


I know that the blue book and ballpoint pen are aging technologies, and that the hastily scrawled essay is probably on its way out. But I doubt there is a sound replacement for the requirement of a carefully composed essay on an assigned topic, written in two to three hours, whatever the technology. —Abe SocherGrading Blues (Chronicle)