I usually don't let the day-to-day aspects of my job get me down. Academia, yes. That gets me down sometimes. But it's rare that I walk out of the classroom feeling bad about what I do for a living. Yet this semester (we are currently in finals), grading research papers has kinda broken me. Not completely, of course – I'm not out on the ledge or typing up my resignation letter – but I'm second guessing myself even more than usual and not feeling particularly good about it right now. Perhaps my fellow educators out there can appreciate reaching the end of a semester or year and dealing with the nagging feeling that your students did not actually learn a damn thing.

These papers, nearly 90 in all, are among the worst things I've ever graded. A few are outstanding. Some are pretty good. Some are decent. But most of them are terrible. I feel bad about this for two different reasons. First, I tend to blame myself first and foremost when things vaguely within my control are not successful. Of the students who approached me for help in advance of the due date – you know, the good students who were responsible enough to take some initiative and put a little effort into it – I feel like I did not do a good enough job of helping them. If they're working with me and the final product has flaws, that is at least partly my fault. I failed them and I failed myself, but I can live with it because I know that I'm not a perfect teacher and it's a useful reminder that I need to continue improving. It knocks me down a peg. That's a good thing.

Second, I feel bad because sometimes these end-of-semester assignments have a way of making me feel like I was wasting my time. You know that one student who asks when the final exam is even though you mentioned it in class 15 times and the date/time are on the syllabus? He makes you feel like you're wasting your time talking because he's not paying the slightest bit of attention to you. Now imagine that he's half of your class. Maybe even more than half. I must have gone over the basics of this assignment a dozen times. I walked through example after example. And it's really obvious that some of these people did not hear a single word of it. They might be in class, but they're staring at their laptops and I'm ultimately background noise. Consequently I can't help but question the value of what I do. It feels like there is none, bluntly. We could stick a board with a painted-on smiley face at the front of the room and play audio recordings of the Oliver North hearings and it would not change the amount that many of these students learn in their classes. I feel about as useful as a travel agent sometimes.

It's hard to feel good when I am forced to realize that A) there are things I didn't do well enough, B) an appreciable portion of these students lack even adequate high school-level writing skills, and C) not many of them are putting effort into their classes, paying any attention to me when I teach, or both. Oh, and it's even harder to feel good when you read "charter schools and home schooling are more effective because the pace of instruction is not slowed because of minority and disabled students" in a paper.

That's not the kind of thing one overcomes to have a good day.

Usually I have a half-decent and not-too-cheesy answer to the "Why do we do this?" question that educators so often ask themselves and one another. Today I don't. Today I'm unsure what, if anything, that 17 weeks of hard work accomplished.