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John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines
101 McGraw Hall • Cornell University • Ithaca, NY 14853 • 607-255-4061

Responding to Student Writing

(This note was originally written in response to concerns graduate teaching assistants raised in Writing 7101, the seminar for teaching assistants in Writing in the Majors.)

Even the most experienced teachers have lingering concerns about methods of evaluating and responding to student writing efficiently, effectively, and fairly. Specific concerns vary, but most of them fall within the general question How can I do this job well? I want to add an important, related question that some of you raised explicitly:

Given everything else I have to do, how can I take care of my students and take care of myself at the same time?

Our announcement that we don't expect you to become "writing teachers" might have relieved some of these concerns. At least we don't expect you to respond to student writing as though you were someone you do not happen to be, or to "teach writing" for purposes that transcend the kinds of writing your students happen to be doing. We certainly don't expect you to transform your students into Good Writers in all contexts, for the rest of their lives.

Still, when you have a fresh stack of papers in front of you that you have to return to students in a few days, you have to do something. And if you do not approach these papers as though you were a writing teacher (whatever that might mean), how should you approach them? What should you do?

Whatever you do is probably going to take more time and thought than grading multiple-choice exams or problems sets, and to that extent I can't argue with John Bower's suggestion last week that the kinds of teaching we support in this program create additional work. Assigning a paper will create more work for you than not assigning a paper. Assigning six papers will create more work than assigning four. A useful response to a student paper will also require more time than a simple grade or little checks in the margins. When you are about to start working on a batch of student papers, however, the process that follows still offers you an extraordinary range of choices, and the most time-consuming choices that teachers make are not among the best ones for anyone involved.

Line editing is a good example. Dutiful teachers often begin to read student papers with an editorial eye, marking and correcting everything that bumps up against their own sense for the way the language should work, as though they were journal editors preparing a manuscript for publication. This might seem to be the most efficient, thorough, responsible way to help students with their writing, but it is not for several reasons:

  • Beyond a certain critical mass, students do not pay attention to these corrections and suggestions, especially if they are local and piecemeal. They just see that their paper is all marked up and feel bad.
  • Unless you show them a clear pattern among local problems, they will make the same kinds of mistakes the next time they write. They will have no awareness to transfer to the next occasion.
  • In this editorial response, you are assuming responsibility for the student's writing--encouraging the writer to make the changes you would have made and demonstrating that you hold authority and control over language. The most effective responses, especially to drafts, return responsibility to the writer.
  • Editorial approaches are terribly inefficient. In some cases, for example, you might find at the end of your reading that all you really need to say to the student is "I would like to talk with you about this paper." It's obviously more efficient to reach this conclusion before you make elaborate comments in the text, not after.

Comments represent a hierarchy of generality and importance, opposite to the order in which many teachers make them. In other words, if you begin by line editing sentences, you might find at the end of the first paragraph that the student needs to compose a completely different introduction. That observation will conflict with all of the editorial suggestions you've made within the paragraph and will give the student mixed messages: Fix all these little problems and Write a new paragraph. Final comments usually address the strengths and weaknesses of the paper as a whole in ways that sometimes eliminate the need for local comments or organize those comments in retrospect. If you find in the end that assertions the writer has made in the introduction and conclusion conflict, you can go back and underscore those statements, leaving the resolution of the conflict to the writer. And if this is the real heart of the matter, you want that contradiction to stand out, not to get lost in a litter of previous, unrelated, minor corrections.

All of these observations suggest that you should first be a reader, before you simply react as an editor, before you respond as a reader, and before you become a grader. Because grading represents the end of the process, because we want to be done with it, and because grading is the object of so much anxiety for teachers and students, teachers tend to begin the process of reading student papers as a process of grading. That is what they most often say and feel that they are doing from the outset: I'm grading papers. But this idea both inverts and undermines the process. You can't grade something you haven't read, and the desire to get it graded interferes with reading and with response.

When I read as a grader I find that I want to rush to judgment, to make up my mind about the worth of this writing as quickly as possible. Reading becomes aggressive rather than receptive. I want to take the writing apart and do things to it, partly to justify my gathering intention to give it a particular grade. In the comments I do make, therefore, I'm stuck with the impoverished, binary language of evaluation--good/bad, right/wrong, true/false, interesting/boring. . . . If my objective is to reach and justify judgment as quickly as possible, I lose access to all of the rich, subtle language of someone who is reading receptively, registering how the writing affects him, and responding to a piece of communication. Instead, all of my comments start to sound alike, and everything I say focuses attention on the grade, as though that were all that mattered. I also get bored and tired quickly, because a grader doesn't have time to be interested in what he is reading. So I also lose contact both with the writer and with the writing.

Given your workloads, I know that it's unreasonable for me to suggest that you should first read every paper receptively and thoughtfully, before you respond, before you even think about grading. If I have time, however, that's what I do, and it's the most efficient way to do the job really well. I just read and listen, letting the language reach me as well as it can, letting myself get interested in what is going on, registering what happens to me as a reader, where the paper is trying to take me, where I get lost, what questions I'm left with and want to ask the writer. Then I usually know what to say in response, starting with the heart of the matter and going back through the text to make comments that seem most important. When I'm thinking about what I'm doing, I usually make fewer comments, not more. And then, if I have to grade, in the end I know how to do that too. This is the most pleasurable, informative, and effective way to approach a piece of writing.

If you have a large stack of papers to get through, I still suggest that you first read a couple of them receptively, without doing anything to them, to get a sense for what students are doing and how the assignment worked. Then, if you can read them only once, I suggest that you keep that receptive reader persona intact as much as possible, making only sparse, strategic comments in the text before you finish, then composing a few general comments about the paper as a whole, going back into the text to illustrate those observations or questions. Then grade.

This is what students usually tell me that they want. They want to make contact with a thoughtful reader, another human being who communicates a response. They understand that teachers are very busy human beings who can't respond in great detail. Regardless of the length of your response, they hope for an answer to the question How did this paper work? or What did you think about it? or How can I make this work better? And if for some reason they hope that you will not read and respond thoughtfully, that's all the more reason to do so.

They are also hoping that you will read and respond as yourself, not as some other kind of creature you think you should turn into for this purpose: a stereotypical English Teacher, an Editor, the Completely Infallible Authority on the subject, a Literary Serial Killer, a Perfectly Objective Grading Machine, or the Blandly Nurturing Parent who wants always to be Nice. You can save lots of time by responding in your own voice, without translating everything into some teacherly persona.

A couple of time-saving suggestions:

1. If you do find that you are saying the same things to everyone because everyone (or a substantial proportion) is doing the same things, you might as well stop and say them to everyone at once, in class or in a brief handout. If students are doing research papers, for example, you might find that their first drafts look like categorical lists of information, or collages of their research notes. It's extremely time-consuming to push each of them beyond this intermediate stage of not yet thinking about the material, just sorting it, toward the development of a real argument that moves with real intention to some real destination. It's easier to address the general problem, perhaps with an example, and return responsibility for solving it to the writers.

2. Before students turn in their papers, we sometimes ask them to take a few minutes to write an assessment of their own work--what they would do differently if they had time to do it over, what are the best and weakest parts, what they are uncertain about, or how they think we will respond. Most student papers are really drafts posing as finished products, and the writers are often very aware of what needs further work. It's interesting to find out what they think, their observations often make our response easier, and occasionally we just need to say "I agree with you completely. Do everything you proposed to do."