Sunday, September 19, 2004

The Greatest Job (If Only)

I often imagine what it would be like if I could teach English at the college level and not have to respond to student papers. If I could do some reading, go to class, ask stimulating questions, impart the few interesting things I know about being a good writer, and hang out for an hour and twenty with those motivated (for the most part), amiable people who register for my courses. If after doing that I could go home and watch Law & Order reruns all night without thinking about that stack of papers I should be reading. . .

Like all fantasies, it's just that. And so every semester I look for a way to make it easier, less time-consuming, and more palatable to respond to student papers. And every semester I fail. I've tried it all: grading rubrics, shorthand systems, responding to one issue only, trying to do most of it in conferencing. No matter what, I spend an inordinate amount of time not only responding but avoiding responding to student papers because I hate it so much. I don't hate reading them--I often look forward to that to see what they've done--but commenting is the bane of my existence as an English teacher.

I know I'm not alone in this, and I know it isn't just a community college teaching issue. But the community colleges are where instructors are more likely to be teaching three to four (or even five) composition-based courses per semester. I think it is an especially important issue for us because the burnout which can result inevitably has deleterious effects on our students.

Maybe it's a dead horse, but somehow I cling to the hope that if we keep talking about it, we'll come up with a solution.


At 11:50 PM, Blogger jocalo said...

Honestly responding to another's writing inherently drains one. You first have to read what is there. Then you have to imagine what the student writer intended to be there, but perhaps did not fully realize. Then you have to think of something you can write that would make the student aware of what wasn't fully realized, and you should do it in a way that helps the writer figure out what to do, not just "correct" or "direct" changes. I honestly think there's no more intellectually draining work in academia than this.

What to do? One, have a clear, balanced scoring rubric that lets the student see areas of strength and weakness. Two, don't edit the paper for the student. Simply indicate where errors occur (I use short underlines). Three, select one or two sentences to show how rewriting could create a clearer effect or more readable flow. Finally, for the end comment, mention at least one thing the student did well (not always easy) and then explain one way the writer could significantly improve this paper.

Do not attempt to solve every problem with your markings and comments. You have the whole course in front of you and the student has her whole life in front of her. This paper is not make or break.

At 4:13 PM, Blogger Nick said...

You asked, "what it would be like if I could teach English at the college level and not have to respond to student papers." This is one of my favorite things to do when I teach writing courses. Not all the time, but on a regular basis I collect drafts simply to read what students are writing without the pressure of having to respond necessarily. I collect writing from students just I can simply read it the way I would say the morning newspaper, or a magazine while I sit in the airport -- leisurely, for the sake of what the essay has to say.

I collect the pieces and tell students I'll return the essays the next day unmarked, that I just want to read what they're writing for the joy of reading.

What happens, of course, is that I get to know what they're writing, and can converse on it in passing, calling on themes and ideas as examples. It's also useful for putting students together, as in "she's working on a similar idea, you two should talk," kinds of asides.

This doesn't alleviate having to respond, evaluate, and eventually grade, but it does provide refreshing breaks and lets me read differently.

At 6:46 PM, Blogger Chris said...

I've found that using the portfolio method in a composition class greatly alleviates some of the pressure and duldrum of grading student essays. When you have to grade an essay, the comments inevtiably pay service to the grade; you write what you feel justifies the grade, and sometimes the helpful advice can get lost in this process. The portfolio system for me is both productive and honest because I spend no more than 10 minutes per paper, and a lot of the times it's not even 10 minutes. I try to get my students to understand how I read their papers so that they know that when I read I look for one or two key strengths and one or two key elements that need attention in a second draft. I let the workshopping elements of the class handle the rest. With the portfolio approach, the grade doesn't even come into play until the final portfolio is submitted, and by that point, if they have been in class and I have been following my original semester plan, I've seen several drafts of each essay that is in the portfolio, so the final work gets a very quick read.

For example, I may comment on an essay that the introduction does not serve the rest of the paper well. The essay may be very interesting and compelling, but if the intro is not, then the reader never makes it to paragraph 2. But I don't give advice on how to make it better. I let the peer workshopping do this. One of the things I've learned over the years teaching composition is that the students in the class, with guidance and motivation and positive reinforcement, will often be the best teachers to their peers.

At 8:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would it work if *some* of the essays--maybe half of them--were reviewed by other students in the class? I'm thinking that maybe the experience of having to review other people's work would sensitize students to the elements of good composition.

Or maybe this idea is just fantasy...

At 11:30 PM, Blogger clc said...

That's a great idea, Nick, but how do students react? Are they ever angry about not getting feedback? I have a piece right now I'm tempted to do that with.

David, your suggestion of letting peer review take some of the responsibility off the instructor is one I think all of us try to incorporate, but with varying amounts of success. Yet another topic: how to get peer revision groups to work?

At 8:50 AM, Blogger Nick said...


Students usually appreciate just being read, not being graded or overtly evaluated. It all depends on how you frame it. I let them know in advance that I'll be just reading. So I might say on a Monday, "start this essay today, and bring in 500 words by Friday. Over the weekend, I'll just be reading them, not grading them or writing comments of any kind. I just want to get a sense of what you're working on. On Monday of next week, bring in a more formal draft for peer review workshops in class."

Often there's not much difference between what I see on the weekend and what they bring in on Monday. I don't collect anything on the Monday, I focus instead of getting the peer review stuff to work reasonably well. I might take a draft for me to comment upon on Friday. We frequently use Wednesday for a peer review follow up where writers get back in their groups and let peer reviewers know the extent to which they used any feedback and why -- what was useful in the peer review, what wasn't. It gives the reviewers a chance to expand their review or learn about giving better reviews. But really it's a chance to talk about the writing at hand.

Then they all revise again for Friday, and a week after I've had the quiet read, and I take a copy of the paper then, along with Peer Review notes and a brief not to me summarizing the week's revisions choices from Monday's and Wednesday's peer review discussions.

Since I've read the essays already, I can look more to the revision choices and peer review interaction and comment in light of those activities. So I touch on the essay, but not directly, rather in the context of what the writers have done for one another and what the writer says his or her choices have been.

But it's the no pressure-on-me-or-them read that gives me a grounding for this. I pretty much know the essay, and can focus on couching comments in and around the process activities done that week.


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