In praise of required drafts.

31 01 2011

Tenured Radical has a very useful post up on designing writing assignments and grading them. The discussion from the top down to the bottom of the comments on the relationship between bad writing and the testing culture in secondary schools is particularly fascinating.

However, what I want to do here is focus on two of the parts that post that deal with grading. She’s asking and answering questions that I’ll answer too:

Do you write comments on the paper? Or just grade it? Do you make yourself available to discuss students’ work with them after you hand the papers back? I can’t tell you how many of my advisees show up in my office hours with a paper in their hand that has no comments on it at all, just a grade, students who also can’t get the professor to met with them. Rarely do they express anger or resentment at the grade: they want to do better and they don’t know how.

Yup, I’ve seen that too. That strikes me as academic malpractice. It makes us all look bad if students think we’re just pulling grades out of a hat. I’ll add that another form of academic malpractice would be handing students an assignment sheet and basically saying “See you in two months with a paper.” I always make time on the researching/writing process somewhere in every course in which I assign a paper, which, come to think of it, is every course I teach!

That process discussion is part of my answer to the second section of that Tenured Radical post that I wanted to recopy here:

Do you write lots and lots of marginal notes on the paper, spending hours correcting everything and re-diagramming their sentences? The truth is, although you are trying to be the opposite of the teacher I describe above, this freaks students out. Although you have spent maybe an hour on this, feeling like you are a really caring teacher, the student may see them as a blur, as grammatical correction collides with interpretive questions, typos, basic misunderstanding of the text and long-winded attempts not to utilize the first person or appear “biased.” If a paper is really muddled, it is a waste of your time to do this: far better to sit down with the student, ask a couple questions about what s/he intended, and describe how s/he might have gone about writing such a paper.

I am a big margin note-writer, but I think the big difference between Tenured Radical’s hypothetical professor and I is that I do my margin note-writing on required drafts rather than final papers (which get substantially fewer, but not an inconsiderable amount of comments).

Required drafts, usually half the required size of the final paper, force students to start thinking about the assignment early. Equally importantly, I require them to come in via e-mail so that my comments are done with the “add comment” section of Microsoft Word. This means I don’t have to wait until the next class period to get student papers back to them. More importantly, this means we can go back and forth several times before a paper is finally done.

Yes, I’ve heard shudders from students when I’ve cut huge sections of draft papers. That’s when I do what Tenured Radical suggests and bring them into office hours for a talk. Besides, the shock is never that bad when there’s no grade at the bottom.

Tenured Radical also asks:

Do you talk to students about your own writing, and testify to the ongoing vulnerability of putting your own writing out there to be criticized by others?

Hopefully that’s what keeps me humble. Was it Bobby Knight who once said that coaches should never shoot baskets in front of their players? The opposite reasoning applies here as students need to know that everybody gets beat up in the writing process.

I edit them the same way I edit myself. I often talk about the great pain I feel when I have to cut a great historical nugget that just doesn’t help me make my overall point. I also talk about the joys of finding the best pieces possible to make that point, even when it didn’t look that way at first.

Teaching research and writing are just about the most fun I have doing my job precisely because I have so much fun doing it myself. I think I get much better papers as a result.


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5 responses

31 01 2011
philosophyfactory

I’d love to have drafts in my Ethics class, but my class is 50 students — I’ve tried it..

It was very interesting to me to be assigning writing while working on my dissertation. I shared the pain with my students and had them read my work. I told them it was only fair, since I read theirs🙂.

I think a grading rubric helps students to understand grades and it isn’t difficult to fill out. It’s my compromise between the “lots of margin notes” and “just a grade at the bottom” positions.

31 01 2011
Jonathan Rees

Point very well taken, Philosophy Factory. My upper-level classes never top twenty.

A possible alternative would be to require first paragraphs in advance. While this doesn’t let you offer all the advice that students need, it would still be enough to significantly improve the quality of their arguments.

7 02 2011
Tony

When I took Introductory German in college, we had written assignments every day. Every day we would get the previous day’s assignment back. And on every returned assignment, the professor had bled on our papers, as one of my friends put it, to correct our errors. She was a wonderful woman who paid attention to EVERYTHING, even what the freshmen were doing.

9 02 2011
Do ypu publish every post you write? Or do you have stash of unpublished drafts? | alisonamazed

[…] Whenever I find an interesting post, I press it and save it as a draft.  This one caught my eye , posted January 31 by Jonathan Rees:   In praise of required drafts. « More or Less Bunk. […]

5 03 2011
via ProfHacker: Teaching Carnival 4.7 « UH Center for Teaching Excellence Blog

[…] every aspect of teaching and learning.  Interesting pieces on handling difficult situations, giving feedback to writing assignments, and the proposed legislation for guns on campus.  Take a look, and let us know if you find […]

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