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.