Commenting on papers: some thoughts

So, I’m at the tail end of a grading marathon, and I’ve been thinking anew about my philosophy of commenting, especially since I have to give a talk on Integrated Reading and Writing later this month. We talk a lot about minimal marking, and that’s important, and I’m not always as good at that as I should be, but I also don’t think I need to talk about it too much here, except to reiterate, students can only take in so much at once– if they get a paper covered in red, they’re going to think “I’m a shitty writer, just as I suspected,” and shut down. And I’ve talked to a number of students who’ve had that experience.

But one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is– how do I comment AS A READER (while not pretending that I’m not the one giving a grade) and also respecting the students AS WRITERS. In other words, as much as I can, I want my comments to be less about “master/ novice” “right/wrong” dynamic and more about a “reader/writer” dynamic– or sometimes a “writer to writer” dynamic. So I try to say things like “As a reader, I feel like you set up a promise for me in the introduction that never gets fulfilled, and I’m kind of bummed because I want to know what happened to that bunny!” or “I honestly am pretty confused with this sentence, and can’t figure out what you’re trying to say” or “as a writer, I find it sometimes gets the point across more clearly if I…” That said, if there’s something I NEED the students to do for a grade, like introduce/ summarize and analyze quotes (this is something I’m really drilling in 1101) I will make that clear. “As the assignment says, part of your grade is on integrating quotes, as in the handouts. If you’re having a hard time with this, please come see me.” This dichotomy: I’m just another writer like you, and also I’m your teacher giving you a grade is, at times, annoying, I know. But I think it’s still useful to write to them as writers and to ASK them– “why did you make this choice in your writing?” instead of saying “this is wrong,” even though sometimes they may not be aware of having made a choice at all.

On grammar: I pick one issue per student per paper, whatever I think most impedes comprehension, I mark the first few instances of that issue, and then I ask them to look it up on the OWL– unless that issue is “sentence focus,” in which case, I make them come talk to me. If it’s subject/ verb agreement, verb tense or articles, I would normally send them to the tutoring lab to work on that one issue only (because those issues are very difficult to handle on your own) but with the ALC issues, and because I can make the time, I ask students to come see me about those issues too. If an issue affects nearly half the class, I have a mini-lesson on it for the whole class. All of this said, I tell the class repeatedly what the research shows: the best (and honestly, basically only) way to learn grammar is by reading (and to some extent writing.)

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4 thoughts on “Commenting on papers: some thoughts

  1. Kim

    This is really helpful! And interesting to think about. I do a fair amount of commenting as a reader/writer in other realms of my life, and am trying to import some of these strategies, so it’s not simply “an evaluation”…. but it’s a real challenge for me to strike a good balance

  2. Jackie Blain

    Carrie, I’m with you about “grading.” I don’t think it takes any less time than the red-pencil style, but I do think the students get more from it. Then again, I may be delusional. But the Reader-Instructor distinction is, I think, an important one that we need to keep reminding ourselves about given how easy it is to slip back into red-pencil mode.

  3. Robert Lestón

    There’s a distinction that’s helpful between so called writerly texts and readerly texts. Don’t remember who made that distinction (Sommers)? But getting students to think about shuffling between the two is helpful for how to frame it thoughts about responding. “It might be helpful to explore this topic as a writer and thinker. In other words, how could knowing more about this area in your essay help you come to terms with your own thinking? ” Vs. ” I can sense that you’ve done some research and have a good handle on this for yourself. The problem is that the stuff you know isn’t really coming through. You have important insight here, but the language needs to be changed so your reader can follow along. “

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