How do you respond to student writing?

Video created by Elizabeth Uva Employee on Oct 23, 2015

    Sommers: Responding to student writing is the hardest thing we do as teachers of writing.  Students imagine the scene.  We've spent a lot of time teaching students about argument, for instance.  The papers come into us, the papers come into us, and we're curious.  We want to see what have they done.  We, basically, what we're looking at is the consequences of our pedagogy, where we're really seeing what it is we taught and we didn't teach our students.


    Tinberg: I have to admit, early on in my teaching career I was very much focused on the errors and on a kind of rubber stamp approach.  Now I see--and this is after reviewing the research, the really good research on the rhetoric of teacher commentary--that just as my students need to be aware of audience and purpose, so I need to be aware of audience and purpose when I comment.  And that means for the very last paper as well as the first paper in that pile.  What am I intending to say?  What will be the effect of what I say?


    Sanchez: I don't want them to equate success in writing with pleasing the professor.  I read the work, I make general comments about it, and if they really press me for individual sort of feedback I will, but I really resist purposefully giving them the sense of security, I think, that they've come to expect over years of schooling that comes from having the professor say, "You are doing B work," or "You are doing A work."


    Sommers: I think too often we overwhelm students with comments.  It's almost as if we feel like, oh, my graduate advisor is sitting on my shoulder watching me to make sure that I comment on everything and somebody is looking at me and if I don't comment on every sentence fragment and every comma splice, they'll think I don't know that.  So there's this tension always, which is, do we comment on everything that we see as a problem in the student paper?  Or do we sort of say, well, I can't comment on everything so I have to begin somewhere?  And how do we make those decisions?


    Tinberg: A really important moment for me was seeing the distinction in the scholarship between summative comments and formative comments. That is, the comments that simply are there as a kind of rationale for the grade, the summative.  The formative comment is designed as a tool for students to revise the work and improve it in important ways.  So my comments become instrumental.  They're not simply seen as a justification or a gloss on the grade that I give.  That has been a remarkable development in my own pedagogy.


    Sommers: I think one of the things we also have to think about all the time about responding--it's important when you respond to a paper is to really think about the purpose of a response.  I always have to ask myself, okay, I'm responding to a rough draft, what's the purpose of my comments at this point in the process?  Because the comments I would write on a rough draft are very different than the comments I would write on a final draft.  So for instance, with a final draft, the student's never going to write this paper again, so to write all kinds of hypothetical things about well, you might have done this and you might have done that is really a waste of my time, and the students really say, well, I'm not going to write it again.


    Sanchez: In the context of first year writing I think of myself responding to student writing probably more along the lines of what I see people like David Bartholomae and Mina Shaughnessy doing in their published work.  I see myself more as trying to tell them--I tell the students basically, "Here's what I think you were trying to do, and here's how well I think you did it." And then explaining the nature of the space in between those two things and what they need to do to get to where they want it to be.


    Sommers: I ask students to give me feedback about my own feedback.  I ask students after the first paper to look closely, to do the kind of close reading that we've been practicing in class, but to do that with the feedback, and to tell me which of the comments were clear, which were vague, which they could actually use, which they didn't use, and in fact, which comment would they remember as they wrote the next draft or, as I like to think of it, which comments would travel with them across the drafts when they were going to write in another class or another paper.  And it's scary when you do that because you learn a lot, so that a lot of those kind of real teacherly, English-teacherly things that we all do, such as "specific?" or "be more specific" or any of those commands or one-words vague.  As students will say back to me, "that's pretty vague."


    Sanchez: Obviously evaluating and responding are related, and again, back in my teacher training days, I tried to make a very clear distinction between those two because again, when you're new to this, it's easy to sort of confuse them.  And the problem with confusing them is that again you sort of--and I'm sorry to use this metaphor--but you sort of poison the relationship with your student when you confuse the two.  Although, again, because you're the teacher and because you're sort of institutionally situated, that relationship is already kind of screwed.  This is why I used to love working in writing centers because the relationship between tutor and student was as close to sort of pure as you can get.  Because the tutor... as a tutor I wasn't evaluating their writing, but I was responding a lot to their writing. A lot.



    Rose: There's also the kind of feedback that you just give to people individually, right?  I mean, as you're walking down the hall and you put your arm around somebody's shoulder and just say, "Hey, you know, that was a hell of a good point that you made in class today" or "That was really nice... I really liked that opening sentence in that paper, and do more of that."  And then finally, you know what I do--and again, I realize I have the privilege of having a kind of teaching load that allows this--but I have done things like called people at home because I've got their home numbers.  When they've missed class or I haven't heard from them or they've turned something in that I know isn't a good as it should be, I'll call them up and say, "Hey, what was going on with that paper?"