The Grade and the Comment

Michelle Perry asks, Does your grading method on papers differ based on the type of essay presented?

Yes, and based upon when the paper is assigned. I have incrementally higher goals for the student papers as the semester progresses, based on the flagrantly optimistic premise that students learn, talents flourish, and ability to write increases as a result of my teaching. I suppose it’s more an article of faith than a conclusion based upon empirical evidence. And I expect most writing teachers are rowing that same boat.

To elaborate: the writing instructor needs, first, to know why she is grading the paper in the first place, and second, to know why she is commenting upon the paper as part of her grading. A short list of each occur to me:

Why grade writing?

  1. Our institutions expect it. It’s part of what they pay us to do.
  2. Our students expect it and are frequently uncomfortable without it.
  3. It’s often the most meaningful thing we write on the paper, in the students’ eyes. You can tell this because it’s often the only thing we put on the paper that they pay close attention to. That may be our fault, though; maybe it’s all gobbledygook to the student, except for the grade.

Actually, that’s as far as I can get in the list right now, and those reasons are admittedly lame. For some years I tried to de-emphasize the grade and adopted a gambit or two I stole from a Kansan instructor, Mel Riggs. I required six or seven essays and followed that with four or five revisions, and I commented on the six or seven first drafts but graded only the revisions. “Forget the grades. Look at the comments” I’d say. “Easy for you,” they mumbled.

After a while it began to feel like a game of keep away, though. I knew what grade I would put on the papers if pressed, and I became unsure the gambit was urging my students to attend to my comments any more closely than when I graded the work. A contributing factor to adopting the gambit, by the way, was Conventional Wisdom. I heard Conventional Wisdom, now and then, in the journals, at conferences, and in my graduate classes: Students don’t read the comments, they only look at the grade. I read an intriguing article about how one industrious instructor tape recorded all his comments and returned cassettes with each paper. They have to listen through my advice in order to find out what their grade is, he thought. I know another instructor who slips the grade into the body of the comment somewhere, almost at random. But should we put grades into papers like Easter eggs on the White House lawn?

Now I knew that I looked at comments from my instructors on my papers and always had. They really interested me. But Conventional Wisdom said, sure, but you’re an English major, made of sterner stuff. Mere mortals read the grade and toss the rest away. I liked the sound of that at one time, but it’s not true.

So I watched at my students and what they did. Certainly some of them looked only at the grade. I had one student who took each paper when it was returned, glanced at the grade, slipped it into a folder, and at the end of class quietly crumpled it up into a golf ball and dropped it in the wastebasket on the way out. I was impressed at how hard and perfectly round the papers became. I remember wishing his essay could be so well formed.

But most of them, I was sure, were reading my comments and reacting to them as they revised. Maybe the problem – and I try to always remember this – isn’t with the students but with the instructors. Maybe the Conventional Wisdom faculty were making comments that sound like leaking air from a parrot (awk – frag — ss — cs — punct — ww — spl?); maybe the comments didn’t sound like they came from someone who had the students’ best interests at heart, giving advice to another adult who had tried and missed; maybe the comments looked like angry graffiti; maybe the student just couldn’t understand the abstractions; maybe the student felt stupid and that kept him from reading them. I remember once suggesting a student revise a paper she had gotten all tangled up in the first draft.

“Oh, I threw that away,” she said. “Why would I keep something that got a grade like that?”

So into my other list: Why do I comment on student papers?

  1. To justify the grade, a useful thing when beset by helicopter parents.
  2. To clarify my thinking and confirm to myself the grade is just.
  3. To suggest to students what they might do another time to improve.
  4. To let the writer know that what he wrote is worth my attention; that he caught something in writing and it made me think, and here is what I thought. (It’s interesting to me how in commenting on the paper, I sometimes discover how I like the underlying thought. It happens to me – often – that I will fail a paper yet like the ideas that turn like carp under the paper’s surface. It’s one of the things I’ll say in my comments, that the ideas deserve to be sharper, more compelling, more alive in your language, because I like them.)

I expect there are other reasons to comment, and my own ego may play a part. But let me tell you one thing about Peter Elbow. I was his student once, in a graduate class at Bread Loaf. Our papers would come back with lightly penciled sways and swirls in the margin. He said he tried to catch how the language made him respond abstractly, as he read. Sometimes there would be a few bold slashes, and I think that meant the ideas hit him solidly; sometimes the lines looked like faint curves – think of the background lines in Munch’s The Scream – and perhaps there was a beauty in the language there.  He said the lines were in pencil, so we could erase them easily. Then he typed a comment and paper-clipped it to the paper.

I thought the pencil markings were a little silly, but I liked them. They let me know my writing was doing something to him, making him move his pencil. When I read a good textbook, I sometimes make those kinds of marks in the margin, when the writer really gives me something.


One Response to The Grade and the Comment

  1. Lizzyik says:

    favorited this one, brother

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