Commenting on essays: how frank is too frank?

June 17, 2013

This morning in Paragraph City, I’m commenting on rough drafts of the first paper in a writing class.  At the end of a student’s first paragraph I write, Terrible opening, full of unsupported platitudes and padding. Cut the crap and say something meaningful.  The faculty equivalent of my spidey sense sounds but I go on with my reading and commenting anyway. Then just before I return the rough draft, I delete that last sentence and write instead, You need to establish a focus and point the reader toward your thesis.

The thing is, I’m not sure which will communicate better to the student. Certainly the second sentence won’t get me into trouble with any administrators. (The scenario unfolds like this in my imagination: student’s father is well-connected in the community and phones my dean asking if ‘this writing is crap’ is an appropriate way for faculty to talk to students and my dean says ‘well, let’s hear the whole story’ and that means that next week I’m seated at a round table with my dean and an online student I’ve never seen and a man in an expensive suit, and I’m explaining the educationally efficacious advantages to calling the introductory paragraph of an essay “crap.”) I do not like this scenario.

And yet, the intro was crap, or specifically the more volatile bullshit: fluidly composed generalities about Chekhov’s writing and place in Russian literature and influence on later writers that had nothing to do with the short story the student was assigned to write about; no thesis; and but one reference to the story, calling it soporific – not, certainly, the word she meant. Now to some students, all that’s necessary is to say ‘cut the crap’ and they get it. They’ll throw it out and go back to the assignment’s directions.

That takes me back some twelve or fourteen years ago, when I’d have never even thought to call someone’s writing crap, but then I had this great student writer who wrote that sort of first paper, all padding and no content.  “Oh yeah,” she said when she read my comments. “It’s crap, I know it, but at least it was on-time crap. I had a chemistry exam to prep. Sorry. Next paper, no crap.”

It was so refreshingly clear and honest. No timid tip-toeing around the fragile student-writer ego, no making up one good thing to say for every bad thing, no convoluted expressions that allow you to say something stinks in the sweetest-smelling way.  I know with basic writers I need to be blunt because they listen to how you say things more than what you say, and an overly kindly criticism can sound like praise to them, but lately I’ve been wondering if that’s restricted to just basic writers.

Yet you really can break down the lines of communication by appearing to dismiss the writer with the writing, by appearing unapproachable, by giving the impression that you’re not only unwilling to be satisfied but that you have undecipherable standards.  So with this morning’s student, who is writing the course’s first paper and is a high school student with excellent English grades, I split the difference between the short, frank stomp and the tip-toe. The intro is terrible, so I say that, but I replace “crap” with a bit of an explanation of what the essay should be doing, and which I think the student knows it should be doing.

And I hope she doesn’t just perfume what is already on the page instead of dumping it all and starting with an actual idea.


A Gen Xer, a Baby Boomer, and a duck walk into a writing class…..

June 3, 2013

Now that summer has visited ParagraphCity and it’s possible to think again, we’ve been thinking a bit about the on-going ways the Internet’s wild west of information is affecting our writers. I came across this graphic embedded in a musing by Andrea Lunsford about how well students research online (it’s in Bedford/St. Martins’ BITS ideas for Teaching Composition, here:  )

I hope we are past the hand-wringing-and-calling-down-curses stage of teaching writing now, and instead can use this information about who the students are in front of us (or at least who some of them are). We writing teachers have always started with the students who walk in the door, figuring out their needs and starting where they are.  Pretending they are who we think they are supposed to be has never worked. So this is who they are, different probably from who they were ten years ago, different certainly from who we think they ought to be, different probably even from who they think they are, but still teachable. Knowing where to start is what one might call our expertise.

Please Include Attribution to With This Graphic Digital Research Infographic

Sample Paragraphs About the City

February 22, 2013

Nothing teaches like an example. Examples come with dangers, though: they can shrink the horizon so a novice writer sees no possibilities other than the one the paragraph offers. When that happens, everything the novice writes is a modest imitation of the original, never approaching its quality. A good writing exercise, probably, but somehow not quite enough like “real writing” to satisfy my designs in the classroom.

Yet we have to start somewhere, and imitating a master to learn his brushstrokes is a time-honored lesson, so I’m posting some example paragraphs on New York City  (with a thank-you to 

  • In no other city does life seem such a perpetual balancing of debits and credits, of evils and virtues, as it does in New York. No other city seems so charming yet so crude, so civilized yet so uncouth. I recall once going out with two friends to bring back Chinese food from a restaurant on upper Broadway. With the food in hand, we were stopped by a young Puerto Rican drugged to the hairline who wanted the wristwatch worn by one of my friends. We were able to joke him out of it, but the prospect was fraught with danger. Such, paradigmatically, is New York: the prospect of the delight of first-class Chinese food, the danger of having a knife pulled on you while getting it home.    (from Joseph Epstein’s essay, “You Take Manhattan”)
  • We steamed up into New York Harbor late one afternoon in spring. The last efforts of the sun were being put forth in turning the waters of the bay to glistening gold; the green islands on either side, in spite of their warlike mountings, looked calm and peaceful; the buildings of the town shone out in a reflected light which gave the city an air of enchantment; and, truly, it is an enchanted spot. New York City is the most fatally fascinating thing in America. She sits like a great witch at the gate of the country, showing her alluring white face and hiding her crooked hands and feet under the folds of her wide garments–constantly enticing thousands from far within, and tempting those who come from across the seas to go no farther. And all these become the victims of her caprice. Some she at once crushes beneath her cruel feet; others she condemns to a fate like that of galley slaves; a few she favors and fondles, riding them high on the bubbles of fortune; then with a sudden breath she blows the bubbles out and laughs mockingly as she watches them fall.   (from James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man )
  • Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. In the top half I see distracted looking faces and it’s not easy to tell which are the people, which the work of stonemasons. Below is a shadow where any blasé thing takes place: clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women. A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things. Hep. It’s the bright steel rocking above the shade below that does it. When I look over strips of green grass lining the river, at church steeples and into the cream-and-copper halls of apartment buildings, I’m strong. Alone, yes, but top-notch and indestructible–like the City in 1926 when all the wars are over and there will never be another one. The people down there in the shadows are happy about that. At last, at last, everything’s ahead. The smart ones say so and people listening to them and reading what they write down agree: Here comes the new. Look out. There goes the sad stuff. The bad stuff. The things-nobody-could-help stuff. The way everybody was then and there. Forget that. History is over, you all, and everything’s ahead at last.  (from Toni Morrison’s Jazz )
  • New York is full of people from small towns who are quite content to live obscure lives in some out-of-the-way corner of the city. Here there is no one to keep track. Though such a person might have come from a long line of old settlers and a neighborhood rich in memories, now he chooses to live in a flat on 231st Street, pick up the paper and milk on the doorstep every morning, and speak to the elevator man. In Southern genealogies there is always mention of a cousin who went to live in New York in 1922 and not another word. One hears that people go to New York to seek their fortunes, but many go to seek just the opposite.   (from Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman )
  • I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others–poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for the solitary restaurant dinner– young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.  (from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby )
  • There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter–the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last–the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion. And whether it is a farmer arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh yes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company. . . .   (from E. B. White’s essay “Here is New York”)

And finally, one last paragraph on New York City, from the same E. B. White 1948 essay as above.  White earns a second paragraph in this collection by being utterly magnificent.

  • The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now; in the sounds of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest editions.

Serving Up Developmental Studies

October 15, 2012

When I was a tadpole professor and Paragraph City had chalkboards made of real slate, a Man of Great Experience teaching writing courses that would never again be called remedial told me, “Building a basic skills program in a college is easy. Just look at everything that’s done in an honors program, and do that.”

Part of that remark was born from envy of the kind of well-funded university honors programs which offered students lots of individual attention, low student to faculty ratio, budgets for travel to museums & galleries & concerts, teaching assistants, expanded library holdings, and exchange programs with honors programs abroad. In that regard, Doug, my friend of great experience, wasn’t wrong, and anyway I liked the heart of his comment, even if the practical application ran a bit thin.

A decade and change passed, and ParagraphCity brought John Roueche on campus for a couple of days. He poured over our policies and programs and recommended some adjustments that would increase the success rate of our students, but especially our developmental students. He was part pep-talk and part policy-maker; I didn’t particularly like his shiny veneer, but I did think he was right about a lot of things. We began mandatory placement testing then, and mandatory placement into skills courses when the tests indicated the need. Now, with placement tests as accurate as they are, it hardly seems ethical to have let students sign up for whatever courses, ignorant as they were of their reading or writing or math ability.

Yet we who teach the basic skills will always be miserably unsatisfied with the results. So many students with such high potential fail to learn or to even complete the courses. Some of that is due to the tragedy that dogs the basic skills students; they are often poor, and unexpected pregnancies, abuse of all varieties, toxic relationships, and loss of job or car compose the monstrous music that throbs through their lives. For so many, college happens not as a matter of course, but in the lulls between crises.

So we continue to tune the engine on this developmental program bus. Last year a team of three educators from colleges in our region was invited on campus to evaluate the program and make recommendations. In an aside, they recommended a book by Hunter Boylan (who had also been on campus, decades back), called What Works: Researched Based Practices in Developmental Education.  It’s a best practices summary, standing on actual programs he’s observed, and I’m drawing on that, as well as those other experiences, in making my Top Seven Ingredients in Developmental Program Cuisine.

  1. Get the best faculty. I do not mean only full-time faculty, but absolutely the best adjuncts, and we need full-time, experienced faculty in most of the classes. Find faculty who are respected by the institution and who also teach transfer-level courses. Developmental faculty need to see first-hand, every semester, what good students are capable of and how far the developmental students will need to go. A corollary: house developmental courses in the disciplines, not in a separate basement somewhere.
  2. Reward faculty who teach basic skills classes, but I don’t mean money. We live to teach, and thrive on the successes of our students, but developmental classes provide fewer of those successes, and the failures can be grinding. I remember from more than twenty years ago a young woman intent on building a future, low skilled but hard working, burdened by gaps in fundamental skills but willing to ask questions and to ask for help. Then she was gone. Her friend told me her mother’s boyfriend had been making passes at her until finally Mom kicked him out. He set their house on fire and Mom blamed her and so now she was looking for a safe place to live with her three kids. Suddenly sentence fragments weren’t such a problem; I never saw her again. Faculty need something, some institutional gratitude, some collegiate sainthood, for living semester after semester with such failure.
  3. Schedule the world around the developmental program, including a convenient meeting time when all developmental faculty can get together. We need to have the same language, the same goals, the same point-of-the-week to be pressing home. A developmental program cannot exist as a little scattering of vessels flying the flag of Basic Skills; they need to be an Armada.
  4. All faculty teaching basic skills courses should take the placement tests that the students mandated to take their classes take. We should also sit in occasionally on other basic skills classes. We know what it’s like to be successful students; we have to keep learning what it’s like to be our own basic skills students.
  5. Be culture-changing. Developmental students probably don’t know what we have to know: that to be successful they will need to shift cultural gears to a place where books and reading and learning are admirable and valuable, not nerdy accoutrements to mock; that new language carries nuances of meaning and thinking, not just big words that reflect conceit; that real, hard work gets done in college, even if your hands don’t get dirty; that the world they hope to live in is peopled by complex ideas (democracy, pluralism, free speech, free will).
  6. Get a counselor in the program, and maybe an academic coach, too. Again and again, basic skills teachers realize their students are as likely to be defeated by poor attitudes and self-defeating thinking as they are a lack of content skills or knowledge.
  7. Train the faculty. No matter how much an instructor may be a “natural” in the classroom, faculty teaching basic skills courses never have enough strategies. A good source is Skip Downing’s On-Course training; the accompanying website has some great material: .

Aphorisms in the Mark Twain Room

April 21, 2010

The largest of the writing rooms in Paragraph City is the Mark Twain room. He died one hundred years ago today, and considering he smoked something like 20 cigars a day for much of his later life, it’s amazing he didn’t die a lot earlier. Not to mention those who shared the atmosphere around him. On the campus of Elmira College is a little octagonal study where Twain wrote for some 20 summers on a hill outside of Elmira. It was built for him by his sister-in-law’s family, some speculate the gift was a strategy to get his cigar smoke out of their house.

So Paragraph City faculty teach writing in the Mark Twain room, wearing linen suits and huffing on virtual cigars and dispensing curmudgeonly advice. That last part is surprisingly comfortable. The room has three doors, each supporting an April aphorism.

Over the oddly raft-shaped east door, facing Connecticut is, “Verbs carry the most meaning; scour your vocabulary to find the just-right word.” It seems to me I first heard this advice emerge from a pocketful of English teachers gathered around a yawning stone fireplace in a cathedral-like Morgan horse barn, one chill Vermont summer day. Ever since I have taken anything worth revising and squinted at every verb, trying to scrape off anything banal or safe or vague so the meaning would glint through.

It’s a good exercise, and I think Twain would approve.  In a letter to Emeline Beach, dated February 10, 1868 he wrote, “To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself…Anybody can have ideas–the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.”

And I think every writing teacher has repeated his, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning,” from a letter to George Bainton in October of 1888.

Over the north door, a weirdly medieval thing of rough oak and iron that might have opened onto King Arthur’s round table, students read, “Never write ‘In conclusion’ or ‘needless to say’ or any words that are for the sake of the words only and not their sense. Think hard about getting rid of ‘very’ too.”

I don’t approve of keeping on the payroll words that are not earning their keep. If they want to freeload and add nothing to the meaning, they can go work for a high school sophomore. I sack them. I don’t want them hanging around my vigorous, hardworking words, corrupting them. Have you ever known a word worth its salt that would hang out on the page next to a “very”? Not as bad as “needless to say” but still a bad influence. Twain knew: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

The eponymous west door to the Mark Twain room is twelve feet high, with a stout riverboat bell attached. Above it is the third aphorism, “When you have finished what you’ve written and it’s looking pretty good, if you can cut it by 25 to 30% it will be better.” Some students take a while to discover the slovenly torpor that comes from all the clever padding they learned to do in previous institutions of learning. They need to learn they are writing crap if they are well into their second paragraph before they write a word which wasn’t handed to them in the assignment. Words, they discover, should convey meaning. In the Mark Twain room, we don’t take their Mountain Dews, bacon cheeseburgers, or deep fried Snickers from them, but we do require that they skinny down their writing to the boney truth.

Mark Twain’s way of saying it: “The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction.  By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say,” and he said it wreathed in cigar smoke.

A Wordstorm’s a Good Thing.

April 17, 2010

In Paragraph  City, we put the portrait of Hart Crane in a small classroom tucked away in one corner of the library. Some students think that Crane is back here because he’s an outcast, and the maintenance crew even moved in a poker table with some leather chairs which get quite a bit of use by the night cleaning crew. Actually, Mr. Crane is here because this was one of the first reading rooms on campus.

Above the door is the April aphorism about reading: Read all the time. Read everything. Ask yourself why the author wrote it this way. Mentally revise everything you read and see if it gets better.

So in my writing classes we read Anne Dillard and Malcolm X and Brent Staples and Amy Tan and E. B. White and George Orwell and talk about the decisions they made in writing. Sometimes the discussion is at the word level, like the way “Once More to the Lake” was written so the last word would be “death.” Sometimes we map the organization, as in the way “Mother Tongue” zig zags around a series of scenes. “Why not chronological order,” I ask. “What would be lost?” Of the million choices a writer makes, he may be intently conscious of a couple dozen, but we students can learn some interesting lessons by thinking about the choices that the writers may not have thought so much about.

But as for Hart Crane, we don’t read him, except occasionally for this one sharp quote from a lost source, “One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.”

It Takes a Plan to Leave Stuff Out

April 7, 2010

In Paragraph City, one of my favorite writing classrooms is the Wallace Stevens room.  Chiseled into the granite above the door is “What you leave out is as important as what you put in.”  It’s not that those words belong to old WS (as far as I remember, I came up with them on my own), but that lovely reminder of the force of what isn’t is pure Stevens.

In fact, excuse me for a moment while I go read “The Snowman” again. You can too, here ( and you can read where Jay Kerser on NPR called this poem the best short poem in English, “bar none” here (

So in this place where we talk about writing, I walk around the room saying “What you leave out is important. Know what to leave out. With any topic, figure out the essential things to include and the essential things to exclude, too. You’ve got to know the difference and leave out the right stuff.” Pretty soon students know I’m talking about more than just getting error out of the writing; there are ideas, facts, conclusions, observation, good stuff all on its own but stuff that just isn’t right for the one particular essay coming out of them.

A little more of this and students start thinking about what the trick is to knowing the things to leave out. I talk about how glad I am to not be reading the stuff that was left out of good essays. Around the room, little floating light bulbs appear above heads. If they have a plan, they can get a bunch of material and use what suits the plan, leaving out anything ill-fitting.  That clever, precise tangential description, that digressionary metaphor, those pretty little irrelevant details: if the thesis god doesn’t know them, they get packed away for some other day, some other god.

Then one of the light bulbs becomes green and one turns purple with green rings and another goes yellow with blue rings and one is just strange, and I know they think about how the really good life they want to live will be good because some common, pale, plain things that clog up many lives will never be theirs. The moment smells a little of Zen, and from across the room where he sits on the old oak book case, the bust of Wallace Stevens smiles, looking for all the world like he just sold one terrific policy.

Math with Bad Drawings

Lover of math. Bad at drawing.

Incurably Stir Crazy

because life is too short to sit still

University Diaries

A million stories in Paragraph City. Some of them wander onto my campus.


A million stories in Paragraph City. Some of them wander onto my campus.

Classroom as Microcosm

Siobhan Curious Says: Teachers are People Too

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Confessions of a Community College Dean

A million stories in Paragraph City. Some of them wander onto my campus.

Ferule & Fescue

A million stories in Paragraph City. Some of them wander onto my campus.