guidelines for responding to student writing

We're running a workshop on this subject this morning, so I thought I'd share my thoughts here as well. My first suggestion is that you make a list of the sites/activities where students learn in a composition course (or really any course that is truly "writing intensive"), and then try to prioritize the list in terms of which sites/activities are the most crucial for learning. While I'm guessing that we can come up with similar lists, the prioritizing may be different. 

In any case, here's my list.

  1. Students writing. (Really this is probably the ten most important ways that students learn in the writing classroom.)
  2. Students discussing their writing and rhetorical/composition concepts and practices (this discussion might be in-class, online, in peer group workshops, in conferences with instructors, etc).
  3. Students reading and researching (maybe they reading about other topics but they are still learning something; plus, if done "right," this is also an opportunity to investigate the rhetorical features of texts we read).

Let me make a qualification about this list. From the perspective of a composition course, #2 and #3 only count if they contribute to #1. I don't even want to put teacher comments on student writing on this list unless the comments contribute to #!. And let me be even more clear. I haven't said students' writing. We aren't talking about the product. We are talking about the activity of writing. That is the activity of learning about writing is nearly co-extensive with the activity of writing itself. Where learning about writing extends beyond writing itself is only in sites where one takes a writerly approach. 

Learning to write is really painfully simple. It's like training for a marathon. Keep running. Keep writing. Keep reading, and when you read pay attention to the rhetorical composition of the text. Look at that text not simply through it, to use Lanham's distinction. And it is painfully simple. It is simple, but not easy. Like climbing a mountain or scaling a cliff. Keep going up.

Responses to student writing have to be placed in this context. They really have only ONE function: to propel the students' writing activity, perhaps by giving the students a fresh perspective, approach, or strategy for writing. Sadly though, I think most teacher comments fit into one of three categories:

  • justifying the grade (i.e. these are the things you did wrong, so you got a ___)
  • perfecting a draft (i.e. "fix" these problems to get a better grade)
  • you didn't understand (i.e. comments about the student's misunderstanding of an assigned reading or specific direction)

While it is possible for such comments to propel student writing, such an effect seems secondary. When I was an undergrad, the typical feedback was some checks in the margins followed by a "very good" or "excellent" and a grade (for me, mostly B's, as I never really gave a damn about the lame ass assignments that were handed to me). In contrast, today I see typically see an explosion of comments on student papers (and not just now at UB but at all the places I've been). Honestly, I prefer the former. Why? Because the latter isn't really any more effective, and the former at least doesn't take 30 minutes or more per paper (and I know I have TAs spending that kind of time). I would rather see minimal comments and have the TAs spend the saved time doing more productive things in relation to the class. 

Now there is a lot of advice about different approaches to responding to student writing, and I'm not going to try to provide specific, universal advice. Specific strategies really need to reflect the context of the assignment, the course, the students, and even the instructor's own strengths as a teacher. So I will only give you this general piece of advice.

  1. Consider how each comment serves to propel student writing (by suggesting an activity, by demonstrating interest or engagement with the text, etc.)
  2. Leave the student with 1-3 clear new activities to try.