Thursday, October 08, 2009

Oxymoronic Grading

I just read a quite poorly written paper about the importance of communication.

When I was taught to respond to student writing, I was taught that I'm supposed to say something positive and then point out how to make the writing stronger.

All too often, it's tempting to make the positive statement something along the lines of "you've got a good idea, BUT blah blah." The "but blah blah" is painful, and makes the positive bit feel so minimal.

However, it's really hard to come up with positive things to write sometimes. This paper is a good example, because what I want to write is that yes, communication is important, and yours would sure be a lot better if you could write decently to communicate your point.

My upcoming committee meeting is looking quite appealing compared to this stack.


  1. And here's why you're a good person. You have that desire to write bitingly sarcastic observations on your students' papers, but you then curb that desire.

    Depending on the level of atrocity, I'd likely have written just what you wanted to.

    Perhaps this self-censorship is something that comes with experience?

    Regardless, good luck on the rest of the stack. Maybe a bottle of red would help?

  2. I once wrote in a paper something to the tune of "..and this implies idea a." My professor drew a box around "idea a" and above it just wrote "NO."

    At the time, it stung, but now I find it pretty funny. And I did work harder on the next paper.

  3. This makes me think of Tom Lehrer's line: "I feel that if a person can't communicate the very least he can do is to shut up."

  4. Yes, sometimes I find it hard to say more than "It's good you wrote the paper".

  5. One of the very few things I have been glad to leave behind has been the marking, because as you say it is agonising how to say what you need to say about a paper without destroying the student's confidence that takes the time. Interestingly, going back to being a student it is being on the other end of that process that really worries me.

  6. I've been working really, really hard on the "write good things" way of marking students papers. I'm finding it does actually help (d'oh), which makes sense, when you think about it. Think how it would effect any of us, to get back of piece of writing, with nothing but "this is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong."

    This is especially true of my students, I imagine, who have spent their entire writing career so far being told what losers they are (Arkansas hill country here).

    So I always, on the first two drafts of their papers, ignore entirely their (usually abysmal) grammar and spelling and focus on their content and ideas (only sometimes better), hunt up something I can find that's good -- there is almost always something.

    Here, I say: this paragrpah, this idea, this image, this idea, this is excellent. Throw away the rest and write this. You'll have a kick ass paper.

    Often (not always) they do.

    On the third or fourth draft we fix the grammar -- though often, by then, it's gotten better on its own.

  7. sometimes I'm struggling to find ANYTHING good to say besides "your paper has words, and some sentences, and your name is spelled correctly." Except sometimes their name is NOT spelled correctly.

  8. I have a stock repertoire of damning-with-faint-praise phrases. I keep wondering how long it will take the students to compare notes and figure out how they're actually meant to be translated.

    "This paper has a number of promising ideas..." (One, to be exact, and it doesn't fulfill its promise.)

    "You've picked a rich and intriguing text to write about..." (Too bad your interpretation doesn't do it justice.)

    "Good job picking out appropriate quotations from the text..." (Unfortunately, you forgot you had to analyze them.)

    "You've obviously read the text carefully..." (This paper consists entirely of plot summary.)

    "This is certainly an original interpretation..." (I really want some of the drugs you were on when you wrote this.)

    "It's good that you've done some outside research..." (However, is not an appropriate scholarly source for a paper on A Midsummer Night's Dream...)