Teaching Today

The Dangers of the “Silent A”

Waving through our strongest students with some minimal comments does a disservice to them, to us as pedagogues and, ultimately, to the future of our profession itself, argues Adam Kotsko.

July 3, 2018
 
 

When confronted with a pile of papers, we professors often carry out a form of triage. Some papers are clearly not going to make it -- fragmentary, error strewn, perhaps even plagiarized, these papers are clear F’s. Others, probably the majority, have promise but need some serious attention; they are in the B-to-C range.

And then there is that blessed group that will probably be fine on their own: the A students. In fact, these stronger students stand a good chance of getting even less attention than the F students, who waste professors’ time with bad-faith grade appeals and plagiarism proceedings.

Stated in such terms, the triage method seems unjust, though most of us are very likely willing to put up with that unfairness in the name of practicality. I would suggest, however, that the consequences of essentially waving through our strongest students with an A and some minimal comments are more significant than they may seem. The “silent A” does a disservice to the students, to us as pedagogues and, ultimately, to the future of our profession itself.

I will start by conceding that I come from a relatively privileged setting, grading-wise. The program at Shimer College (now the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College) is centered on small discussion seminars, where students engage with important primary texts in a range of disciplines. Those small class sizes allow us who teach them more breathing room on grading, and in certain first-year courses, students are required to rewrite and resubmit papers. That latter requirement means that, even for very strong papers, I am forced to come up with something substantive to critique so that students have guidance for their rewrites.

That has not proven difficult, because even the best student writers still have a lot to learn. Their problems may not be as glaring or urgent, but they can be every bit as substantive. For instance, a B or C student may struggle to formulate a clear argumentative thesis statement or integrate relevant textual evidence. But a student who is capable of writing an A paper in a first-year course would probably still benefit from reflecting on organization, for example, or on stylistic control, or on making sure that they have selected the best quotation rather than the one they happened to find most easily.

An A never means that a paper is perfect, only that it meets or exceeds expectations for the student’s academic peer group. And depending on the setting, students with a special knack for writing can exceed expectations for years at a time. If we do not provide substantive feedback to these students, we risk allowing them to stagnate as writers.

Worse, we set them up for failure in the future if they move on to a setting where their native ability will no longer allow them to coast to an A. If they have not developed the habit of reflecting on their writing, then they may find it difficult to retool their writing process. And they are likely to find the sudden influx of negative comments emotionally distressing. Especially if they identify as an “A student,” they are likely to view feedback less as an opportunity for improvement than a form of judgment on them as a person. And that sense of being personally judged could lead to unproductive defensiveness, as in the familiar scene where a student simply demands to be treated as the A student they know they are rather than asking for help and guidance.

Every writer needs to learn how to take criticism and be willing to do major revisions. It is a childish fantasy to expect to succeed as a writer based on “inspiration” alone, a fantasy that we as professors unwittingly encourage when we award students A’s without any significant explanation of what in specific they did right and what they should try to do better next time.

Even without the opportunity for rewriting papers, we can help strong students improve their writing by choosing one or two key areas for improvement and then holding them accountable in future papers -- letting them know if they have, in fact, improved over time. And they more than likely will try to improve. Though a handful of students may be motivated strictly by grades and will ignore our efforts, most will find the idea of improving their writing appealing, or at least be habituated to attempt to please their teachers. And that has benefits for us, because we get to enjoy clear pedagogical successes. Hence, I would suggest that the “silent A” not only shortchanges our students, but it also deprives us of the morale-boosting sensation of knowing for sure that we have taught our students something.

My experience in holding strong writers accountable for improving their writing has also changed the way I approach weaker papers. Obviously, a B or C paper has a lot more areas for potential improvement than an A paper. But is there any real benefit to pointing out every single problem? A student faced with a wall of red pen marks is likely to be overwhelmed and not know where to begin. We know that their thesis statement is more important than their comma usage, but the latter seems more immediately fixable. In fact, I have frequently received rewrites that correct the smallest points while virtually ignoring my requests for more substantive changes.

My solution has been to retool my grading of weaker papers to be more like how I treat the A papers, zeroing in on one or two of the most important points and continuing to hammer those points home in subsequent papers. This means that, in contrast to the triage method, I have tended to provide roughly the same number of comments on all passing papers. We can expect a student to fix only so many problems any one time, and presumably the weaker students face greater difficulties -- meaning that the typical approach of providing them with more detailed comments is counterproductive as well as demoralizing.

Greater focus in my comments increases the odds that student of all ability levels will actually respond and improve -- leading, once again, to more satisfying pedagogical results. And if it seems difficult to keep track of all these proposed improvements, I find that 90 percent of the time, the biggest problems are formulating a thesis and organizing the argument effectively. In that respect, my method is very scalable. In fact, I have joked about getting a stamp made that reads simply, “Clearer thesis! Better organization!”

An Impact on the Profession

So far, I have argued that providing critical feedback even on A papers has benefits for those students and for us as teachers and may offer a model for more effectively engaging with weaker students as well. Now, in an admittedly more speculative mode, I would like to propose that discontinuing the “silent A” may have salutary effects on the academic profession as a whole.

It is proverbial that academic writing leaves much to be desired on an aesthetic level, and anecdotal evidence indicates that academics tend to have difficulty writing to deadline and responding effectively to criticism and requests for revision. There are many possible explanations for these shortcomings, but I would suggest that the typical academic writer displays all the symptoms of the habitual recipient of the “silent A.” After all, who is more likely to seek a career in academe than someone who has received continual affirmation in school?

Even in grad school, strong students can still rely on some combination of “inspiration” and stylistic mimicry to churn out seminar papers. But many hit a wall once they reach the dissertation and peer-review processes, both of which demand systematic reflection and revision. No one writes a passing dissertation on the first try, and no one gets through peer review without at least a few required changes. For someone who has been led to believe that good writing simply comes naturally to them, that experience can be disturbing -- leading to the spiral of anxiety and avoidance that is familiar to us all. We may not be able to break this cycle by discontinuing the “silent A,” but we owe it to ourselves to try.

I doubt that many readers would deny that the kind of writing pedagogy that I am advocating here is desirable, but they may doubt that it is possible. After all, not everyone has the privilege of teaching small seminar classes. And I certainly don’t blame any instructor who opts for the triage method in the face of an overwhelming torrent of papers or who simply does not have any realistic prospect of tracking the details of individual students’ progress from assignment to assignment. You can certainly apply aspects of this method in a much larger class -- focusing on one or two key areas of improvement or providing similar amounts of commentary on all passing papers -- but I do not presume to dictate to my colleagues who are working under different circumstances. I trust that all of them are doing the best job they can within the restraints they are facing.

Ultimately, the onus for creating space for effective writing pedagogy falls not on individual instructors but on the administrators who determine class sizes and professor workloads. The fact that so many of us are forced to leave our most gifted and motivated students to fend for themselves is a symptom of a system that too often sacrifices student learning on the altar of a shortsighted and narrow idea of efficiency.

Bio

Adam Kotsko is on the faculty of the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College and the author, most recently, of Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital (forthcoming this fall from Stanford University Press).

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