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This past weekend, I graded a round of essays in my first-year writing course.

With three sections of 20 students each, this means 60 essays, though attrition has already hit, leaving me with only 58 to work through.

The two most cognitively taxing things I do in my life are try to write novels and to grade student writing when the purpose of that grading is to help students become better at writing.

I know why trying to write novels is taxing. Doing it requires me to be simultaneously fully engaged with both my conscious and subconscious minds while never letting one wrest too much control from the other. It’s like driving a car where you have to keep your eye on the road right in front of you while having the other on a Google Maps satellite view of your final destination, while also not actually knowing your final destination, or if there even is a destination, or even if you’re driving car at all because that car might be a unicorn, or a can opener, who knows?

Anyway, I find it difficult[1] and because of this difficulty, my success at the act is limited[2].

But why should grading student writing be so hard? I’ve graded thousands of student essays at this point. I have 18 years experience. Shouldn’t it be getting easier?

Part of why it’s not getting easier is because I know a lot more about what I should be trying to accomplish when I grade essays. In graduate school, in my first encounter with student writing, I thought my job was to correct errors, leaving my students’ blue books laced with red marks. I didn’t really consider what would happen once I returned these documents. I guess I figured they’d see my corrections and do it “right” the next time.

Wrong assumption.

Like most who stick with the teaching writing game, I eventually realized that my task was not to correct, or even to grade, but to provide feedback, feedback that would allow the students to tackle the next assignment in an improved state of readiness. I don’t remember quite when this (in hindsight, rather obvious) epiphany kicked in, but it instantly made responding to student writing much more complicated[3].

So as I was working this past weekend, I tried to do what I ask my of my students as they write their assignments, to be reflective about their process and increase their awareness of why they’re doing what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.

The most recent assignment was to first summarize someone else’s argument, and then respond to that with an argument of their own.

I realized that for each sentence of my students’ writing, on a surface level, I’m asking myself a series of (mostly unconscious) questions.

1. What are they saying? At a basic level, I’m trying to decode their meaning.

2. Is what they’re saying accurate? When they’re summarizing someone else’s argument, I need to assess if they’re being true to the original author's intent. In their response, I’m assessing their evidence and examples.

3. Is what they’re saying well-expressed grammatically and mechanically?

4. Does the writing have appropriate flow, in that each idea links up with the one previously and the one to follow in a way that meets audience needs, attitudes, and knowledge?

As long as everything is humming along and I keep answering “yes,” things go quickly, but when the answer is no, complications ensue.

If I don’t understand what they’re saying, I have additional questions.

1. Do they not understand the original text they’re working from? Or:

2. Do they understand the original text, but there is a gap between that understanding and the expression on the page in communicating that understanding?

But there’s an even more important question running simultaneously, the question that more and more I believe is the key to giving my students the feedback they need to improve as writers.

Why have they made this error?

This question reveals what I think is my primary role in responding to student writing, “diagnostician.” To abuse the analogy, when I detect disease in the patient, it’s my job to uncover the root cause and offer a cure.

The additional complicating factor when it comes to writing is that the patient becomes wholly responsible for whether or not that cure will work.

I’m going to try to illustrate this with a very small, even trivial error in the context of the larger assignment, and the more important concerns of content, but I believe it helps illuminate the complicated thinking necessary for me to offer appropriate feedback.

Let’s say a student has formatted the title of an article (according to MLA guidelines) incorrectly. It’s possible that this is because they just don’t know the rule or are mistaken about the rule. In this case I can either tell them the rule, or, more likely, tell them to look it up.

But wait! What if I notice that further down the essay the student has formatted an article title correctly? I now must revise my diagnosis. This is not a failure of knowledge, but something more important, a failure of process. The student usually knows that one of these is right and one is wrong, but has chosen not to address this problem.

In this case, my feedback needs to be different, and I remind them of the value and importance of polish and proofreading, how when we aren’t sure of something, we are obligated to look it up, rather than wing it.

How to respond gets even more complicated when there’s issues of comprehension or accuracy or meaning. I have to try to figure out where the problem is occurring. Are they not reading the source material carefully? Are they settling for conveying the “gist” when the “gist” won’t do? Do they have some deeper issue at the sentence writing level that is clouding their meaning?

Are they clinging to old modes like the five-paragraph essay? Have they fallen prey to pseudoacademic B.S.? Are they losing awareness of the specific needs, attitudes, and knowledge of their audience? Did they miss a class where we covered something? Are they simply under-practiced at writing? Was my assignment unclear?

And on and on and on.

This feedback also needs to be tailored to what I know about individual students and their work as we move forward through the semester. The same error committed by two different students may require a different response. A student who is highly proficient at writing, but makes a “careless” error (like subject/verb agreement), may need a (loving), kick in the butt like “You didn’t read this out loud to yourself, did you?”

A student whose skills are not as developed and has made the error because they're not sure of the rule may need more detailed instruction on the nature of the error and guidance on where to find additional help in learning those rules.

In addition to the above, I’m trying to prioritize which issues to address and which to let go, as research shows that too much feedback can overwhelm the student and leave them paralyzed as to what they should attend to going forward.

I notice that I haven’t covered any of the substance of their writing, which I’m trying to respond to along the way as well, with impressions, questions, and challenges that make them think more about the subject and argument.

I tried to construct a flow chart, but it very quickly became too complicated because the process resists flow. I am trying to hold onto a dozen different things simultaneously as I read. I am not just trying to inform them of principles of good writing, but to induce them to adopt sound writing practices.

My feedback must be as cognizant of process as it is of product. I can drill them writing tight and clear sentences, but without an underlying process that causes them to believe in the value of communicating clearly, those drills become meaningless. It is like a basketball team that is aware of the fundamentals, but refuses to put them to work in the games.

If I am grading well, upon finishing an essay, it feels like I’m emerging from a period of very deep concentration, where the world has been temporarily shut out.

This degree of concentration and depth of engagement is not always possible, however, in which case my feedback becomes so-so, or the time it takes me to render that feedback stretches like taffy.

I personally find it difficult to maintain the appropriate concentration for 60 essays graded over three or four days. To some degree, the better and more knowledgeable one gets at grading and feedback, the longer it takes. There are no efficiencies, no shortcuts that don't also compromise student learning.

I can’t imagine doing it for 120 or 180 students per semester as many composition instructors are asked to do.

That workload is simply unreasonable if we value writing instruction. Matt Read reminded us yesterday of the eternal lament of employers about lack of writing skills. If we want students to write better, we have to empower instructors to work with them and that means getting beyond merely “grading.”

[1] I can only work on long-form fiction during breaks when I have swaths of mostly uninterrupted time. It’s like going on a long submarine voyage where you can occasionally rise to periscope depth and tend to basic needs like feeding and clothing oneself, but even a single breath of fresh air threatens the project. If I can’t be submerged for an extended stretch, it isn’t worth even climbing inside the vessel.

[2] Three written, three additional partial manuscripts (>30k words), one published to critical non-acclaim and dismal sales. (I still think it’s pretty good, though.)

[3] But not necessarily more time-consuming. If you correct every last error in an essay, it takes a long time.




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