How Much Is Too Much?

I’ve been teaching for more than ten years, and I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two along the way.  But every so often, I’m brought back to a question I struggled with early in my teaching career:  What’s the most helpful way to comment on student work?

Specifically.   Constructively.  Right, but… how?  What balance of correction and affirmation, of criticism and encouragement?

Writer Deborah Bryan posted this week on her blog, The Monster In Your Closet, about a letter she’d written to her brother-in-law, accompanying her edits to his scholarship application essay.  The gist was that he was an amazing, generous person with much to offer and that, so far, his essay didn’t reveal that.

It got me thinking.  Especially since, this week, I’ve had one student write to me that he was feeling overwhelmed by the class, another with the news she’d been accepted to an MFA program, and a third submitting work showing many of the weaknesses of her first assignment, months ago.

Student #1 said that my comments had nothing to do with his trepidation, he was having a bad week.  I can’t take credit for #2’s acceptance.  But #3 gave me pause.  Her pages left me with a heavy feeling.  Hadn’t I already made the case for active verbs, for show-don’t-tell, for getting to the point?  Had this student even read my previous comments?  Had she even bothered reviewing her work before sending it in?  Careless first draft.

I didn’t write that.  If I worked with her face-to-face, I might have found a way to ask if she’d been rushed.  But in an online class, all I have to go by is the tenor of the emails, the work itself.  And that was all she had from me; I couldn’t qualify my criticism with a caring look.  And maybe I shouldn’t.

As a college freshman, I wrote an essay with what I thought was an insightful introduction making several good points.  I got the essay back with red pen scratched through the paragraph and, in the margin, the professor’s scrawled Get to the point.  The fact that, more than thirty years later, I recall the sinking feeling in my stomach speaks to the power of a red pen.  The comment stung, but it taught me something.

Yet now that I wield the pen—even online, blue—I rarely write something that direct. Perhaps I should.  I teach adults, after all.  Who wouldn’t prefer clear-cut directive to  lukewarm praise or  ambivalence  (I’m talking about voice here, not grammar; a dangling modifier is always wrong.)  If a student’s phrasing is weak, isn’t it my job to tell her so?  Your work suffers from… No, scratch that.  Weaknesses such as … Nope.  Your work would be stronger with …

I can’t know each of my students as well as Deborah Bryan knows her brother-in-law.  When I read their work, I can’t know what amazing aspects of themselves, what quirks and details they’ve left out.  I’m at a disadvantage, but I owe it to them, and to myself, whether online or in person, to dig beneath the surface of the work, to try to find what compelled the student to write a piece.  If I don’t want superficial work, I shouldn’t limit my comments to the surface.  Ideally, I’d be able to settle into each assignment, tune into the person behind the words, and find a way to honor that person.

Honoring someone calls for truth, of course.  And time and patience, which I don’t always have when I’m pushing through twenty papers.  And yet, isn’t that why I teach?  For the connection, the engagement, the excitement of finding—in someone’s words—a glint of something new and arresting, however awkwardly phrased.

On my floor is a pile of homework, collected at the end of last night’s class.  Typed and stapled, each assignment holds fresh promise of connection, of revelation.  This weekend, as I read through them, may I give back the same.

Next week:  Writing teachers weigh in on the topic of feedback.


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