Grading: A Confession and Cry for Help

This post is part confession and part cry for help: when I sit down to grade my students’ essays, I am paralyzed. This paralysis does not stem from anxiety about being unfair or not knowing how to assign points; the feeling is that I do not know how to help them.

I think part of the problem is that I have never had a writing mentor. My professors throughout undergrad, master’s degree, and now PhD have been amazing and I know that I will graduate from Berkeley feeling well trained in pretty much every way. But I can’t remember a single teacher in my entire post-high school life who has sat down with me and said: “Let’s work on your writing” or “I have these suggestions for your writing.” Comments on papers or proposals, when given, are entirely based on content. This mirrors my experience in the one freshman writing class I was required to take. During the office hour meeting after submitting our diagnostic essays, I was told by my instructor (a PhD student, as I am now): “The mechanics are fine, but I’m left with the feeling there’s no “you” there; there’s no clear voice, you don’t know what you want to say, etc.” So her comments to me throughout the semester were focused on that….

I think another part of the problem is simply time. My professors don’t give very many comments because they don’t have time; I in turn never feel I have enough time to spend on reading carefully, really giving each essay its due. And the paralysis of course does not help with this….

Another facet of this is that I think my own way of learning how to write was very feeling-and-imitation oriented. I was read to as a child and I loved to read. This grew more intense as I got older and weirder (for the Texas suburbs) and the world of books often felt so much more interesting than the world around me. My own writing method is intuitive: I sit down to write and words fall out of me and I let me lead me. All this to say: when I read my students’ work, I often know when something “feels” good or interesting and right and when it doesn’t. But I usually can’t really explain why in a clear way and often end up offering what feels like a very vague comment: “your thesis would be stronger if x…” And of course the thesis would be stronger if the student were to do “x” but it never feels like what’s the root of the issue, which I can’t quite seem to put a name to….

Finally, I think this paralysis stems from the weird genre that is the 10-15 page end-of-semester final research paper (which I recall we talked about in the summer). It’s easier for me to comment on a colleague’s chapter or journal article or conference paper or non-fiction essay than it is a student essay. The students themselves recognize this: we don’t read 10-15 page end-of-term papers together in class and so they don’t have a good feel for the genre either.

So: the feeling persists that I don’t know how to help them or what would really be helpful for them. This is not a feeling that I like. I am hoping our conversation tomorrow will shift something for me 🙂 Thank you for reading!

3 thoughts on “Grading: A Confession and Cry for Help”

  1. Thanks for your post, Patricia. I very much identify with what you describe here as a kind of paralysis when it comes to giving useful feedback to students. I had a somewhat atypical high school and undergraduate education: average-to-bad-public-schooling, lots of time at community college, and then I transferred to Berkeley as an undergrad and realized I had very little formal training in writing. No one had ever talked seriously with me about what a thesis statement should look like, how to organize a body paragraph around a main idea, or that my argument should build and evolve over the course of an essay. I had, as you similarly describe, been proceeding very much intuitively. This is all to say that I feel you on this one.

    What I’ve found most helpful have been looking at the materials of other instructors to see how they’ve taught the course in the past. I’ve literally just borrowed lessons from my colleagues on how to teach thesis statements, body paragraphs, introductions, conclusions, and everything in between. I’m now at a point where I’m beginning to change and adapt these lessons to better fit my own understanding of the writing process, and my own style. I don’t know what I would have done without this help. If you’d like, I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned so far and pass along my favorite lessons plans.

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  2. Hi Patricia,

    I’ve also been reflecting on the writing instruction I received and how I figured out what I understand now. I ask myself, if I can’t remember any really effective moments of writing instruction, how is it I turned out okay? What actually stuck? I feel if I could only remember what helped me, I’d be able to pass those insights on directly to my students. Yet my hunch is that writing is always figured out largely through what we’re calling intuition, in that like many skills, just receiving instruction on “how to do it” is always necessarily insufficient. Repetition and slowly learning to internalize the feedback process is probably what does most the work. But how to best give that necessarily insufficient feedback is still a riddle. I feel like (and here again just speaking from intuition) the best thing I can do in giving feedback is draw attention to the parts where things are working successfully (“Here you do a great job of making the implicit meaning explicit!” or “This is a very effecting use of this quote–you really use it to springboard your thinking forward”) and use their own successes to shed light on the weaker points. I hope that will help them learn to recognize strengths and weaknesses in their own writing themselves. But that’s tricky when it’s something like the thesis, though, which can really send the whole thing into a tailspin if it’s not well executed, and there’s only one chance to get it right in a paper… So a combination of what Tara is saying about singling out ahead of time these specific “pain points” as they’d say in the corporate world, and then referring back to that instruction in the feedback process is what I strive for. Yet having come to the end of this comment, I still have a real feeling of dissatisfaction with my answer and its lack of specifics. But I’ll conclude with an echo of solidarity at least!

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    1. Patricia,

      I am so there with you! Outside of not going to college right after high school, one of my main regrets is not having a mentor, or learning writing skills formally in college. I feel as though most professors in 4-year institutions expect that we learned writing skills in our high school English courses. I haven’t been to high school since 1978! And even though I took several English courses in community college, I don’t recall receiving the type of feedback that taught me writing skills in a way that I could help my students. So, I too, write intuitively. Sure, I know some mechanics, and I tell students when they need to expand further on their ideas or be more clear about their points, but I don’t feel as though I know how to help them improve their ideas.

      Since I had doubts about the best way to teach writing thesis statements, I contacted the Student Learning Center! I don’t know if you utilized them before, but they’re great because they already do workshops on things like thesis statements, general essay writing, etc. You can setup a time when they will come to your class and teach a particular aspect and you can sit there and see what they’re teaching and how. I loved it and I had them come twice (that’s the max they’ll come per semester) to teach for the entire class period. They give students handouts and practice whatever it is they’re learning. After the class, I used what they taught on thesis statements and referenced it for the rest of the semester since we all learned it at the same time.

      Somewhat like Tara mentioned, I look at the instructor and other GSI’s comments to students to see how they help students improve their writing. Since I haven’t GSI’s for an instructor or with another GSI in a writing course, I don’t have access to their materials, but looking at their feedback is helpful.

      I also do a hell of a lot of Googling and looking on Youtube for lessons on topics to see how other people teach them. There are so many different videos on teaching thesis statements and other skills I wasn’t taught or may know how to do for my own writing, but don’t feel comfortable teaching it. I highly suggest checking out some of the videos because I take what is useful for me and integrate it into my own lesson to make it my own.

      I think it’s incredible that we don’t have a PhD or graduate level writing course that teaches us how to teach and grade. Not the one and half day workshop that I attended recently, or even 6 week course I was told we had before but no longer have.

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