Have any of my counterparts spent the better part of the last year dreaming of the perfect red pen you’ll use when it comes time to grade your first paper? This picture actually made me realize I don’t know where the pen I have dubbed my personal perfect red has gone. But, now that I’m thinking about it, why do I actually need a designated red pen?
Probably because we have been taught all our lives that good English/Composition teachers have that red pen always at the ready… like what we’d have in our utility belts if we were Bat…people? I don’t know, let’s go with that. But this week’s reading really got me thinking about what exactly we as teachers are accomplishing with that pen, and is that really what we want to accomplish?
Rough Drafts and Peer Reviews
I may be alone in this, but if I never hear the phrase Peer Review again, it will be too soon. Requiring students to just blindly read someone else’s crappy rough draft that they just finished writing, probably waiting in line behind everyone else in the class to print it at the library, can be beneficial, but it can also have negative consequences. (Obviously, the most crucial of these is ‘What if you’re forced to read the paper of that really hot guy you saw the other day at the Coffee Shop and you’re still not sure if he actually smiled at you because maybe he’s just a nice guy but oh my God what if he did really smile at you and now you have to read his paper and what if he talks about his girlfriend in it!’ But as that particular problem isn’t relevant to what I’m talking about, we’ll skip over it for now.)
Don’t get me wrong, a well-executed review of a rough draft can lead to an enhanced final draft. But, so often the mark-ups and comments a student receives, both from a peer or a teacher, are arbitrary little marks, some of which most likely were genuinely a fat-finger-typo (we all do it. No shame). Very rarely will a student see meaningful and insightful comments and questions that will help them move forward. Is this anyone’s fault? Honestly, not really. Teachers have hundreds of papers to grade simultaneously on top of everything else they have to, and not everyone is a born editor, so how would they know what to look for? My problem here is that these things all add up “Getting the perfect grade on your paper.” The almighty “A” circled in beautiful red ink on the top that means you can attend school next semester and/or play next season and/or not get killed by your parents for failing (another) class. In our readings the week, the articles in Naming What We Know observed “In the writing classroom, when assessment is tied too completely to final products, students are more likely to avoid risking failure for fear of damaging their grades, and this fear works against the learning process” (Brooke and Carr 63). If a student receives their rough draft back and there are simply a few spelling errors circled and comments like “little vague here” or “check for comma errors” at the top, he’s going to think all he needs to do is find that one comma splice and he’ll be golden. 2 Problems Here:
- I guarantee there are more errors in this paper than one common somewhere that may or may not be needed.
- The student’s “revision” process turns into a scavenger hunt of finding what the teacher might have been talking about.
The reading points out that students “see revision as punishment for poor performance” (Downs 67). No offense to anyone, but if someone handed me back a ten-page paper and just wrote, “a little vague” at the top and expected me to fix it, I’d see it as a punishment, too. “What’s vague? The word it’s written next to? The entire paragraph? The white space in the margins, is it dull? I don’t understand!!!” But if the student is lucky enough to guess correctly all the trivial errors the professor saw, they receive a better grade. In her article, “Responding to Student Writing,” Nancy Sommers points out that “students make the changes the teachers wants rather than those that the student perceives as necessary” (149). The student risks being limited by only what the teacher happened to see that day. Now think about this: What if the teacher missed something on the first go around? What if she didn’t notice that sentence was a fragment last time, but she caught it now? Should the student be punished? He wasn’t told to look for that. He was told to make that one sentence not vague.
This could also set students up for difficulties later on. So this semester your teacher goes through and circles only spelling errors and tells you to fix them. Cool, that’s all you need to go. What if next semester your teacher doesn’t edit your paper for you? Is your paper then complete? What if you spell the same things wrong you did this semester, but no one told you this time?
Shitty First Drafts
One of my favorite terms I’ve really embraced since joining my Masters Program is “Shitty First Draft.” I read Bird by Bird by Annie Lamott my first semester, and thought to myself “Why am I just now being told this stuff?” Lamott talks a lot about the initial draft in her book, or what she lovingly calls the shitty first draft. In her Ted Talk, Lamott also talks about the things she’s learned since becoming a writer, similar lessons to what she discusses in her book.
Like Lamott, many famous writers, among them Stephen King and J.K. Rowling have become increasingly more open with the public about their own writing experiences, and many of them talk in great deal about their own shitty first drafts, although they might not all use that phrase. According to our readings, “We often forget . . . that successful writers aren’t those who are simply able to write brilliant first drafts” (Brooke and Carr 62). While not all of our students may not be overly inspired by what Stephen King has to say about his writing process, it might be helpful for them to know that people who are perceived as Writers (capitalized) don’t just sit down one day at their computer and an hour later turn in Carrie or the entire Harry Potter series. It might make them feel more okay about the fact that their own writing needs work.
This strategy might not work on all of our students. Most students will gladly tell you “I’m in this class for a grade” and that’s all they intend to get out of it. But I think that as First Year Composition teachers we need to do our best to help students approach writing as a process that grows over time instead of reinforcing the power of the almighty red pen and the grade it can create, it will help the students later on in their college careers.
Things to Think About…
My question for my peers this week is simple: what is your approach to revision in the classroom? We are all slaves to the limited time that we have to give students meaningful feedback, so how do you plan to handle it?
“12 truths I learned from life and writing: Anne Lamott.” YouTube, Uploaded by TED, 13 July 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X41iulkRqZU
Brooke, Collin and Allison Carr. “Failure Can be an Important Part of Writing Development.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, 2016, pp. 62-4.
Downs, Doug. “Revision is Central to Developing Writing.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, 2016, pp. 66-7.
Sommers, Nancy. “Responding to Student Writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 33 no. 2, 1982, JSTOR.