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Grading and Writing Instruction

The following three-part discussion of grading and writing instruction took 
place on WMST-L in the spring of 1999.  Please be aware that some
e-mail addresses and URLs may no longer be valid.  For more 
compilations of WMST-L messages, see the WMST-L File List.


Date: Fri, 26 Mar 1999 18:07:55 -0500
From: Betsy Keller <elkeller @ EROLS.COM>
Subject: paper grading help?
Does anyone know of any websites that provide tips on how to grade
papers well? I am feeling upset as I grade my students' papers
because many of them are so illogical and meandering (to
understate the case). I want to provide comments in a way that
will be helpful and encouraging, and that will not reflect the
horror that I experience as I read them. Any advice?
Betsy Keller
elkeller  @  erols.com

Date: Fri, 26 Mar 1999 22:57:32 -0800
From: [Identity masked] @ STRIPE.COLORADO.EDU>
Subject: paper grading help?
I can't help but feel for you as you grade your papers, and at the same
time, I wish that more professors would express their horror at the
horrors of their student papers. The students need to know how badly
they write. The problem is that so many of them have been soft-pedaled
all the way to their senior year that the have no idea what good writing
is, and when they come to a class where the professor has some really
good constructive criticism to offer, they can't begin to appreciate it.
Instead, they resent it.
I say be honest, firm, but not brutal! Use your best judgment. Surely
you can let them know where they've left the path and steer them back,
if not onto it, then at least towards it!
Good luck. I think we're all paddling up the same muddy stream.

Date: Sat, 27 Mar 1999 08:29:40 -0500
From: "Constance J. Ostrowski" <ostroc @ RPI.EDU>
Subject: paper grading help?
In my unfortunately all-too-routine encounters with poor writing (ie.,
weak critical thought, poor or non-existent development and support,
incoherent organization, and ineffective language use), I've developed
some techniques both to save my sanity and to try to identify and
explain the problems without belittling the authors:
1)  Particularly when I'm at the point of pulling clumps of hair from
my head, I try to just stop, get up, and leave the grading for a while.
(Sort of like counting to 10.)  I'll go watch tv, or get on-line, or
even play solitaire on the computer--anything to defuse and distract.
Then, I go back later, with a different perspective, and I think (I hope)
I'm better able to respond appropriately.
2)  I never mark papers in red:  usually I use pencil, or now (having
discovered them), erasable pens (in blue or black ink).  Red marks on
student work--even when they convey praise or encouragement, have acquired
such a consistently negative connotation that the sight of them can be
so instantaneously demoralizing that students may not even bother to
read the comments (yes, I know, that some--maybe too many--will not
read comments in any case, but without the red ink I figure that there is
a chance that more people *will* read them).  I also interpolate the
assignment grade into my comments at the end of the paper, so that student
(make that "students") have to read those comments in order to find the
    I also use pencil/non-red erasable pen because I want to stress
to my students that writing involves revision--including my comments:  I
tell them, in other words, that all writers--including me--need to revise
any kind of writing (including my comments) if they want to communicate.
3)  I also make a point of trying to find at least one strong element,
and I start off with that in my final comments. Then I try to frame
the negative in the context of the positive, explaining how the problems
weaken what could be an effective piece of communication, and how, if
they fixed the problems, the paper's power could be greater.
    The context into which I place my comments is not a correct/error
context (in terms of rules), but is an audience-based one:  I try to help
them see why a reader (and I try to encourage them to see me as a reader
at least as much as they see me as a judge/grader) would not understand,
be convinced by, or have confidence in what *the paper* (not the author)
4)  I also, as much as possible, try to construct writing assignments and
test questions that encourage them to see the writing they have to do
more as communication to a reader (whether me or some other audience
constructed for the assignment) than as hoop-jumping for an instructor.
I can't guarantee any success rate with this "advice," but theoretically
I believe it's more appropriate, and I feel more comfortable with the
way I've developed.
Connie Ostrowski
ostroc  @  rpi.edu (alum account--not where I teach)

Date: Sat, 27 Mar 1999 07:19:29 -0600
From: cflsc @ UX1.CTS.EIU.EDU
Subject: paper grading help?
If your university has a writing center or a writing across the
curriculum program, I'm certain one of these directors could offer
great, concrete advice.
Linda S. Coleman
Eastern Illinois University
cflsc  @  eiu.edu

Date: Sat, 27 Mar 1999 09:23:39 -0500
From: Nancy Grace <ngrace @ ACS.WOOSTER.EDU>
Subject: Paper Grading
I recommend Erika Lindemann's A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers.  It has many
good suggestions for making the marking of papers more manageable for
teachers as well as more formative for students.
Nancy Grace
Associate Professor of English
The Collee of Wooster
Wooster, Ohio  44691

Date: Sat, 27 Mar 1999 09:05:20 -0600
From: Joe Amato/Kass Fleisher <amato @ CHARLIE.CNS.IIT.EDU>
Subject: paper grading help?
i wonder if it might be possible for you to back the truck up a bit and ask
yourself why you grade papers at all.  though there may be 2 issues here --
your subject line reads "grading" but your post really seems concerned with
providing comments.
you might think of the paper "product" as being a result of both 1) an
individual student's "process" as well as 2) the learning community from
whence it came.  both of these variables are political, and can be effected
by the way you structure your course.  for instance, you *might* consider
creating a structure that asks students to do several drafts of a paper,
which drafts are then commented upon -- for purposes of revision -- by
other students.  ("for purposes of revision" is an important concept; when
your comments, and those of other students, are focused on some future
ideal, there is no need to express the "horror" you're feeling; an
unfortunate draft is just part of that process of moving toward the
brighter future.)  if you insist on doing grades, you might consider having
the students grade each other on the final draft.  but you *might*
structure a course in which students receive not grades, but feedback for
revision; at the end of the semester students could submit a portfolio of
their best work (criteria for grading to be determined by the group); or
they might grade themselves; or they might *publish* their writing in some
way as to contribute to social progress for their campus community; etc.
you asked for web sites and i don't have any; but there is of course an
entire discipline dedicated to the study of teaching writing (which is to
say learning, since writing *is* learning).  you might approach the person
who directs the writing program on your campus and ask if they can
recommend specific articles on alternative methods of dealing with writing.
meanwhile, i would encourage you to think of paper "grading" (or comments)
as one small part of the *whole*, and perhaps interrogate yourself as to
your overall goals for yourself and your students.  your grading and
comment policies will emerge from that interrogation.  _pedagogy of the
oppressed_ by paola freire is one place to start thinking about goals.
"pedagogy of the distressed" by jane tompkins is another.
btw, thanks for *not* leaving the writing assignments to the writing
teachers!  hope things get less horrible....
kass fleisher

Date: Sat, 27 Mar 1999 09:13:13 -0500
From: "Amy L. Wink" <awink @ SFASU.EDU>
Subject: paper grading help?
One thing that really helps too, though it takes some time, is to take up
several drafts of essays. You can read through drafts pretty quickly (I
have 50 intro to comp students, and 60 lit survey students so time is a
premium ), making a *few* comments on each, then address larger issues in
class with " I noticed many people are having this problem. . ." or " One
of the things people are having trouble with is. . ." This makes it easier
than writing the same thing on each paper ( though I wish I sometimes had a
stamp for "Develop Your Ideas") and also lets everyone know that everyone
is having similar problems. Drafts also make it easier to grade the final
draft because you know what's coming ( and can try to head off the worst of
the lunacy, like Pizza Causes School Violence. . .yes, actual example) and
if they haven't taken your suggestions and taken responsiblity for making
changes, you can easily explain the grade by refering to previous comments.
The other thing to keep in mind is not to take it personally. Students are
just learning to write critically and sometimes all you get to do is watch.
Best, Amy
Dr. Amy L. Wink
Visiting Assistant Professor
Department of English and Philosophy
Stephen F. Austin State University
P.O. Box 13007, SFA Station
Nacogdoches, Tx 75962-3007
(409) 468-2007
awink  @  sfasu.edu

Date: Sat, 27 Mar 1999 10:21:51 -0400
From: millerg @ CC.DENISON.EDU
Subject: paper grading help?
I appreciate the comments made about grading.  I have a "system" which
I would like to **add to** the things already spelled out.  (I loved that
"Get up and play solitaire" solution!)
This is in lieu of "trying to find some positive thing to say."  The
process of sharing the start of a new paper for me is accompanied by the
hope that my readerw ill help me say it better.  I experience something
positive when my reader actually knows what my paper is trying to say,
even if I have said it poorly.  I turn this around to my students. I have
found it helps ME, as the reader of the paper, to have a three-part
Part I:
After a first quick read-through (which I'll admit often leaves me
discouraged), I start me comments by saying:
"This is what I think you are saying to me: ..."  and then I put in my own
words a sentence (or two) for each of the student's paragraphs.  At
the end of that opening, I often find that it was a much better attempt to
merge or integrate the readings than I had thought, but the writing
itself threw me off.  (I find I often have that "Ahhhh--I think I see what
you are trying to say here" feeling, a feeling inevitably missing
in a first read.)
In "Part II" of my comments, I can share what I think will help to
communicate what the student is trying to say.  "If you mean Marks
DID incorporate gender, but not as a main event, you might try ..." or
"Cite some specific incidents here to help me see your point.  I didn't
see that point when I read the class essay."
I save to Part III more global comments from me about misreadings or
illogic or simply incoherence.  Things that in my opinion make the paper
not worthy of a good grade.  Sometimes I simply say, "If I go
with your point of view here, what do I do with the Smith essay
that says just the opposite?" or "I can't agree with you here.  The entire
last section showed us 4 articles that would plead the opposite.  How do
you account for them?"  Sometimes it is more general like "This
is not the only method that could be used in this research (as we have
seen in the Reinharz book), and perhaps it is not the most appropriate.
Can you imagine how your hypothesis might have been disproven had you
asked these kinds of questions?  What we are trying to get at here is the
dynamic relationship between method and reporting." Sometimes "wrong"
means "not-responsive." I have asked for one thing, this paper is
something else.  (I completely spare myself rhetorical questions like "Did
you even read these articles???" but I will admit to you sometimes I have
that thought.)
This method allows students to track what went wrong--there is a huge
difference between "She couldn't tell what I was saying," "She needed
evidence for what I was saying," and "She didn't agree with what I was
saying"  that is particularly important to me to communicate.
I think it keeps my grading "fairer" because it helps me see that too.
One more tip:
I write almost nothing on the paper itself.  I type my comments into the
computer as it allows me to write more and to keep copies of the comments.
That way I can see if the same errors are occuring throughout the
semester for individual sstudents.  I can also see that one part (say,
evidence) is a "classwide" error, in which case I need to address it in
class in the way that I speak about essays.
Gill Wright Miller
Associate Professor of Women's Studies and Dance
Denison University
Granville, Ohio  43023
millerg  @  denison.edu

Date: Sat, 27 Mar 1999 11:23:22 -0500
From: molinda s lauxmiller <molinda @ JUNO.COM>
Subject: paper grading help?
Thanks for the helpful suggestions, Connie.  I am an adjunct instructor
with a "real" full time position outside the university.  I try to give
150% to my students when I teach.  Part-time status makes it difficult to
be as focused as otherwise so succinct input for the "real professors" is

Date: Sat, 27 Mar 1999 13:05:34 -0500 (EST)
From: "Athena L. Gracyk" <Algracyk @ AOL.COM>
Subject: paper grading help?
 The suggestions from Connie (ostroc.) about grading papers are really good,
and are ones that I have also developed.  To her suggestions I would like to
add the following
1.  If you wish your students to think critically, then perhaps you need to
explain to them what critical thinking is, and give them examples of what
critical reading, thinking, and responding would look like.  How this will
apply to the readings that they are doing for class can easily be done with
some major idea or issue in the first reading assignment.  Making a handout
about how to think critically has challenged me to clarify in my own mind what
I think this is and how it applies to the ideas and issues we will be
discussing throughout the semester.
2.  Included in my syllabus is a)  a brief grammer guide for the major grammer
mistakes students commonly make and how to correct them,  b)  a description of
my expectations for their wirtten work regarding both the form [grammer, form
specifications like length, fonts size, spacing, etc.] and content [criteria
for how I will evaluate their critical examination and critique of their topic
as well as their suppport of their positions and any original thought], and c)
a short guide for interpreting their grade that summarizes the expectations
for A - F work.
       Therefore, when I say that they have written a satisfactory paper that
shows basic understanding with some deficiencies regarding organization,
clarity, grammer, transitions, which has weak support of ideas, may contain
irrelevant material and displays minimal use of reference materials and
citation problems, they will understand why they received a C instead of a
higher grade.  They may still resent the grade, grade inflation being what it
is, but I feel that I have supplied them with every opportunity to know what
to expect and to work toward those expectations.  In my women's studies
classes, I encourage them to submit rough drafts; in my philosphy classes, I
require rough drafts.
Hope this helps.
Athena L. Gracyk
Instructor, WS, Phil.,Religion
Moorhead State University
Moorhead, MN 56563
algracyk  @  aol.com

Date: Sat, 27 Mar 1999 12:57:40 -0800
From: Marilyn Edelstein <MEdelstein @ SCU.EDU>
Subject: paper grading help?
Since people are responding to the original query re: advice on grading 
papers effectively, let me make what had seemed a too-obvious suggestion 
and may save people from reinventing the wheel.
 Since there are probably dozens of people on your campus who have studied 
the teaching and evaluation of student writing--that is, composition 
instructors--why don't you try to meet with one of them over a lunch or 
coffee (your treat).  I'm sure some of the trained writing faculty would 
be glad to share some of their expertise; most are glad when instructors 
in departments other than English are concerned about how to teach writing 
effectively (and grading effectively is part of that).  If you called the 
director of your campus's writing program (if there is one) or the chair 
of the English Dept., I'm sure he or she would provide names of some of 
the writing instructors.  Of course, there are often lots of part-time 
instructors who are underpaid and overworked, and who might not be very 
available for free advice. But at most colleges and universities, there 
are also at least some full-time writing faculty, and surely at least some 
of these would be glad to talk to you, and/or point you to a few of the 
many good texts on evaluating/commenting on student writing.  (I think 
Connie's posting was a good start and suspect she is an experienced
writing teacher.)
   Many of us who do teach writing regularly or occasionally still 
struggle with how to write the most effective comments for students while
not spending way too much of our own time--and even injuring our hands.
But there's lots of valuable advice out there and the fields of Composition
 and Rhetoric and of writing pedagogy are highly developed with tons of
texts one can consult.  Many teachers untrained in composition pedagogy or
inexperienced in teaching writing have a difficult time focusing not on
error-correction primarily but on "the big picture"--dev. of ideas,
organization, use of evidence, etc. Of course, as other post-ers have      
pointed out, lots of writing errors in a paper impede effective 
communication of students' ideas (and lots of other things sometimes hinder 
students' thinking).
(And, by the by, one of the other replies referred repeatedly to helping
students with "grammer"--the word is "grammar"--so even faculty aren't
perfect writers.  Students often use spell checkers, so, except for
homonyms, there are fewer spelling problems in papers these days than in
the past.)
Marilyn Edelstein, English, Santa Clara Univ.
medelstein  @  scu.edu

Date: Sat, 27 Mar 1999 18:15:21 -0500
From: Susanne Luhmann <luhmann @ YORKU.CA>
Subject: grading and comments
Having been quite desperate about my students writings, i realized that if
i want better papers i need to spend time talking in tutorial about
writing. thus this year, i have set aside some time of each tutorial to
talk about use of quotes, summarizing, paraphrasing, essay structures, use
of transitions etc. and that shows in their final essays!
when it comes to grading i use a multi-level approach: i write some
comments onto the paper, my final comments contain something positive
about the paper, something they need to work on and some comment that
responds to their argument. i also use a grading sheet. this grading sheet
reflects the evaluation criteria that we have discussed in class prior to
them handing in the assignment. (ie. organized in categories such as essay
format, analytical/conceptual content, writing, mechanics). the grading
sheet is organized in columns (excellent, very good, good, competent,
needs serious work) and i tick off each item, so that they have a clear
sense what area needs work.
for next year, i suggested to the course directors (I am a TA) to put a
writing guide on the syllabus.
i also use these writing centre webpages, which contain excellent advice
for both students and instructors on any issue related to the writing
susanne luhmann
graduate programme in women's studies
york university
toronto, canada

Date: Sat, 27 Mar 1999 16:26:18 -0800
From: [Identity masked] @ STRIPE.COLORADO.EDU>
Subject: paper grading help?
Betsy and WMST-L:
After reading several responses to your request for paper grading help
(especially your worries about their inability to think or express
themselves critically, their meandering, etc.) I looked back at my
earlier response and would like to elaborate on it.
I teach in one of those writing programs/writing across the curriculum
programs, and let me tell you, it is tough. Very tough. The instructors
who teach in these programs are workhorses--no contracts, no benefits,
and hard work. One of our list members suggested that you talk to one of
our ilk, to get some concrete advice. I would say that by the time you
are teaching a course where you'd like to see some critical thought
applied to a problem, it may well be too late.
As I see it, the problem we face with students at this stage--and I
assume you've assigned a paper and now you're faced with the daunting
task of trying to make your way through the morass of what now passes
for university level writing--is that it is almost too late to introduce
the process of critical thought into a course that is simultaneously
trying to advance their knowledge on a certain subject. At least that is
my experience. It is hard enough just to get them to read critically,
much less express themselves critically and with depth. They want
to--but they don't know how.
What we do in our program--and it has a reputation among students for
being extremely difficult (and therefore, among many, wildly unpopular,
though required)--is to try to teach them through the writing process
how to think critically. To me, good writing _is_ critical thinking; it
is the traces of their thought process.
My students--and I teach courses at the 3000-level (technically this is
the sophomore to early junior level, although most of my students are
seniors by the time they get to my classroom)--are, I find, painfully
unable to do a simple analysis of a problem, be it a piece of prose, or
an image (I teach courses on art and visual analysis). We conduct our
classes in workshop-fashion; nearly every class is devoted to working
intensively on student papers, with students working hard to help each
other solve their writing problems. It takes weeks and weeks before I
can even get them to see the difference between a basic statement of
fact and a real, honest-to-goodness thesis statement, a statement with
an arguable assertion. And they complain, and they complain a lot. I
have to work very hard just to keep them from rebelling in class!
For most students, their idea of a paper is that stock formula (which
does not lend itself to any depth of thought) of a "thesis" statement
with three points, and three paragraphs to elaborate the points, and
then a conclusion that basically repeats the thesis. And what do they
tell me? "All my other professors give me A's on my papers--why are you
giving me these low grades?" And I have to answer, "because your writing
needs work. Now let's do something about it."
To get students to think outside the boxes, to think critically, is a
major undertaking. And the work involved is daunting. We often require
as many, or at least, _five_ revisions of every paper--be it a simple
paragraph or a longer essay--before we even begin to think about
assigning a grade. And these are not remedial courses, but Topics in
Writing. Remedial courses don't even carry college credit, and around
here, grammar is considered remedial.
They just aren't used to being asked to think about things in any depth.
They also are rarely asked to trust themselves and their own ideas and
thoughts, so they lack the confidence to employ their own creativity (if
they even recognize that they have it) to push themselves to the point
that they can see that they have original ideas. I use various ways to
spur them on--including using techniques that would probably be found
only in creative writing courses. But to me, all writing is creative.
There's no way around it. This semester we are using Naomi Epel's "book"
_The Observation Deck_, a series of cards and a companion book
containing phrases and ideas used by well-known authors to spur them
beyond writer's block, to spur their creative juices and to get them to
see that they can make original statements. And once they believe in
what they have created, it is much easier (though never easy) to get
them to go down the road of proving their points.
I think that teaching writing is one of the hardest tasks around,
because it really isn't writing per se that we're teaching, but
thinking. And higher education has made the assumption--and I think it
is a faulty one--that students already know "how" to think once they get
to college. In fact, I think that they struggle terribly.
But I keep working to help them. To see that light bulb go off and watch
the wheels turning is indeed a spiritual experience!

Date: Sat, 27 Mar 1999 18:42:13 -0500
From: "Carolyn I. Wright" <ciwright @ MAILBOX.SYR.EDU>
Subject: grading and comments
Interesting comments. I gave each of  my students a print out of how to do
citations within their papers.Straight from APA. Took time to discuss
citations in class...on more than one occasion. Use the board. The whole
nine yards. Only one student turned in a paper with the appropriate
citation form. Some turned in papers with no citations at all. What's a
girl to do?
Carolyn Wright

Date: Sat, 27 Mar 1999 13:45:14 -0400
From: Jeannie Ludlow <jludlow @ BGNET.BGSU.EDU>
Subject: paper grading help?
Hi Betsy, and everyone,
One thing I would like to add to the previous _very_ helpful advice on
grading papers:
I make a "comment heuristic" for each paper or project.  It differs every
time, and I do not use it as a regulatory device, but more as a shorthand.
A heuristic sheet for a paper would have several parts to it:
audience/approach; thesis/main point; organization/logic;
development/examples; applicability to course content; and what I vaguely
call format.  Each "part" name has a list of three or four common problems
under it that help me to pinpoint some of the shared problems within that
crop of essays.
So, what I do is this: I read all the papers through, sitting on my hands
(smile), so I don't make any marks on the papers.  As I read, I take notes
on shared problems.  Then I make the heuristic form.  It might look like
this paper's language is appropriate for its intended audience
this paper uses examples that target the intended audience
thesis/main point
this paper has a clear thesis, which seems to be:
the thesis is: explicit or implicit?
the focus is maintained consistently throughout
etc., etc. (this is just a quick mock-up--I would be much more careful if I
were doing this for a real assignment)
Then I make a copy of the heuristic for each paper, and go back and read
the papers again.  I use a combination of the heuristic and typed comments
for each paper.  If a paper has, say, a focus that wanders from the thesis,
I can mark on the heuristic, next to that phrase, "usually, but you wander
from it in paragraph 4 when you . . ."  At the end, I type up comments as
though the student were going to be revising the paper, even if there is no
time in that term for that to happen (and even if I have already read a
previous draft).
I have found that using the heuristic lowers the frustration level quite a
bit, for me.  The frustration, for me, comes from having to "say" the same
things over and over.  If I have the heuristic questions to "prompt" me, I
don't feel like I am repeating myself so much.
I have also begun, in the last few years, making heuristic sheets in
advance, on certain projects.  I give them to the students when I make the
assignments.  This allows them to know what I am expecting.  So I have a
kind of all-purpose paper heuristic form that mentions all the above
categories.  Believe it or not, I can't even count the number of times I
have had students say to me: "you mean I have to write this like an English
paper?  This isn't an English class!"
Now I circumvent that dismay with the general heuristic form.
This is a tough part of teaching--figuring out how you want to "be" with
student writing, and how to preserve your sanity throughout a process that
many of us may not agree with, ideologically, but some of us have to follow
because of our relative status within the particular institution.
Best of luck with it, Betsy!
Jeannie Ludlow                jludlow  @  bgnet.bgsu.edu
American Culture Studies             (419)372-0176
Women's Studies
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green OH 43403

Date: Sun, 28 Mar 1999 01:57:58 -0600
From: Kathleen Trigiani <ktrig246 @ AIRMAIL.NET>
Subject: paper grading help?
If anyone on this listserv thinks the WMST-L group is being too critical,
they should read this thinly-veiled anti-feminist diatribe which was
published last year in the UCLA Daily Bruin:
I've never expected student newspaper articles to be masterpieces,
but this one should have been completely rewritten.  I heard of this
article when the author responded to my "Crown Him Patriarch" essay.
He said the article made him think about "men, women, relationships,
and society" and proceeded to tell me his life story.  He then told me
about an article he wrote for the UCLA Daily Bruin.  As far as I was
concerned, it deserved an F--and not necessarily because it was an anti-
feminist diatribe.
Academic friends tell me they have to deal with these poorly written
articles all the time.  However, the most distressing thing was that it was
a student newspaper article.  It makes me wonder what they're teaching
journalism students these days, which in turn makes me wonder if the
quality of the print media will continue to decline.
Kathleen Trigiani
ktrig246  @  airmail.net
"Out of the Cave:  Exploring Gray's Anatomy"
You Don't Have to Settle For Mars&Venus!

Date: Sun, 28 Mar 1999 10:25:07 -0600
From: Joe Amato/Kass Fleisher <amato @ CHARLIE.CNS.IIT.EDU>
Subject: paper grading help?
i'd like to second a number of [Identity masked's] comments about critical
thinking and its relation to writing/learning....
also her implicit suggestion that much of this problem is institutional in
i keep going back to the drawing board:  what do i think "learning" should
mean?  why should students attend university and take writing (or other
classes)?  is it to "prepare" them to "enter the workplace" (ie, brainwash
them to be good laborers)?  and if not, exactly how to resist the
institutionalization that seems to be my primary job as a teacher?
why assign a paper?  what *sort* of paper?  if the 5-paragraph formula
stinks, what should replace it?  poetry?  autobiographical analysis?  and
why?  if form follows content, and if i want students to think-critically
through the institutional maze, maybe my concern with footnotes (for
instance) is misplaced.  maybe the "academic paper" is itself a gatekeeping
tool *not* aimed at promoting "learning" (my definition of that word
anyway).  what can i do rather than serve the institution by weeding out
students who are less able to mainstream themselves to academic culture?
grading practices, criteria, and comments (not to mention course structure,
the horse that comes *before* the grading cart) all arise from answers to
these questions.
one thing that would help immensely:  inter-disciplinary commitment to
writing-as-thinking/learning/site of resistance.  if my freshman writing
student graduates to your junior-senior"content" course and it's "too late"
for critical thinking to be taught -- obviously something has broken down
somewhere.  how can we unite across disciplines to make these goals part of
every course a student takes, from beginning to end?
several writers have pointed out that writing instructors tend to be vastly
overworked and underpaid.  i would add that they also tend to have no job
security.  when students resist the work of freshman composition
instructors who are *trying* to foreground these issues, that resistance
can result in being called on the carpet, examination of practices,
threatened paychecks (such as they are).  what can we do to support better
working conditions, thereby supporting the academic freedom necessary to do
this (as stated) incredibly difficult work?
thanks for the dialogue,
kass fleisher

Date: Sun, 28 Mar 1999 10:42:06 -0800
From: [Identity masked] @ STRIPE.COLORADO.EDU>
Subject: paper grading help?
Regarding the writing and critical thinking questions, I'll add a few
more logs to the fire ...
My statement about being a workhorse has more to do not so much with the
course loads that we have--I teach two courses per semester, and
primarily because one must be a contract instructor to be able to take
on more than two courses, and because I have "another" life outside the
university--but because the work in the classroom and with students on
an individual basis is itself so intense. The amount of energy and time
that one must put into working with these students is enormous. On the
days I teach I'm usually pretty worthless by the end of my second class.
Emptied out, really.
But as far as the real problem goes--the writing and quality of thought
it expresses--this _is_, I think, an institutionally created problem.
And it isn't just the fault of higher education, but also rests with
secondary education. Students are not being taught to write in high
school. And then they enter college, unprepared. At the same time, most
professors don't want to think that they are going to have to add the
teaching of writing to what they are already doing. And why should they?
Why should a professor who teaches a course on women's studies have to
contend with poor writing on top of the bulk of the material she is
trying to convey? But how many of you have had students complain about
grades on papers, telling you, "Hey, this isn't an English class--you're
not supposed to be grading my writing!" Somehow the idea that "writing"
is a separate field of endeavor, like "English," has permeated
undergraduate culture (and I've heard horror stories from colleagues who
confirm that it has also made its way into graduate culture, too, but we
won't go too far down that road!), and students don't realize (or care)
that they need to be able to "write" (i.e., to think, or to be able to
express their thinking) in order to absorb and understand and express
what they are learning in any and all of their classes!
Kass Fleishner posed a question about the viability of the academic
essay, wondering if perhaps there were other forms that might work best
for students. Though I sometimes employ some less traditionally
"academic" means to spur my students to think, I am not advocating
tossing away the academic, or persuasive/analytical/argumentative form.
Persuasive prose is a thing of beauty. A well-written academic article
can be a joy to read.
No, I am not ready to bring total anarchy to the classroom--not just
yet! Not at all. And yes, the "five-paragraph form [does indeed] stink!"
But why? First, it is nothing but a list-generator, and that is not
writing, or thinking. It encourages them to list facts, summarize
others' arguments, and basically do very little using their own
brainpower. And it is hopelessly formulaic. It is a shell into which
students think they can drop information, and that this will qualify as
a paper. But they don't know any better. And when I talk about writing
problems here, I am not talking about citations, APA or MLA form, or
anything of the sort. I am talking about basic ideas and sentences,
assertions, and proving those assertions. In my classes we aren't even
dealing with footnotes. These are not research papers, per se, but
papers based primarily on closed sets of data. I teach writing and use
the course topic as a springboard. After all, we have to have something
to think about.
What we try very hard to do--and our program uses intensive training for
its instructors--is to have students understand and develop
_relationships_ between ideas. This requires that they undertake an
in-depth analysis of whatever they're writing about. And of course, if
they are to analyze, they need to know _how_ to analyze. And frankly, it
is really sad to see how unprepared they are to tackle even a simple
So what is most of my classroom time spent doing--at least on those days
when we are workshopping? I fill the chalkboard--literally--with
diagrams and explanations, showing them exactly _how_ to work through a
problem. How to take an image and decompress its meaning; how to tease
the strands of ideas out from the subject of study. How to create and
understand the relationships between ideas. Over and over and over
again. And then we will often write a thesis statement together. In the
workshop, we start each session with the same old question--"Where's the
thesis statement? Where is the assertion?" And if the paragraph has
none, the student must go back and hammer away at it until it until she
or he has found the idea. It is tedious work, and repetitious, and they
get bored, but after a while, they start to get it. And I tell them that
the purpose of all of this hard work is so that they can control the
process. So that when they sit down before a sheet of paper, with a
problem at hand, that they can _deliberately_ choose an assertion to
begin their paper. That they will understand the difference between an
assertion and a proof of that statement. Not only do I want them to be
able to see someone else's "thesis," but to be able to recognize their
own! The workshop course has tremendous value in this area, because they
will listen to their peers before they will listen to me, and will take
their criticism seriously. But that means that I have to teach them all
how to be critical and to recognize the problem. It's slow going, but
they're learning how to wrap their brains around a problem in a totally
new way. We all know how long it takes to change old habits!
That's one reason why I say that if you are teaching an upper-division
subject-specific course, and your students can't write well, then it
will be pretty difficult to teach them to write at the same time you're
trying to get them to express some in-depth knowledge of the material
itself. The horse _is_ pushing the cart, and it doesn't work.
And as for grading? I usually don't assign any grades until after the
midterm. Students get nervous about it, and want to know something about
their progress, but I tell them, "When you demonstrate to me that you
understand what I'm asking you to do, that you have grasped the new
tools I'm trying to teach you to use, then I'll grade you on how well
you _use_ them. I want to catch you doing something good!"
Okay, that's my writing assignment for the day! ;-)

Date: Sun, 28 Mar 1999 13:50:37 -0500
From: "Constance J. Ostrowski" <ostroc @ RPI.EDU>
Subject: WS, Critical Thinking, & Writing -- was Paper Grading Help?
As my subject line suggests, I've taken the liberty to formally
switch tracks for this new train of thought that's been evolving out of
the request for advice on paper grading.
I'd like to pick up on [Identity masked's] comment that:
    ". . . if you are teaching an upper-division subject-specific
    course, and your students can't write well, then it will be
    pretty difficult to teach them to write at the same time you're
    trying to get them to express some in-depth knowledge of
    the material itself."
Actually, I'd like to generalize that to include lower-division courses
as well, but before I feel comfortable doing so, I wanted to ask list
members (well, actually, get a discussion going) about the extent to which
an inability to coherently, clearly, and cogently develop an idea on paper
might seem to relate to issues of critical thinking that come out in
oral discussions.  Perhaps I'm asking for trouble by posing a question
that doesn't seek a statistical answer:  in other words, I'm not asking
for empirical evidence that would demonstrate that every writer of poor
prose expresses clouded ideas orally and that every "good" writer
expresses strongly logical ideas orally.  What I'm asking is whether
anyone has seemed to notice more general trends among classes regarding
the relation of quality of written development of thought and quality of
oral development of thought.  For instance, to what extent (I guess, if at
all) do we find that students who express ideas based on stereotypical
and mythical prejudices also cannot adequately develop ideas on paper?
From my experience teaching not only writing, but also literature and
rhetoric courses, I've noted that generally, *most* students who cannot
write well also tend to express notions that are not carefully thought-out
or effectively expressed orally (in conversations with peers, in private
conversations with me, during class or small group discussions--the
problem is independent of the particular type of oral context).
This leads me to muse about the issue of anti-feminist/misogynistic (as
well as racist and other biased) notions that float around, not only on
campus, but throughout society.  Some of these notions may be quite
articulately expressed but are logically weak or poorly devloped (because
effective speaking, like effective writing, is not--as others have already
noted--merely a question of skillful language handling).  So, to what
extent might there be a relationship between problems we see in writing
and problematic notions about women, members of various races, religions,
and about academic inquiry into any of these areas (Women's Studies,
Black Studies, Judaic Studies . . .)?
Obviously, I'm doing much more than posing one question; while I would be
very interested in reading answers to the first question I asked, I'm
following up on it here.  And since I'm on a roll, I'll take the opportunity
to suggest that if there is indeed a relationship, then wouldn't it
be logical to stress writing early on and continuously?  This is clearly
in line with the whole critical thinking movement, but I want to advocate
the absolute necessity of stressing writing in all courses.  Which--if
you remember [Identity masked's] comments on the drain that teaching even 2 sections
of courses that work to help students think/write creates (and then
multiply that for all of us who may have to consistently teach more than
2 writing courses per term along with a 5-course load, for those of us
in community colleges and some other colleges)--makes it clear that issues
of class size and course load are critical pedagogical issues (and not
just policy/contractual issues).  I'm not trying to steer the conversation
onto a political track, but obviously if we perceive a need for more
writing, and since we acknowledge the absolute need to continue contributing
to the development of thought within our disciplines (and I claim disciplinary
status for Women's Studies), then the policy makers who want a more
thoughtful (ie., better educated) citizenry need to take these issues into
I know that there have been some attempts in elementary education to work on
critical thinking/writing:  New York State's new test for 4th graders is
a case in point.  (I'll be interested to see the results of the tests, given
some problems in its implementation.)  I am heartened to see a recognition
of the importance of critical thinking/writing (though of course with some
class sizes hitting 30, how are the teachers to get students to the level
the test sets--which is a level of pretty high rigor?).
But it looks as though we who teach college courses will have to wait
at least 8 years to get the benefit of any changes in elementary scholl
critical thinking that are occurring now.  What we have to deal with now
is what I read [Identity masked] to have been suggesting:  how can we deal with high-level
complex concepts and issues (particularly in but not limited to Women's
Studies courses) when they can't develop thoughts?
I've probably muddied the issue by my multi-faceted post (but in the 11th
hour of Spring Break this may be the last time over the next 8 weeks that
I'll have the time and energy to develop any thoughts myself:  tomorrow,
back into the morass of grading!).
Thanks for your patience and tolerance.
Connie Ostrowski
ostroc  @  rpi.edu (alum account--not where I teach)

Date: Sun, 28 Mar 1999 12:11:32 -0800
From: [Identity masked] @ STRIPE.COLORADO.EDU>
Subject: Critical Thinking, Writing, Stereotypes
Just to make a simple reply to Connie O's train of thought, I'd like to
make a wish, one that would never be granted, but a wish, just the same:
I'd like (read: LOVE) to see universities/colleges/community colleges
_require_ at least one year of intensive writing seminars at the
freshman level, and have writing and critical thinking occupy the major
proportion of their work for their first year. The courses could be
topics courses, but nothing that would require them to do much outside
research (plenty of in-class reading assignments, focusing on good
writing about the topic itself, would be required ... giving them some
real exposure to quality writing). Thereafter, I'd require a really
serious writing seminar every semester, until the student graduates.
There would never be a single semester that passes in which a student
would not be taking a writing seminar/workshop. I think we could solve
80% (maybe more?) of the problems we complain about by making sure that
students really do know how to express themselves at the get-go. This
would also create a climate where writing instructors would be highly
prized, which for the most part, is not the case today ... I recently
encountered an older (male) professor in the hallway of one of the
buildings where I teach, as I was walking with students towards the
university's art galleries, and he asked me what I was teaching, and I
said, "Writing." His response? "Oh, writing teachers--I feel for
you--you are the yeomen of the university!" I wasn't sure if I should
laugh or cry.
Stereotyping and prejudice seem to be a product of clouded and
uncritical thought--at least that is my experience. Once I broach the
subject of heterosexism in class (I push it along by coming out in a big
way, as I've stated before) and get the students to start talking about
heterosexism, sexism, racism, homophobia and the the other awful "-isms"
we are trying to eradicate, they seem to be glad to have the opportunity
to learn and to dispel their own prejudices--most of them stemming from
simple ignorance.

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