Some more-or-less true statements about teacher-response to student writing

by Charlie Moran

We expect student writers to be able to act on our response in some way use our response to make the piece we're responding to "better" in our view. This means that comments on mid-process drafts, which can be acted on, are more effective than comments on final drafts, which cannot, except by extreme indirection,affect the next piece, which is likely so different from the first that transfer won't happen.

Global comments on writing are misleading, in that they suggest that there is one 'good writing' out there which template this piece does, or does not, fit. Better are comments clearly indicating that they come from a person, a situated human being, one reader who has been, more or less miraculously, placed in the position of 'teacher' but who is still a situated human being. I'd discourage the global comment ("This writing, this paper is....") and encourage the personal ("As I read this piece, 1....").

Teacher-response serves at least two tenuously-related functions. It can tell the student writer that what she is writing is being read, and seriously, by another human being in a position of prestige and authority, thus inviting the student into the discourse of the academic community. To the extent that this is the function of the response, more can better. Teacher response can, on another hand, help the student revise and improve the piece of writing that is being responded to. To the extent that this is the function of the response, less may be more. To the extent that teacher-response is designed to improve the next draft, it should be focused. It should not be seen, by teacher or student, as an implied contract: "If I do everything you say, will I get an A?" That is, it will not be compendious, addressing every aspect of the draft. It is not the teacher's function to edit students' writing to publishable perfection. A frequent teacher-problem: asking the writer to re-order the piece, and, by marginal notes, asking the writer to fix sentence-level or word-level errors-in text that will be massively revised! That's a real train-wreck.

The teacher's response to a piece of writing must be made in the light of the stage of the writing. Is this an early, exploratory draft? Or a well-thought-through third draft? Or a piece that is about to be published? Second language students may want you to help them chiefly with the surface features of the piece, with English idiom. That's fine I'd do the same if I were writing in German at a German university. At the same time, you want to make sure that you are attending to the thought in the piece, and helping the writer re-think, to go deeper. In English 112, where we do so much writing, part of your response can be looking at potential topics embedded in this piece that could be fruitful for next essays. I'd like to hear more about..."

Teacher response exists in a field that includes peer response. If you leave everything alone, teacher-response will over-ride peer response, because the teacher is the final evaluator has the final say. You can mitigate this effect by referring in your response to peers' responses, signaling that yes, you read these peer responses and that yes, you respect what students say about one another's writing. You can mitigate this effect too by requiring that peer responders become part of the responder's portfolio, suggesting thereby that the quality and depth of the response is a factor in the final course grade.

Responding can take as long as you give it. Would any sane editor work with 24 writers at the same time? You are assumed by the University to be spending 20 hours/week on your teaching. Your first time through, you may spend a bit more, but it should average out after you get some experience with our course. This means that you must be efficient and economical with your responding. If you find yourself spending 30 minutes or more with one piece of student writing, you might look for ways of streamlining your reading and responding. Yet somehow we still have to work our way past our entirely un-natural reading situation, one that threatens always to make monsters of us all.