Teacher Responsibility and the Shared Work of the Seminar
What roles do we play when responding to student work? Are we the editor? The final arbiter of correctness? The experienced writer who shares that experience? Who are we as readers and instructors? While it is often our default as instructors to inhabit the role of writing authority and judge, Thomas Newkirk argues that we must “act as the fallible, sometimes confused, sometimes puzzled readers that we are.”1 David Fuller also suggests we respond as readers, rather than as “critics of classroom performances.”2 In this way, we model a reader/responder role that peer reviewers too can inhabit while responding to their classmates’ work. Fuller writes that in doing so “we can dispel the notion that [students] need to decipher our commentary in order to learn how to play the game for us.”3 What’s more, responding to written work is part of the shared work of the seminar. While we serve as leaders, we want everyone to feel that this is a part of their work in the course. We are not the only or even the final authority; we are reader-responders.
Our goal should be to always project an attitude of respect and a sense of responsibility toward student work. One of the simplest ways to project respect and responsibility is by returning student papers quickly so that the feedback is relevant to the work they have underway. We recommend that instructors return student drafts within one week, otherwise they won’t be able to use it as they revise. In case of extenuating circumstances, place the same expectations on yourself as you would place on students. Return feedback on drafts promptly so that it is useful during the revision process; return graded essays within a week or so, but never longer than three weeks (and three weeks should be the exception, not the rule). If you find yourself in a bind on returning work on time, let us know as soon as you can so we can work out some alternatives with you.
Along with timeliness, we project our attitude toward student work is in the language we use to comment on that work. It is important to be aware of both the roles we inhabit when we comment and the contextual criteria we bring (or sometimes invent), that influences our attitude toward the work. David Fuller reports on an experiment in which one group of teachers was given a sample of student writing that was typed and the other was given the same piece of writing written in “penmanship resembling that of a young writer.”4 The groups were asked to write feedback on their samples and then discuss them. Although the actual content of the samples was the same, instructors responded differently to the handwritten versus the typed sample. Both groups attempted praise, but praise for the typed response was “more sincere and confidently phrased.”5 Suggestions for revision from those working with the typed passage were polite, while suggestions for the handwritten passage used “imperative constructions” and a more “evaluative tone.”6 This experiment shows that instructors were inventing contextual criteria about the writing and its author that influenced their manner of response. Fuller’s study corroborates what Bob Broad found in his dynamic criteria mapping assessment of first-year writing, that responses to student work are influenced by more than textual criteria.7 Contextual criteria also play a major role. In addition to contextual criteria that originate with course discussions, assignment guidelines and small group and individual conferences, an important piece of contextual criteria for instructor grading is what Broad terms “teacher’s special knowledge” (TSK). TSK arises out of assumptions that instructors make based on the way students write (and speak). While it is impossible to erase TSK entirely from the process of responding to and grading student work, it is important to be aware of and responsible about it. The extremes of TSK are often called favoritism and discrimination, and no teacher wants to be guilty of either. Instructors should be self-aware about the ways their assumptions and imagined contexts may influence their responses.
The following sections provide specific best practices for responding to student work both in written form, in marginal comments and endnotes on papers, and in verbal feedback in individual conferences.
Written and Oral Feedback
Best Practices for Written Feedback: Comments and Endnotes
Most importantly, we provide feedback on drafts that will help guide students toward rethinking their work, and thus toward substantive revisions rather than line edits. Although it may be easier to mark primarily surface-level or textual features (like grammar, punctuation, word choices, and citation), keep in mind that what really matters in academic writing is how the text develops and advances a meaningful project. You read and comment most productively when you note what you see, as a reader, to be the student’s project, and then provide feedback in ways that push the project forward through questions and occasional suggestions. Be mindful, however, of appropriating students’ essays with directives that would lead to any student’s writing the paper you would want them to write. Our job is not to direct students to write our ideal essays. Because students will be making large-scale revisions, it doesn’t make sense to note sentence-level problems. Presumably, those sentences will be entirely reimagined.
- Ground your feedback in what student’s writing is already doing, and read with an eye toward a student’s developing project. Encouraging the development of this project may mean that they will need to remove or completely rethink large portions of the rough draft; emphasize that a first draft is an “invention draft,” or prototype, rather than a completed essay that will just need to be polished. You can reinforce this by reminding students that they had to write a lot in order to find out where they want to take the project. At the same time, don’t make feedback on an invention draft “evaluative” when its meant to help the student reshape the work, rethink the problems, redraw lines of thought.
- Establish and maintain a clear vocabulary (on the syllabus, assignments, and class discussions) of your expectations and how you will evaluate student work, and use that vocabulary to comment on in ways that will help students revise their drafts. Be aware of the choices you make in this vocabulary, though, because it is easy to slip into some familiar terms that nevertheless assume a privileged audience (see Valerie Balester, “How Writing Rubrics Fail”). Once you have established a vocabulary that represents what you value in student work, refer to this language on each assignment prompt as you provide feedback. You might consider asking students to develop a Wiki (tool available in HuskyCT) for these terms; divide the work among groups and set up accountability for regular contributions.
- Don’t be so directive as to take over the essay you believe the student should have written. If students need more direction, try to ask questions and offer multiple strategies or suggestions for revision so they can take responsibility for making active choices.
Ethos of the Reader
Offer feedback as a reader of their work. Point out where you see a line of thought taking shape and articulate what you see. If the student’s work contains seeming contradictions, then point that out not as something to be resolved and unified, but as the substance of a section or an entire essay that would examine the contradictions. Articulate, too, the effects that certain sections of their project have on an audience, and ask questions to push your understanding of their text forward (as well as point them toward places to expand and further develop where a reader might not yet be able to follow their argument). Engaging with specific moments in their text, as a reader, ensures that comments are not interchangeable, but carefully contextualized.
Oral Feedback: Individual Conferences
When meeting with students one-on-one, have students first articulate their project to you orally (maybe even take some notes for them the first time, and always suggest that they take notes). You can then discuss how this project was articulated in the draft and how they might revise with that project in mind.
Keep in mind that individual conferences with students should have different goals and somewhat different outcomes from writing-group conferences. In neither situation should you provide the “last word” on a student paper, and in an individual conference, you should allow the student to speak as much as possible (especially if you’ve already provided written feedback). Focus on opening up questions for the student, suggesting lines of thought they might develop, or helping them unpack something they’ve glossed over.
When you finish speaking about a student draft, ask that student to rearticulate their understanding of your feedback as well as how they plan to revise the draft. You might want to take notes for yourself as reference.
Individual conferences can be valuable for discussing a final draft and the grade the student earned. Ask the student to take notes on your conversation, and take this opportunity to talk through the essay and point to what worked well, what didn’t, and what could be carried on in the next essay. Such a conversation will help situate an essay grade in the larger context of written and verbal feedback.
Grading and Evaluation
Grading can be a delicate subject, especially in a course such as ours, in part because inexperienced writers often see criticism of their writing as evaluations of their abilities. They also tend to equate labor with quality, meaning that if they put in what they perceive to be a lot of work, they believe the grade should be commensurate to the effort. Still, in FYW, it is possible to think of most grading as occurring at one of two distinct levels: the grade for the essay and the grade for the semester.
An essay grade evaluates the quality of intellectual and written work observable in a student’s essay. Below, we have included brief descriptions of essays that would earn an A, B, C, and F, respectively. While no student’s work will fit these criteria exactly—and your values as an evaluator may differ somewhat from those expressed in the criteria—you can use this set of descriptions as a starting point for assigning grades.
Although grading the essay is an inherently subjective activity, there are some points of convergence on which most instructors agree. In FYW courses we emphasize exploration, complex thinking, rendering and mapping of texts, contribution, and collaboration within a larger academic conversation. Thus, rather than focusing on local issues of grammar, diction, and syntax, we encourage instructors to privilege global issues such as the student’s development of ideas, engagement with class texts, and adoption of an academic style. Ultimately, most instructors look at papers holistically and measure their quality by their overall success in using writing to advance a conversation.
We have included a similar set of descriptions for semester grades. Once again, the grade descriptions supplied below should be regarded as starting points for determining students’ semester grades, not as fixed, inflexible criteria. Note, though, that the underlying philosophy of semester grades is necessarily somewhat more complex, particularly since as a program we hope to avoid over-quantification. You should not, for instance, feel confined by the quirks—including the masked arbitrariness—of a point-based system; you should base semester grade decisions on the student’s level of achievement. (This is, after all, what a point-based system, at its best, is supposed to measure.)
Determining semester grades in FYW courses need not be all that tortuous if we allow that it is not that hard to get a B in this course (a seemingly neutral grade) but fairly demanding to achieve an A. If B connotes the meeting of obligations, the completion of course objectives, then A can be reserved for recognizable and substantial contributions to the greater course work. That is, the B connotes personal achievements and success, but the A recognizes the far more vital academic goal of impact, influence, mattering. In both daily activity and in the larger assignments, the border between these two levels is fairly discernible. Is a student prepared, attentive, competent? Is a paper legible, thoughtful, active? These are characteristics of B-level work and they are to be commended. But some students introduce new material, raise fresh questions, find new avenues through texts, formulate new concepts, and just generally contribute, both in larger essays but also in daily work, to others’ understanding of the course questions and work. This is A-level work.
C work is common enough, but a C grade connotes a problem of some sort (understanding, execution, etc.) and should be addressed with concrete suggestions for addressing this or these problems. Some students may miss work and fall off from the B standard through neglect or lack of attention, and, especially early in the semester, some students may receive C grades for work that is not yet achieving the intellectual goals of assignments. But C work is passing, which suggests that the student has met the assignment or course requirements, despite the persistence of one or two significant issues.
We discourage you from using the D grade, which can connote a paradoxical mix of both passing and not passing. On papers, non-passing grades (F or “NP”) should be addressed with a clear statement of potential consequences of this grade (e.g., “you risk failing the course”) and, usually, a concrete plan for addressing these consequences. Students who do not pass your course should know of this possibility well in advance and should have been given some opportunities along the way to address this possibility. A revision policy can help you provide parameters for addressing poor performance on one or two papers.
Communicating with Students about Grades
Clarify your expectations—in your syllabus, on assignment sheets, and in verbal discussions with your class. And if a student is struggling or failing, it is only fair to communicate this early and often.
Students do not instinctively understand what grades signify in your course. Therefore, it is essential that instructors pair grades with clarifying comments. Without comments, grades reduce writing assignments to hoops to jump through, rather than opportunities for learning. Good comments reinforce grades by both drawing attention to the strongest parts of the paper and providing suggestions for development. And good comments draw on the language established in the course (including the syllabus, assignments, previous comments, and in-class conversations).
Be sure to submit grades at three points in the semester. At the end of Week 6, you must submit DFUN grades via PeopleSoft.8 These grades serve as fair warning to students in danger of failing the course and alert their advisors to the issue as well. After grading the second major essay, you should give students their midterm grades and submit a copy to the FYW office. Last but not least, you will need to submit grades via PeopleSoft at the end of the semester, no later than the Registrar’s deadline (you’ll receive a reminder in our FYW Weekly Digests.
If at any point in a semester you begin to think that it is likely that a student will fail the course, be sure to communicate this directly to the student, ideally in a face-to-face conversation, and let us know (via email).
What Essay Grades Mean in FYW: A Starting Point
A. Responds energetically and creatively to the readings and the assignment. Engages meaningfully with texts in a sustained manner. Contributes new ideas or formulations that successfully enter into conversation with others’ work. Demonstrates rhetorical awareness including knowledge of and facility with genre conventions. Correctly handles in-text citations and includes a properly formatted works cited page.
B. Responds with intention to the assignment. Engages meaningfully with outside texts in most parts of the paper. Attempts a contribution to the ongoing conversations of other authors. Shows some degree of rhetorical awareness. Makes use of in-text citations and includes a works cited page.
C. Engages with but may also diverge from the assignment. Uses outside texts, but does not make or attempt a contribution to the ongoing conversations of other authors. Exhibits inconsistent levels of rhetorical awareness. Citations may be faulty or missing.
F. Does not make a good faith effort to respond to the assignment and/or falls well short of the minimum page requirement. Misrepresents or leaves out sources entirely. Shows little to no rhetorical awareness. In-text citations and works cited are incorrectly handled or missing.
What Semester Grades Mean in FYW: A Starting Point
A. Students will receive an A for the course if they have (1) regularly submitted writing of exceptional quality that has positively contributed to the ongoing conversations of the seminar; (2) actively participated in discussion, peer review, and other aspects of the seminar, including having consistently and punctually attended class; and (3) completed all major essays and all or nearly all of the other assignments for the course in a timely manner.
B. Students will receive a B for the course if, in addition to meeting criteria 2–4 above, they have submitted work that seeks to respond in good faith to the assignments as well as to the ongoing conversation of the seminar.
C. Students will receive a C for the course if they have fallen short of fully meeting the criteria above but nevertheless have engaged in significant intellectual work during the semester.
F. Students will receive a failing grade for the course if they have failed to meet most or all of the above criteria.
1 Thomas Newkirk, “Looking for Trouble: A Way to Unmask Our Readings,” College English 46, no. 8 (1984): 765.
2 David Fuller, “A Curious Case of Our Responding Habits: What Do We Respond to and Why?” Journal of Advanced Composition 8, no. 1/2 (1988): 92.
5 Ibid., 89.
7 Bob Broad, What We Really Value: Beyond Rubrics in Teaching and Assessing Writing (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2003).
8 DFUN grades consist of the following: “D,” “F,” “U” (unsatisfactory), and “N” (the student has never been present in class).