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Advice, Grading, Reflection

Comments Aside: Some Space for Reflection

Given that my last blog was a behemoth, this is a shorter entry acting as a bit more of an update on my own teaching practices and a follow up to a workshop I gave at the GTA orientation last Fall about the goals and methods for commenting on student drafts in 1020. Composition scholarship emphasizes that there is no single correct way to respond to student writing, but that developing a commenting style is critical part of development as a teacher – development that is guided largely by encouraging teachers “to refrain as much as possible from using grades to evaluate and respond to student writing, using instead such techniques as narrative evaluations, written comments, dialogue journals, and conferences” (from The NCTE’s policy statement on grading). My handout is available on the comp-fac-wiki, so I won’t go into much detail summing up my own workshop (though I’ll offer my ambiguous feeling that a “so-sorry for the self-serving writing” apology makes me feel both grimy and/or like completing the self-referential circle by posting a third-person account on Facebook about how much Jared hates people who quote themselves). Part of developing your own style of commenting should involve practicing a variety of responses in a range of common places for commenting, like written comments, letters, emails, conversations, or short conferences as part of commenting on drafts, exercises and paragraphs.

Ultimately, there is no one correct way to react to student work, any more than there is only one student, one classroom, or one goal in writing courses – that said, much of the scholarship about commenting/responding to student writing does offer several strong methods for responding to student work and some scattered research that tells us what students tend to like and dislike. Common methods and techniques of commenting include: the holistic or narrative response, focusing comments on purpose and audience, prioritizing “concerns”, balancing the dispensing of ‘rules for revision’ alongside individualized strategies and revision tasks, carefully rubber stamping prepared comments, and balancing “inductive and deductive” comments.

More generally this scholarship outlines two goals for commenting that are suitable for new teachers: (1) demonstrate the “presence of a reader” in your course, (2) develop your own commenting style and techniques. Establishing this ‘presence as a reader’ depends on actively demonstrating what kind of reader you are, or want to be, for your students — and establishing this presence across your classroom activities, and your forms feedback, in relation to your goals for the course. In regards to balancing techniques such as Holistic responses or narrative evaluations, written marginal comments in texts, dialogue journals with students, and conferences — most research on commenting shares the opinion is that “individual teachers must decide for themselves what ways of responding best suit their teaching styles” (Mitchler, “Writing Back” 416).

As a response to both goals in my class, most ‘teaching allies’ out there know that I’ve been using voice to text software to leave narrative or conversational comments, and plugging in audio files on word documents or emails. I’ve been using Audacity lately for the latter; it’s much cleaner and easier to use than anything else I’ve tried. The files are also very small, and can be sent in a number of formats (so they can be sent via email very easily).

At the aforementioned workshop, and again recently at a meeting of the new Lecturers, people have showed interest in trying these technologies and strategies. I wanted to offer a few potential benefits and a few pitfalls here. Pitfalls include comments that get too long (and too hard to follow), or too involved with the student’s content. The software is also not perfect, and while my students get a kick out of the fact that “exigence” often gets typed as “exit gents”, I tend to miss one or two other confusing mistyped comments per batch of papers. Mp3’s might also require that students re-play them several times (which they may not) and can still cause some technical difficulties if you’re not using a class wiki or a blog that allows you to post the file directly.

On the other hand, once you get a hang of using voice recognition software, talking through your comments can be quicker than typing them — and this is a fitting style of comment for narrative comments on drafts and other pre-writing activities that often need this style of feedback. I also think that this feedback has an interesting potential way of helping tie together a couple other goals I’ve been working on in relation to a gradual revision of 1020 next semester. One goal is to find opportunities to connect current projects in the model GTA 1020 syllabus with more reflective writing about student writing procedures, concepts about knowledge production/interpretation from rhetoric and composition scholarship, and (I think) with students own definitions of critical thinking, academic success, personal or social change, and persuasion. I’ve introduced some reflection basics through a few small writing assignments prompting students to move backwards in the class (asking questions about what they’ve done well/poorly in the past) and as we move forward (asking questions about how they will ‘boot up’ certain concepts and practices in current or upcoming work). I’ve been using the “voiced comments” in the second half of the course with the above goals increasingly mind. I’ve started dedicating two Mp3s or ‘reflection comments’ per assignment that ask students questions which they can answer by informally posting a response on a growing “about the author page” – hoping that this will developing a sense of continuity in their developing goals and skills as a reader, writer and thinker. I’ve found myself working on these longer ‘conversations’ (as part of a ‘Big Picture’ thread we work out in the second half of the course) in one set of reflection questions posted relation to a draft, and in another set of reflection oriented comments with final grades. Both ask them to answer questions informally (as notes, ideas, short narratives) on their about the author pages, and they are typically directed to procedural strategies they have been developing (typical emphasis on how their writing worked this time around as a recursive process – or not) and what conceptual strategies they applied well to specific aspects of their writing (i.e. where they really worked through the rhetorical situation well, or articulated distinct purposes of inquiry, analysis or argumentation, raised some questions about the genre, about an audience’s needs, about discourse communities, or about rhetorical tools that we return to in each project). This is a pretty simple approach, but the rapport it builds is fairly strong, and I’m interested in seeing how this supports some final reflection in a short assignment in December.

It seems also that there is something to consider as I work through an evaluation project, which I introduce as mapping on very closely to common traits of critical thinking (for instance, after following an unusually weird thread on the WPA listserve about the (dis)connections between writing, critical thinking, and transfer, led me to Washington State’s Guide to Rating Critical Thinking as identifying seven key areas of critical thinking: 1) identification of a problem or issue, 2) establishment of a clear perspective on the issue, 3) recognition of alternative perspectives, 4) location of the issue within an appropriate context(s), 5) identification and evaluation of evidence, 6) recognition of fundamental assumptions implicit or stated by the representation of an issue, 7) assessment of implications and potential conclusion. Depending on what your students are evaluating, you have an opportunity to generate some reflection on their own thought processes and writing processes more holistically at this point in the semester. This can be framed to evaluate ‘problems’ that connect with their own literacies, their professional discourses, academic discourse communities, or other social or political issues that students have taken serious interest in writing about (in this case leading up to a particular proposal). I’m picturing this project as a continuation of particular reflection questions and a closer sense of transfer of skills between projects.

I have to say that some of the reflection comments are as much about me thinking about new goals in the course as they are about preconceived goals. But this seems like a good space for it, as it reflects my own presence as reader willing to adapt with student ideas and goals in an appropriate space.

Some attention to commenting on student’s work throughout a semester be found in an attempt at precise instruction on what writing instructor’s comments “should” contain in John Bean’s book, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. He identifies a “hierarchy of questions” divided into higher-order concerns, lower-order concerns, and end-oriented concerns for written comments by instructors (242–43). Bean provides questions for instructors to ask when commenting, and he recommends no more than two or three questions per draft (243). As the drafts improve, an instructor can move on to two or three questions from the next higher order of concern (243). He ends with a “Review of General Principles” that reflects using margin notes, endnotes, questions of varying levels of concern, and, “whenever possible,” “one-on-one conferences instead of commenting on papers” (253–55).

Jared Grogan is a PhD Candidate in the Department and joined the faculty as a lecturer in Fall 2011. His research interests include Rhetorical Theory, Ecology and Sustainability, Eco-Composition, and Pedagogy. He currently teaches English 1020.

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