"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

The Fine Art of Minimal Marking

January 16th, 2017 by

Last week, I participated in a meeting with other teachers who were in their first hours of teaching a writing class in their field. The challenge for them was that they had taught in their own field for most of their careers, but they had rarely taught writing in their field. That was something they had rarely thought much about, teaching writing.

So one of their concerns that was right below the surface of our meeting, one of the main topics that came up fairly quickly, was the question of grading papers, which is also known among teachers, in the jargon, as “paperload.” How, we all asked, do we balance the rest of our jobs with what surely looks to most of us like a huge work load problem: grading papers just about every day. After all, this is a writing class we are teaching, not a lecture class with scantron tests processed in three or four minutes. We need to respond to our students’ writing. Some of us have as many as fifty writing students this semester.

What do we do about this?

The Art of the Minimal
I have this problem that my colleagues are facing. I have three writing classes and almost fifty students. I have them write every time we meet, or it wouldn’t be a writing class. At the same time, I do question how much of this daily writing I should respond to. The answer, I think, should be guided by what is best for my students.

And I will say that if it were best for my students that I were a compulsive grader, marking every line as though I were a copy editor at a newspaper or a publishing house, I would try to do that. But I don’t. I have decided that what my students need more than a grader (there are now computer programs that will do that) is a reader. A grader is someone who is waiting for errors, who holds the pen ever vigilantly, waiting to pounce on the least error. A reader engages in the writer’s purpose and ideas, occasionally being distracted by surface errors that can be cleaned up later.

I read my students’ work. And I jot comments in the margins that reflect that I am taking their ideas seriously. And I do mark an occasional error. But I have understood that my students don’t benefit from my marking every error, changing all of their sentences around to sounding more like my voice, and generally making a red (or a purple, green, or blue) mess of their papers so that they can no longer see their own work beneath the “corrections.”

Being a Reader
Students will not read the second essay layer of comments that some of their teachers compose over their own increasingly irrelevant attempts at prose. Instead of learning to correct their grammar, they will only get the message that their work is no good. And they will learn to think of writing as an exercise in corrections.

What I want to do is encourage them to write. I will respect their work as written communication that they are still learning to practice. I will have them write as often as we meet, and I will sometimes mark only one item in their daily writing. The main thing is that they are writing. For their larger projects, more comments will be forthcoming.

The analogy to swimming seems intuitively right at this point. What good would I be doing if I had them jump into the water to start swimming, only to have me jump in alongside them and grab their arms and legs and turn them into puppets of my own strokes? How long will they want to keep trying to learn to swim? Will they work at it? They certainly won’t gain any insights into the nature of the water. Will they keep trying anyway, or give everything over to me who knows it all and allow themselves to float passively along as I flap their arms and legs?

I think that my best approach is to remain a spectator to their work and their progress. I will read their work and comment on it.

If the paper load seems lessened–and this might feel like cheating–there is another side to this. I am learning to appreciate my students’ work and not fight it. This really is the best pedagogy for my many students.

It seems to work.

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