What We Talk About When We Talk About Student Writing


I still remember snippets of comments my professors wrote on my papers when I was an undergraduate thirty years ago:  “”Next time think before you write;” “This is a tour-de-force;” “These are gentle and sane views…”  Back in the late 80s and early 90s, I did not know that the field of composition studies existed. I did not know that researchers study professors’ comment on students’ work and the impact of these comments on the students. I just knew that my professors comments mattered to me.


Now, I know more.


I know the feeling of being an adjunct instructor, a graduate teaching assistant, a lecturer, a professor; of juggling professional work with pregnancy, childrearing, eldercare. I know what it’s like to carry around folders bulging with papers to read, to comment on, to grade. I know what it’s like to log onto Canvas or Blackboard where my list of papers to read runs off the computer screen. I know what it’s like to be overwhelmed by all of this.


Now, thanks to the work of composition research, I also know that I have options.


Peter Elbow taught me to distinguish ranking, evaluating, and liking, so I read my students’ work in different ways at different points in the term.


Nancy Sommers taught me to first comment on my students’ thinking, to avoid marking every error, and to see my comments as an opportunity to engage in a dialogue with my students.


Maja Wilson taught me to think critically about rubrics so that I encourage students to take ownership of their work.


Jill Dahlman taught me  to use my comments as a springboard for discussion, so often I take only make brief notes while I read students’ work and then I meet with them individually. During these meetings, I ask lots of questions and I have students write up their own comments based on our discussion.


I hope to make four main points here: 1) Comments on students’ work matter; 2) They take time; 3) There’s good research about how to write effective comments; and 4) There are many good ways to apply this research.


My goal is to entice you to see me or Bridget Fullerton so we can talk about what we talk about when we comment on students’ writing and so we help you see your options, make good use of your time, and craft comments that encourage your students to grow.