The Rhetoric of Paper-Marking
Or, A Wheelbarrow for Sisyphus

Ray Smith
Director, Campus Writing Program

Indiana University Bloomington from the Teaching Resources Newsletter; Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall 1997

Teaching, which is almost always done in the presence of others, is paradoxically a rather private act. Usually, we write lectures, frame discussions, prepare readings, and construct tests without consultation. No part of teaching, however, is more private than paper-grading.

Although its part of the normal commerce of the university to swap troublesome parts of nascent journal articles with the person in the next office, my bet is that few reading this have taken a perplexing student paper down the hall to show it to a colleague. I'll bet, further, that many reading this article spend as much time reading and writing on student essays as they do reading and writing journal articles. Why, then, if we spend so much of our professional lives doing it and complaining about it, do we talk and write so little about grading and marking? [Marking is rarely treated even in journals dedicated to pedagogy. Check the Writing Programs Web page for thumbnails of relevant articles.]

Let me pause for a commercial break. The reasons for assigning essays to our students—rather than surrendering those students to an education driven entirely by multiple-choice examinations—need hardly be elaborated upon here. But that wont stop me from listing some old favorites: we know through research and experience that students have a better understanding of concepts they have written about than ideas they have loaded up into RAM and returned undamaged on multiple-choice tests; we know that students prose improves when they write repeatedly under thoughtful criticism (a single semester of W131 taken in the freshman year cannot do the whole work of improving our students thinking and writing); we know that one of the best ways of initiating our students into disciplinary communities is to have them practice the forms of discourse used by those communities.

These are pragmatic reasons for demanding essays from our students, but I want to suggest an even more pragmatic one: you are competing for the time and attention of your students with four or five other teachers. It stands to reason that a student must spend more time wrapping her mind around a sloppy problem (read: “essay assignment”) and composing her solution to that problem than she needs to spend acquiring mere information from lectures and readings and then demonstrating a command of that information through conventional testing. The brute fact is that in most instances my students will spend more time writing about the subjects I feel are important than they will preparing for someone elses multiple choice test.

Perhaps because we take into account the time it takes for our students to produce essays, or, perhaps for more complex reasons, a great many faculty who use writing as a teaching tool feel obliged to write nearly as much in the margins as our students themselves have put on the page. I want to assert that marking students papers heavily is of doubtful efficacy.

I used to mark papers quite heavily, when I first taught writing more than twenty years ago. In my experience, few students learned in light of my thick commentary to avoid the sorts of logical flaws and sentence-level blunders that I cautioned them would offend most educated readers. When I asked my students to revise their papers, they often repeated errors in form, judgment, and style that I had laboriously pointed to and corrected in my comments—no matter how severely I lowered their grade for those errors. This went on for about ten years. I mention only in passing that colleagues in the Psychology department will tell us that even the dullest pigeon will stop when it fails to receive a pellet after pressing a bar thousands of times.

Had I bothered to ask my students, I might have learned what now seems self-evident about the rhetoric of my commentary:

  1. there are limits to the amount of commentary to which one can productively attend, particularly when that commentary responds to prose in which one has bared his or her intellect;
  2. when comments about sentence-level correctness outnumbered comments dealing with matters of substance, my students usually assumed that the aim of essay assignments was to insure sentence-level correctness;
  3. correcting their errors led my students to believe that I was to serve as their editor (when they revised)—and, if they did precisely what I asked them to do, they should receive As;
  4. much of my marking, because it was not explicit in pointing to the difficulty I perceived, could be read as “thats not the way I (the instructor) would have written it.”

This last item I hope the staff of the TRC will let me elaborate upon in a future issue of the Newsletter. For now, I'd like to make public my own scheme for commenting upon student essays, a scheme that addresses the first three (mis)conceptions noted above and allows me to comment on student papers quickly and fruitfully.

So that my students are not alarmed or do not feel cheated by my truncated commentary, I go to considerable pains to explain to them on the syllabus that my marking will be somewhat different from what they are used to. In order to frontload the grading process and avoid writing the same commentary repeatedly, I provide them with a skeletal grading scale with their assignment (this is also available on the Writing Program Web page via this link); in some instances, when I have the class time to do it, I will grade a paper with their help on an overhead projector. This essay is usually a B- (makes interesting mistakes, doesnt inspire envy or ridicule from most of the class) paper I have written in the persona of one of their classmates. The Writing Program will write this type of paper for you, too. These ploys articulate my standards before the essay is due, so my commentary tends to be less general and less frequently dedicated to justifying grades as opposed to “teaching in the margins.”

There are some permutations to this part of the scheme. Sometimes, after I have graded and marked them, I will duplicate my students papers, having hidden names and Social Security numbers, and leave them in Writing Tutorial Services (WTS) so that my students may read my commentary on everyones paper. This has the effect of, once again, articulating my standards—a student with a poor grade can use her peers real-life papers as models for future efforts—and it keeps me honest, since I know that my grading is now made public. And, of course, students curious about my grading are lured into WTS.

So much for matters of content, but what about expression, what about error? Faculty readers, as a Writing Program survey of about five years ago reveals, are particularly bothered by grammatical/mechanical errors. One could go through student papers correcting those errors or offering a grammar lesson (“Jim, avoid dangling elliptical adverbial clauses!”), but, as I hope I've indicated, students are eager to exploit me as their editor if they are to revise, and relatively few students, though they may be pretty fair speakers and writers of their native language, will know how to take my advice about mystifying modifiers.

As an alternative to editing papers or dispensing grammatical advice, I have turned to minimal marking, which Alan Kalish wrote about in an earlier TRC Newsletter. When I encounter an error that wanders outside my comfort zone, I merely put a small X in the margin; when I encounter a sentence that confuses me or whose syntax has been twisted, I put a wavy line under it; when I encounter a sentence that seems to me to be very well written or makes an excellent point, I put two straight lines under it. The bottom line here is that my students prose seems to improve in a gratifying way when they revise papers that have been marked in this fashion. I find myself spending less time marking errors and more time dealing with the real business of the class.

Minimal marking—handwritten—is not the kind of thing that shows up well on the Web. Nevertheless, for those who are properly equipped, heres a link to a pdf file (which you can view or print with Acrobat Reader) that incorporates most of the techniques mentioned above, showing how Ive marked a paper written in answer to a question much like “To what dramatic uses does Shakespeare put the supernatural in Richard III and A Midsummer Night’s Dream?” You will notice that I have not felt obliged to mark every error or infelicity.

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