English instructors at all levels of education, as well as the professional organizations that set our pedagogical standards, must take a hard look at our beliefs and practices about responding to students’ writing. In the face of unabated increases in the number of students that instructors teach each semester as determined by state boards and institutional administrators, the only possible, effective reaction by part-time and full-time faculty alike is to modify how we define our job of responding to students’ writing. Below are some of the questions we must ask, followed by the status quo and alternative answers.
How important is individualized feedback on students’ writing?
The CCCC’s position statement Principles for the Postsecondary Teaching of Writing says: Writers grow through supportive, specific feedback from experienced postsecondary instructors who have experience teaching writing at the college level and who provide responses tailored to the specific writing project and to the individual writer’s needs. Instructors need to be provided time, space and tools to facilitate effective feedback to students. In practice, this means that writers learn that feedback can be used to inform writing development over time.
In practice, most instructors and the graduate faculty who train them have interpreted this– the 4Cs’ sixth of twelve “Principles of Sound Writing Instruction”– to mean that instructors should read students’ drafts, mark them up, write brief comments in the margins, and write a multi-sentenced note to the writer explaining what the writer has done well (or what the paper does well) and what needs to be improved in revisions. Nonetheless, I contend that this conventional interpretation works against other best practices.
In particular, writing feedback on each and every draft models for students the diametrical opposite of Principle 1, which is: To be rhetorically sensitive, good writers must be flexible. They should be able to pursue their purposes by consciously adapting their writing both to the contexts in which it will be read and to the expectations, knowledge, experiences, values, and beliefs of their readers. They also must understand how to take advantage of the opportunities with which they are presented and to address the constraints they encounter as they write. In practice, this means that writers learn to identify what is possible and not possible in diverse writing situations.
As a writing situation itself, instructors’ feedback is bound to what the 4Cs’ statement calls “the rhetorical nature of writing.” When, if, and how instructors write feedback on a student’s paper should, therefore, consider the contexts in which it will be read and the student’s expectations, knowledge, experiences, values, and beliefs. In my experience, many students read instructors’ written comments in a hurry or not at all; often, students who do read instructors’ comments do not understand them; naturally, many students use their existing beliefs about themselves as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ writers to interpret instructors’ comments. For these reasons, it seems impossible to actually “tailor” written feedback “to an individual writer’s needs.” Instructors’ written feedback can only ever respond, in a generalized way, to what a piece of writing, not a writer, needs. That’s why instructors’ written feedback is so often confused– by instructors and students alike– with editing, which is a very different practice from teaching writing.
In sum, sound writing instruction does not include writing on students’ drafts. English instructors should only ever communicate about writing in situations in which they have a chance of gauging students’ understanding of their feedback, i.e., in one-to-one conferences, in group conferences, or, more practically, in class discussions. Moreover, as experts of rhetorical awareness, we “must understand the constraints [we] encounter as [we] write” and “identify what is possible and not possible” when giving students feedback.
How much time should instructors spend reading and responding to each student’s writing?
In Inside Higher Ed’s article about the change to Arizona State University’s teaching load for writing instructors from four to five classes per semester, UC-Davis Professor Margaret Ferguson, former President of the Modern Language Association (MLA), is quoted as commenting on the increase: “If you teach 125 students per semester, every time you give a writing assignment, you’re looking at over 30 hours a week for just that single assignment, even if you devote only 15 minutes to each paper.” Ferguson’s point is that no instructor can possibly devote 30 hours a week to giving feedback on students’ writing outside of class. In case the math isn’t clear, let me explain, using my own workload as an example.
A full-time, tenure-track position on the English faculty at Georgia State University, Perimeter College requires teaching four classes one semester and five classes the other during the regular academic year. Seniority determines specific teaching assignments, but all full-time faculty may sign up to teach one or two sophomore-level literature courses (capped at 30 students each) per semester. The other two or three classes that most English faculty teach each semester are English Composition I and/or English Composition II (capped at 24 students each). This means we might teach as many as 132 students per semester, but that depends on enrollment; the total number of students whom I have taught during one semester has actually been 90-115.
No matter how many students I am teaching, some of the hours of my job are fixed. During a five-class semester, I am in the classroom teaching 12.5 hours/week. I am required to hold 10 hours/week of “Advising and Tutorial Hours” (aka office hours), during which time any student may drop in to speak about assignments. Sound writing instruction requires: assigning and discussing reading; creating and tweaking assignment instructions; using technology; and other planning. Therefore, the prep time for my classes (which usually include three different courses) is about 9 hours/week (3 hours/week per course). If my work week is truly 40 hours, then that leaves me 8.5 hours/week for grading students’ assignments, service (committee work and advising student clubs), professional activities (researching, writing, and presenting), record-keeping, and reading and responding to emails. In case you haven’t guessed, the last list of tasks requires many more than 8.5 hours/week. Thus my work week is never only 40 hours.
This should make clear that the conventional method of giving students feedback on their writing– that is, writing responses to all students’ drafts– is impossible for instructors with teaching loads of five classes per semester. This leads me to conclude that, if such instructors are to give students “supportive, specific feedback” on their writing at all, then they must give it in the classroom or during their office hours. It’s true, then, that developing an alternative system for helping students improve their writing is a matter of necessity. Nonetheless, since necessity is the mother of invention, then I argue for turning this situation to our advantage by developing sound ways of sparing everyone from hours spent writing comments on students’ drafts.