Responding to Student Writing

Last but not least, Outcome O:

As I noted in the previous post, most people outside of composition and rhetoric think that the purpose of a writing course is to eliminate all grammatical errors and usage problems so that students don’t inflict them on faculty in upper-division courses, other disciplines, and later, on employers. They also tend to think that these are problems that should have been addressed in high school, so college-level writing courses are by definition “remedial.” As you can see from the first 14 outcomes, there is a lot more to an FYC course than grammar instruction.

Perhaps a more important problem is that students often agree. They think that the goal is always to produce an error-free text. When students come to the writing center, the first thing they want is to have the tutor “fix” all of the errors. The tutor has to be very persuasive to get the students even to consider more global revisions.

However, different rhetorical situations require different styles, genres, and strategies. As the cognitive load increases, especially when learning new concepts and vocabulary, the likelihood of linguistic error also increases. Focusing exclusively on error blocks learning and growth. Error is a fact of life. We can’t ignore it because it has rhetorical consequences, but we can’t beat it to death until it goes away before moving on to other concerns. If we do that, we will stay on square one forever. So, how do we balance all of these concerns in responding to student writing?

Steps in a Response

The first step is to design a good assignment. I will discuss that in more detail in a subsequent post. For now, let’s just say that it is important to make it clear what the student is supposed to do and how they will be evaluated.

What comes naturally to most instructors is to read and mark errors as they go. This might work for a fluent writer, but for most students it results in a heavily marked up paper that discourages the student and doesn’t offer a coherent plan for revision or improvement. It may seem like the most efficient way, but in reality it is not. It is best to skim the paper quickly first to see what you’ve got. Then think about the following steps:

  1. Does the introductory material effectively guide the reader in anticipating the topic and purpose of the paper? Does the paper fulfill those expectations? If necessary, comment on possible improvements.
  2. Is the style of the paper appropriate to the audience and purpose? Are sentences readable and clear? Are word choices appropriate? Identify particular instances where sentence structure or word choice could be improved. This may include punctuation marking sentence boundaries or other punctuation problems.
  3. Is there a pattern of error in a particular feature of the grammatical system, such as subject/verb agreement, the tense system, or pronoun reference? If there are many errors in many systems, don’t mark all of them. Focus attention on a specific problem for the writer to work on.
  4. Finally, is the paper an effective response to the assignment? Does it do the task? Does it demonstrate the required thinking, even if there are grammatical errors or other problems? Give comments that reflect the extent to which the paper is successful in this regard and suggestions for improvement, if needed. These comments may appear at the end of the paper, but your impressions begin forming upon your initial skim of the paper.


I am a fan of rubrics for responding to writing because they show the student what the criteria are and they keep the instructor on track too. Critics of rubrics argue that they are too restrictive and punish creative or innovative responses. I find that if I receive a superior response that does not fit my rubric for that assignment, I can find a way to reward it anyway. I will discuss rubric design in a subsequent post.

Balancing Praise and Critique

It is easy to make lots of negative comments on student papers without giving them any praise. We want our criticism to be seen as constructive and we want our students to feel like they can improve. While there are students who think that they are better writers than they really are, often because they have gotten praise for using a lot of big words that don’t really mean what they think they mean, most students have already been convinced that they are “bad writers.” We want to convince them otherwise. In fact, that may be the most important unwritten learning outcome of the whole composition program.

The Madness of Herds

There are indications that the policies that my campus was promoting regarding offering both online and face-to-face instruction simultaneously are going to be mitigated. Our department had a very interesting video meeting through Zoom in which it was clear that we were all in agreement. After the meeting, one of our members crafted the following statement:

The Department of English and Modern Languages (EML) holds that pedagogy rests in the hands of teachers. We collectively do not subscribe to the “banking concept of education,” where content is deposited into the minds of students through strict lecture (and recording). This is not a model for humanities instruction. To that end, faculty are empowered to make pedagogical decisions that match their subject matter to students’ needs while maintaining consistent instruction through the end of the semester. Under pandemic conditions, this will likely mean primary virtual instruction. Faculty will make reasonable accommodations to help students succeed when access and resources are restricted or unavailable.

I think that most faculty on campus would agree with this statement. The union has pushed back strongly. I think that we will be teaching fully online courses.

However, I think that higher education will be forever changed by this crisis. We are all being forced to think, teach and learn in new ways.

Today I went to a supermarket to buy milk and ice cream. I had been to the same store three days before. At that time, although toilet paper and bottled water were in short supply and hand sanitizer was not to be found, everything else was normal. But today, the store was tremendously crowded. There were no shopping carts in front of the store. Pasta, flour, canned soups, milk, and many other items were sold out. I know that in many countries it is not unusual to see bare shelves in a market, but I have never seen this in California before. I was told by someone that all the local stores were the same. Suddenly, everyone was behaving as if civilization were ending.

I don’t think civilization is ending. That might come later if we don’t do something about climate change. But people are suddenly very insecure. And somehow they all become insecure in the same way all at once. It is very strange.

However, strange as this behavior is, humans are also brilliantly adaptable. We will get through this.

Teaching (in Grammar B)

Where’s my roll sheet?
sleep oh sleep
Most of them are here.
didyoudo the reading the writing the reading
Hector? Oh there you are.
werewe supposed to
Does this work?
idk idk
OK, let’s get started.
omg quiz
no quiz no quiz
richard textingme
ohoh sisterphone
howmany pages whendo
whatdid itsay
idk idk
wesay this
wesay this
howmany pages whendo

See previous post for info on Grammar B.

In Memoriam: Jim Garrett

Yesterday I went to a memorial service for my friend Jim Garrett, whom I first met back in 1991, when I was setting up a new writing center at Cal State L.A. Jim was a computer programmer who had decided to study literature. He had enrolled in the M.A. program and the English Department had just instituted a requirement that new Teaching Assistants had to work in the writing center for one quarter before teaching. The center was brand new and I had just ordered 10 Apple Macintosh SE-30s and 10 IBM PCs for student use. I was a DOS PC person, but the SE-30s were delivered first. When Jim walked in, he found me puzzling over how to set up the unfamiliar Macs. He introduced himself and immediately began unboxing computers, setting them up, and teaching me how to use them.

Our friendship began at that moment. He was technically my employee at that point, but I was already learning from him. A few months later he found me having no luck trying to figure out how to create a student-tracking database in Dbase. He offered to write a program for me. When he brought the first version in, he sat for an hour watching the staff at the front desk use it. Then he told me, “They don’t use it the way I thought they would. I have to redesign it.” For most programmers, that would be a training issue, but not for Jim. He wanted it to work the way the staff worked. Eventually, that program not only tracked students, but scheduled tutors, did payroll, and generated dozens of reports. We used it for more than a decade.

All of this was typical of Jim. When he saw someone trying to solve a problem, he pitched in. And he brought immense problem-solving skill and considerable knowledge to every scenario. As near as I could tell, he was interested in everything. He had the problem-solving skill of an engineer and the soul of a poet. He could be practical, mathematical, theoretical, and whimsical, sometimes in the same moment. If he didn’t know how to do something, he would learn. If you asked him how to do something, he would more than likely do it for you.

Jim was a mathematically thinking computer programmer who became a Wordsworth scholar. For him, there was no contradiction in that. His thought was not easy to compartmentalize. If you thought you had exhausted the possibilities of something, Jim was sure to have a different take, a new perspective, a useful insight.

All this problem-solving kept Jim very busy, especially when he became chair of the English Department at Cal State L.A., a place with a tremendous number of problems to solve, many of which were off-the-charts intractable and full of Catch 22 traps. Jim continued to act as if data and well-founded arguments would ameliorate things in the long run. He kept trying even when his own particularly rational, genius-inflected approach did not win the day. Though Jim’s approach was always rational and straightforward, he understood human foibles, allowed for them, and took every person he met seriously.

No matter how busy Jim was, he always made time for family and friends. Whatever conversation you started with him, he was always right there. He never seemed to be bored, distracted, or to deflect any concern. He listened carefully, and always seemed to know something about the topic. Whenever I met Jim, no matter how things were going for me, I always smiled. Part of it was his smile, but part of it was simply his stance toward the world. You felt that things were going to be ok.

I considered Jim to be one of my best friends, but at the memorial service I realized that Jim had a huge number of people who considered him a best friend. He always made whoever he was talking with feel special.  Jim was one of those people who make you think that maybe the human race is not so bad after all. I realize now that there are certain kinds of problems that make me think, “I’ll ask Jim about this. He is sure to have some insight.” I still have those questions, but now I can’t ask Jim. We will all miss him so much.

Teaching Rhetoric in a Post-Truth Society

As English teachers, part of our job is to teach students to evaluate sources and arguments, separate fact from opinion, and recognize rhetorical strategies when they are employed to deceive the audience or obscure the truth. What are we to tell our students when fake news and unsupported accusations influence an election? How can we respond to a spokesperson for a president elect who says the following:

“One thing that’s been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts. They’re not really facts,” Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes said on “The Diane Rehm Show” on NPR. “It’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”

This sentiment is not new. Ron Suskind of the New York Times published a now famous quote in an article about the George W. Bush administration:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

The “aide” is believed to be Karl Rove.

Comedian and Late Night host Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” for this phenomenon. A statement has “truthiness” if it feels true because it supports the individual’s worldview. We are all susceptible to this.

In 1984, as O’Brien tortures Winston, he argues that there is no world outside of the human mind, so that the Party can control reality in the same way that he can make Winston see five fingers when there are only four. This is “Believing is seeing” rather than “Seeing is believing,” as we would normally say. Winston’s job in Oceania, before he is arrested, is to rewrite news articles and historical documents to reflect Big Brother’s ever changing positions. Big Brother controls the media, controls history, and controls the mind. This is where “post-truth” leads in Orwell’s fictional world. And in our world, surveillance is deeper and more pervasive than in the novel.

In addition to fake news, much of the discourse of the election was conducted in memes–images combined with short pithy texts to make political points. Memes are inherently unstable and open to various interpretations. For example, say I take an image of Darth Vader and combine it with the text “We hold these Truths . . . .” Those words connect Darth Vader to the Declaration of Independence, which says, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Is Lord Vader holding these Truths hostage? Or are the words, and the rest of the text they imply, more powerful than Vader and all he represents? Is the meme a sarcastic assertion of authoritarian power or an argument that these self-evident rights are more powerful than tyranny? Different readers will see different meanings. Yet the meme will circulate, making contradictory arguments wherever it goes.

Similarly, say I combine a picture of Donald Trump with the text, “A Hoax Made in China.” Does that encapsulate Trump’s position on climate change? Or does it imply that Trump is a Manchurian Candidate?

Because memes make up such a big part of internet communication these days, unpacking the arguments and the references in memes is an important skill for students to master. Students can also create memes. One of my graduate students created this meme that updates a phrase from the Declaration of Independence a bit.


So what do we do? A number of things:

Old Stuff:

  • Continue to teach argumentation, including logical fallacies
  • Teach fact-finding, fact-checking, and journalistic principles (Don’t give up on facts!)
  • Teach citation, evaluation, and documentation of sources
  • Teach rhetoric including audience, purpose, and the three appeals (ethos, logos, pathos)

New Stuff:

  • Teach meme analysis and meme creation (Memes are short-form, multi-modal arguments)
  • Expand ethos to include Kenneth Burke’s concept of “identification” (see below)
  • Expand pathos to include the psychological concept of “desire” (see below)

Teaching Identification

In A Rhetoric of Motives Burke substitutes the word “identification” for the traditional term “persuasion.” He says,

All told, persuasion ranges from the bluntest quest of advantage, as in sales promotion or propaganda, through courtship, social etiquette, education, and the sermon, to a “pure” form that delights in the process of appeal for itself alone, without ulterior purpose. And identification ranges from the politician who, addressing an audience of farmers, says, “I was a farm boy myself,” through the mysteries of social status, to the mystic’s devout identification with the source of all being. (xiv)

Burke writes the book “for tolerance and contemplation” in the aftermath of World War II and the defeat of fascism in Europe and Asia. He defines identification as follows:

A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so. (20)

And further on

In being identified with B, A is “substantially one” with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another. (21)

Burke argues that his book “deals with the possibilities of classification in its partisan aspects; it considers the ways in which individuals are at odds with one another, or become identified with groups more or less at odds with one another.” According to Burke, “identification is compensatory to division,” and “the most tragically ironic of all divisions” is war, which Burke calls “a disease of cooperation” because of the many cooperative acts that go into a single act of destruction (22).

For students, this perspective leads to a number of useful questions:

  • What persons and what groups do I identify with and why?
  • Who does this writer identify with? What strategies is he or she using to persuade me to join?
  • How does one group identify itself? Is it in opposition to another group?
  • What are the identifying words and symbols of this group?

Teaching about Desire

The appeal to pathos is an appeal to the emotions. Fear and hate are powerful emotions that can be used by a speaker to persuade an audience to take actions that they would not take through logic. Compassion is another emotion that can be triggered by an image of a starving baby or a cute puppy. Most students are familiar with this sort of appeal. However, a desire is perhaps an even stronger appeal. We want something–a new car, a new guitar, new shoes, a prestigious award, a high position–because of how it makes us appear to others. We are not really pleasing ourselves, but pleasing the other, or in many cases, as Lacan says “the big Other,” the culture, the society, the media, etc. We act according to the desire of the other.

In my seminar this quarter (fall 2016) we read Changing the Subject in English Class: Discourse and the Constructions of Desire by Marshall W. Alcorn Jr. Alcorn articulates a composition course based on Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. He says, “My central argument is that the rhetoric of discourse is libidinal” (26). He argues that some discourses are libidinal for us, eliciting strong attention and response, while others, perhaps a university math course, are “inert representations that we handle like packages.” Alcorn argues, citing Freud, that we are much more moved by libidinal attachments and by the loss of such attachments than by rational discourse. In fact, to sever such an attachment, we must go through a period of mourning.

What does he mean by “libidinal”? Once I was teaching a piece by the feminist Kate Millet, “Manifesto for a Feminist Revolution,” in which she argued, very logically, that all relations between men and women are political, and that marriage is just another form of prostitution. A male student from Texas came up to me after class and said “My brain can understand her arguments, but my upbringing and my heart say that she is wrong.” This student has concisely articulated the problem. When we argue against family beliefs and the heart, we are going to meet resistance, whether we are mere teachers, Kate Millet, or Hillary Clinton.

Alcorn says

An ideal democracy requires that people be able to recognize their own desires and the desires of others. In both cases, desire must circulate freely within and among people. Oppression results whenever desires are cut off from expression and circulation. (66-67)

In the conclusion he argues that

The primary purpose for a composition course, even one that seeks political change, is not simply to teach political truths. Rather than promoting particular political beliefs, we must explore how desire supports beliefs and how the ability to be fully responsive to the ideas and real feelings of others requires slow adjustments in bodily feeling. . . . We do not need to attack the resistance we may find in our students (or ourselves); we need only review those examples that show how characteristic it is for people to dismiss beliefs that challenge their own worldviews. (127-28)

Both identifications and desires are powerful irrational forces that must be taken into account. They cannot be ignored or denied in teaching or in political discourse. No human is above them. I think this explains a lot about what just happened in the election, and what we must do to prepare our students for the world to come.