Wednesday, May 11, 2016

An Early Thirsty from Aware and Scared - How do composition instructors survive?


I am not a composition instructor. Ostensibly, I teach the Care and Feeding of Wombats. Be that as it may, my days overflow with the written word – discussion posts, short answer assignments, and the motherlode of composition frustration, thesis proposals and drafts.

Attempting to wade through the muck and mire represented by student writing has crushed my soul. Ironically, I returned to graduate school for my doctorate because I believed collegians would be more skilled than the high schoolers I was enduring at the time. In that setting, my supervisors kept telling me that I was not “just a wombat teacher” and I was obligated to correct student writing (and math)! Since I was doing all this cross-curricular correcting in high school, once at the college level, I thought I would – finally – be able to focus on content instead of incessant red inking of misplaced modifiers, dangling participles, mismatched subjects and verbs and myriad misspellings.  

Jesus Christ on a cracker was I wrong.

So … composition instructors (or anyone, really, in the boat with me):

Q: How do you do it? You are on the front lines of this fusillade of fudgepacking. How are you able to get through a stack of assignments without wanting to stop and cry after the first few pages?

Meanwhile, does anyone know where I can get a stamp made that reads: “I am not the one with whom to fuck”?


  1. Well, yes. If your course(s) requires written assignments, then you will have to deal with all that entails. I taught a course in Wombat Art and required a term paper. I provided specific requirements and of course encouraged students to take advantage of the writing center. I did not mark up grammar specifics... kept remarks general "run-on sentences" and kept most of my remarks to do with the subject matter.

  2. I've seen composition instructors ignore many such issues, claiming it fell on the students to correct the problems themselves. They did not. Thus, the problems for those of us who taught in other disciplines.

    I have on more than one occasion heard an undergraduate wail "But this is NOT ENGLISH CLASS!!!" when being called out for their writing errors.

    I have also been assigned to teach writing classes for those other disciplines where students out-right refused to learn the stuff you mentioned (which I learned in JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL!!!).

    In short, no one is making sure Johnny and Joanie know how to read, write, or do basic math. And they are both showing up to college (and the workforce!) completely incapable of doing the stuff our grandparents graduated high school capable of doing. Nowadays, it's a miracle when a student demonstrating basic competency even shows up ready to learn.

    - Anon y Mouse

    1. I once had a student take the complaint that my course "was not an English class" all the way to the Chancellor, trying to wiggle out of having to do a term paper. Thankfully, the chancellor told the student s/he would have to do the term paper. (The term paper was in the syllabus and discussed on the first day of class.) How the complaint made it to the Chancellor, I don't know - I suspect the student decided to start at the top.

    2. There's pretty good research suggesting that students will not learn much from having every error marked, let alone corrected. Good practice is to prioritize: get a sense of the 2 or 3 most common/recurring errors, fix one as an example, maybe mark a few more without fixing, and then point out that there are many more examples in the text.

      *If* the student takes the time to sit down and work their way through the paper, either alone or with the help of the professor or a writing center tutor (or even a friend/family member who's willing to provide similar, knowledgeable support -- *not* editing services), this practice, repeated over time, can lead to considerable reduction in technical/sentence-level errors.

      The key is that most students won't do this, whether it's a composition teacher or a subject teacher or someone else who does the initial markup/commenting. And even if somehow forced to do so in one class (perhaps because they're told that the paper will receive an F if it contains more then x technical errors*), even fewer will make a note of the problems they worked on, and apply that knowledge to the next paper(s) they write. That process, over time, would result in the sort of progress we all (composition and subject teachers alike) would like to see.

      Marking every error on every paper simply pushes teachers (composition and subject alike) further down the path to despair, and wastes their/our time, while having little to no effect on the students' writing.

      So I guess one answer to how we composition teachers survive is that we don't mark (i.e. apparently "ignore") some sentence-level errors in favor of pointing out the most common/egregious/meaning-distorting ones, and we try not to take it too personally when teachers in other disciplines try to hold us responsible for the fact that students often do, indeed, seem very resistant to learning such things. And I don't think the problem is their high school teachers, either, though it probably does result in part from the curricula and testing regimes with which high school and elementary teachers are forced to work.

      In short, it's a conundrum

      *I'm told our business school did this, with pretty good results (at least in terms of stamping out sentence-level errors), for a while. I'm not sure if they still do. Composition teachers are reluctant to adopt this tactic because we (like teachers in many other subjects who tolerate a certain level of sentence-level error) think there is more to good writing, and thinking, than sentence-level correctness.

    3. I think finding their own errors is good practice for finding their own errors, and excellent incentive for them to make fewer of those errors. They should do more of that.

      "And I don't think the problem is their high school teachers..."

      The problem is they don't want to do the fucking work. They'll bust their asses to level up on Rock Band or whatever the kids are doing these days, but being able to communicate coherent thoughts worth their readers' time to read? Screw that, let's play Rock Band.

  3. In addition to Hamster Fur Weaving, I teach composition. My management solutions are as follows:

    Profanity. "Oh, for fuck's sake, what the fuck is this shit?" is often heard emanating from my office.

    Alcohol. To quote Troy McClure, "Ahh... Sweet liquor eases the pain."

    The F3 key. Preloaded comments saved to the Building Blocks feature of MS Word make the day go faster.

    Frequent breaks. Walking away is sometimes the only answer.

  4. "How are you able to get through a stack of assignments without wanting to stop and cry after the first few pages?"

    The answer is that there is no "how", for I am not.

  5. I teach both "writing about hamsters" and "hamster morphology" in my department. Writing about hamsters is seen as pretty important in my field so that people don't start thinking vaccines cause hamster autism or that stapling cover sheets on TPS reports is the best way to manage a hamster office or (fill in your field here).

    In writing about hamsters, I get substantial improvement in writing by doing the following:

    1. I read with a highlighter in my hand and highlight all the mechanical errors. I don't fix them, but this satisfies my itch to fix. all. the. things. without taking as much of my time. I keep of list of easy-to-understand resources on the common problems students have. There's a good SlideShare on Commas: The little punctuation you can use correctly, for example. Purdue Owl covers several topics as well. Resources written for ESL are often some of the best - they use non-technical vocabulary that even freshies can understand.

    2. I write a note at the end of the substantive comments about the content saying "you received the standard deduction for mechanical errors. They are highlighted in the text. Your major issue is X. Here's a resource for you to learn about this. Your next major issue is Y. Here's a resource for you to learn about this."

    3. In that class, they come out with a writing portfolio, and I make them revise everything, so this gives them the incentive take charge of their learning in this area as first submission grades are pretty low and if you submit essentially the same paper, you get the same grade. I offer conferences with me and the writing center if they need someone to explain why a highlighted area is wrong.

    HOWEVER, in hamster morphology, getting them to transfer what they learned in writing class is a bear. Their understanding of the morphology is the goal of the class, and so it carries most of the points. If I can't understand what they are trying to say because of writing issues, I take a letter grade usually, but that's not enough motivation for many students. I still grade with a highlighter in my hand, though, because I don't seem to be able to not mark things. Clearly I have a problem.

    Also, the very worst are graduate students in terms of skills not matching the self-esteem. I design most of their assignments to be submittable for publication/presentation and refuse to submit things with mechanical errors, which helps a bit.

    If you enjoy Schadenfreude, you might like the Facebook group Gleeful Mockery of All Things Badly Written.

  6. I have not given up, but for my 10 grand a year, they get feedback on the most egregious three errors. If they make errors on stuff we worked on in class, then they just lose points off a rubric.

    You have to do this, anyway; otherwise, you'll be blinded to the higher-order concerns (what they say, organization, etc.).

    Even if I made enough money to send my own kids to the college (and sometimes, if I am lucky, colleges) at which I teach, there's only so much I can do. You too.

  7. I have not given up, but for my 10 grand a year, they get feedback on the most egregious three errors. If they make errors on stuff we worked on in class, then they just lose points off a rubric.

    You have to do this, anyway; otherwise, you'll be blinded to the higher-order concerns (what they say, organization, etc.).

    Even if I made enough money to send my own kids to the college (and sometimes, if I am lucky, colleges) at which I teach, there's only so much I can do. You too.

    1. I don't teach comp, but I deal with a lot pf papers, and I'm going to adopt this approach. Several here have mentioned similar things, and I am converted.

      I'll tell the kids, I'll help you address the 3 most egregious errors, be they organization, citation, formatting, what have you, but I won't mark every instance---that's for you to do while you revise and resubmit. And while you do that, you should fix any other errors you find, or we'll just have to rinse and repeat.

  8. I went through a phase where I had a policy that any essay with over five errors in a revised draft would automatically fail. I think it helped, but I had to fight fight fight fight so much over it.

    Cassandra nailed this, as Cassandra so often does. We cannot mark all the errors. I try to find one example of each type(I say try because I do sometimes miss a whole category in spite of best efforts) and I circle it and have a saved comment (in Word) for that type of error that I use a shortcut for. In Composition, I am also trying to teach them things like how to follow an assignment's instructions, to think critically about a text, and how to think critically about another person's thoughts about a text. The outcomes for Composition are heavy on things other than grammar, mechanics, etc. Students are supposed to enter a college level course with those skills. But they don't, in droves. And guess what? We can't fail all of them. We'd lose our jobs.

    I don't blame high school teachers, exactly. But I do blame a system that allows the difficult to teach kids to get away with doing almost NO writing in high school. It's the difficult to teach kids that I see, mostly, here at Inner City Community College, and they have not written much at all in high school or any other time in their lives.

    But your actual question was how do we not let all these things kill our souls?

    I have listened to many a composition-teaching colleague denounce the work as soul killing. I honestly have found that making a personal (but professional) connection with my students, some of them, and paying close attention to the ones who are working hard really does help. I do try to ignore the others. I shut them out of my thoughts. I steel myself before commenting on their work, and then actively force myself to stop thinking about them. During class, I reach out to them. I am (mostly) unfailingly polite and solicitous of their feeble last minute efforts. But I simply cannot spend much time worrying about them. I'd go out of my mind.


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