I read once that J.R.R. Tolkien came up with the idea for The Hobbit while grading student exams. Bent over a desk, grinding away scoring exam book after exam book, he finally came across one with a blank page at the back. He was so relieved by that short break from grading that he wrote on the blank page, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He wrote the novel The Hobbit to find out what hobbits were.
After eighteen years of teaching college English, during most of which I’ve taught at least one section of first year writing (often more), I’ve come to appreciate how Tolkien felt. Grading papers is one of the worst parts of the job, and I’ve heard that from quite a few fellow English teachers as well. I could quote from my Facebook feed right now.
It’s partly the tedium of grading paper after paper that’s performing the same task, and it’s partly that student papers are always very much early works: students seldom have the time to fully revise, some students don’t attempt to write well at all, and others just don’t seem to have been taught. After spending years in graduate school reading literature, great writing, the best writing, it’s hard to spend that much time reading writing that’s often the opposite.
But then I started listening to myself.
I’ve been telling my students for years that writing is an acquired and then developed skill, like playing a musical instrument or a sport. You can’t shoot free throws at over 60% without standing on the line and practicing shot after shot. You can’t really play guitar or the piano without hours of practice, a lot of it boring: scales. And you can’t learn to write well without writing a lot and without reading a lot. Those two skills — reading and writing — are intimately related.
In other words, I’ve started telling my students, you only learn to write well by writing badly, and by writing badly a lot. And on top of that, even though I’m years past my Ph.D. now, and even though I’ve been publishing since about 1991 (my first poems appeared in a student-run college literary journal, The Valencian), and even though I’ve been reading constantly and like crazy since I was a kid, I still write badly. Sometimes, not all the time, but still sometimes. Even just this year.
At one point I looked at a batch of student papers, some of which were remarkable (in either one direction or the other), and I told myself. . . this is them trying. This is them doing the work of becoming good writers. This is my students following my advice and writing. . . badly, or well, they were still writing. Some of them were on training wheels, some of them were riding wheelies down the street with their hands behind their heads, but they were all on the bicycle, moving forward.
So when I listened to myself, finally, I learned that I loved bad student papers.
4 thoughts on “How I Learned to Love Bad Student Papers”
Nice post, James. I am no longer teacher or grading papers, but your post reminds me of the bad essays that nonetheless contained valuable and interesting glimpses of the student’s personality or life. In fact, that is the only part of grading that I miss.
Thanks for your response. I get that. I could read in a subject for years and still have students teach me something.
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The paradox is that it is the weak students, the ones who turn in work that is by all standards deficient, are the ones who need teaching, some of it related to writing, but a lot of it related to character. There are some who have deficient backgrounds but try. There are others who work to satisfy the requirement, thus the lack of revision and rewriting, and the result is little or no growth, either in writing or in character. They are the ones who need the modeling by the teachers, constructive supervision, and personal interaction and attention. As you say, you gotta love it!
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I think I get what you’re saying, but I wouldn’t attribute the problem to character. What I see is that the highest performing students take advantage of ALL the helps almost ALL the time, and that is why they’re high performing. They also come to class, always, and do all of the work — so they benefit the most from all instruction offered. The students who perform the lowest don’t take advantage of the helps offered nearly as much, miss more class, and miss more assignments — as a result, they don’t grow as quickly.
The question is, of course, why? I don’t know that it’s a matter of laziness, or a lack of character, or a lack of discipline. I think it’s a matter of defeatism. I think a lot of students are telling themselves they just can’t, it’s too hard to try, I will never improve, I’m just not good at X, etc. That’s why I use the sports/musical instrument analogy. It really is a matter of practice. And that’s why I’ve learned to love bad student papers. That means they’re doing the work they need to do. MAYBE if they start to see incremental improvement they will start doing the rest of the work they need to do, getting the rest of the help they need, etc.
I had one graduate student whose writing was so amazingly awful I couldn’t believe she’d even graduated high school, much less college. Terrible grade on her first paper. She stepped up, worked hard, worked with me, and got an A on her last paper in the class, and other profs. noticed improvements in her writing. It can happen.