How I Learned to Love Bad Student Papers

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.

Using Pros and Cons

I recently had an interesting and productive discussion on Twitter with some of my colleagues about the use of, and since I’ve been a user for about ten years now, the discussion prompted me to think again about my use of this educational technology and to make explicit, at least to myself, my reasons for using it.

I also think this discussion is important to higher education in general in that is one of many vendors associated with the higher education industry, and it’s a significant one. As of the time of this writing, it boasts being used by 15,000 educational institutions and thirty million students on the front page of its website., like many other vendors, provides products or services designed to support higher education in a number of ways (not all are directly related to instruction), and they all work on a for-profit model.

Since higher education is for the most part non-profit, sometimes these partnerships can be uneasy, sometimes exploitative, sometimes at cross-purposes for student service, but also sometimes beneficial to varying degrees. Some vendors provide excellent products. So if a university chooses to use a vendor to serve its students in any way, it needs to pay close attention to its own reasons for doing so, to the quality of that service, and to how much reliance on this vendor actually benefits students and instructors.

First, it helps to know how works. is a web-based “student paper processing service” that runs externally to a college or university website. Colleges or universities who use this service have to contact the service to receive a customized price quote, so there aren’t any solid figures on how much the service costs. Financial Times, however, estimated in 2012 that it costs about $2.00 per student per year. Other articles have since indicated significant price increases over the last couple of years, so let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that the service now typically costs $4.00 per student per year. I don’t know how much it costs my own institution, and I suspect institutions sign non-disclosure agreements about their specific costs, so if I did know its actual cost I probably wouldn’t be allowed to report it. can now be integrated with learning management systems (LMS) such as Moodle so that it will appear to be fully integrated into the online component of any student’s course. Despite that appearance, however, it’s still an off-site service. When it is fully integrated into an LMS, students just click on a link and upload their papers. When it is used off-site, instructors have to log in to the service, create a course, create a course-specific password, and then either share that password with their students or upload a list of student email addresses to enroll students in their specific course.

What happens once a student’s paper is uploaded? The instructor can use the service for a number of purposes:

  1. Plagiarism detection. was originally created for this purpose. When a student’s paper is uploaded to the website, the student’s paper is saved in a repository with other student papers and compared to all other student papers in that repository. It is also compared to journals, periodicals, publications, and to readily accessible material on the internet.
    1. What does it do when it makes this comparison? It generates an “Originality Report” score in the form of a percentage of material on the student’s paper that matches other sources. Matching text is highlighted in different colors by source. Links back to the original sources are also provided.
    2. What it does not do: tell instructors if the student plagiarized. Remember, we are allowed to quote other people’s works. How we signal those quotations determines whether or not we’re plagiarizing, so a match by itself is not plagiarism. Determinations about plagiarism are always made by the instructor, not the service
    3. Is plagiarism checking optional? Yes. It’s possible to use the service and opt out of storing student papers, and to opt out of checking them against any specific type of source (such as the repository of student papers, the internet, and publications).
    4. Instructors can also ask the service to ignore small matches, such as three words or fewer, and they can set the number. I always ask it to do this.
    5. Instructors can also ask the service to ignore the paper’s bibliography, which will always come up with matches when many students are writing about the same material from the same texts. I set this up too.
      1. How does this part of the service work? Spotty, but not bad overall. There are problems with false or irrelevant matches fairly regularly. These can be caused by the use of block quotes, as the service seems to look for quotation marks to exclude matches, by the use of long titles (more than three words), and sometimes even by the student’s own header information. If a student puts an incorrect space between a quotation mark and quoted material, the quotation might be read as a match. Overall, it’s very important that the instructor not just read the originality report score, but actually read the student paper before making a determination about plagiarism.
      2. It also provides the unexpected benefit of telling instructors how much of the student’s paper is quoted, which can be useful pedagogically as well.
  2. Providing feedback on student papers. This is the reason why I use the service, which can perform the following tasks. Take note, though, that some of these services are only available through the external website, not the LMS embedded version:
    1. Allow instructors to provide recorded voice comments.
    2. Allow instructors to provide their own custom comments directly on the student paper in the form of little bubbles. Students mouse over the bubbles to see instructor comments.
    3. Allow instructors to pre-set paper comments and drag and drop them onto the student’s paper. The service comes with three or four dozen preset comments, and instructors can create their own as well.
    4. Allow instructors to set up any number of rubrics and score and grade the paper using this rubric.
    5. Link instructor comments to rubric measures. When you do this, the rubric will show the number of instructor comments linked to each rubric point.
    6. Allow instructors to provide long text feedback in a sidebar.
    7. Allow instructors to set up peer review assignments — students submitting a peer reviewed assignment will have their paper emailed to two peers, have two of their peers’ papers emailed to them, and they will be able to leave comments on their peers’ papers just like their instructor.
    8. Keep the student grade book.
    9. Keep a course blog.
    10. Allow access for teaching assistants to grade papers.
    11. Built-in grammar checker. Every time I’ve used it, it’s been awful, but it’s still there. I quit using it because I spent more time eliminating bad comments than adding good ones on my own.
    12. Download feedback and originality reports in the form of .pdf files.
  3. What are the drawbacks to this service? Here’s where we get into the details of my Twitter discussion. Some of these points have also been raised in other discussions of around the web.
    1. The service creates the impression that students aren’t to be trusted.
      1. This concern is legitimate, but I think it varies by institution. I have seen places where high premiums were placed on student course evaluations, and as a result many instructors got into the habit of looking the other way at plagiarism. These very dysfunctional institutions worked on an implicit agreement between students and teachers in which teachers looked the other way at cheating and students gave these teachers stellar course evaluations in return (a situation which by itself justifies the tenure system, as this institution did not have tenure). Some students at this institution plagiarized on every paper and then just rewrote it when they got caught — which means that since they were only made to do the work initially assigned, they always came out “ahead” by plagiarizing in the sense of getting a grade for a course without doing any real work. This is an environment devoted to breeding criminals, and its students are stealing from themselves with the institution’s help.
      2. But what about better institutions? Even there, some students will plagiarize, but I think instructor dialog with students about the service is very important. I really do use it primarily for grading. I’m teaching a 5000/400 level English course right now in which I can honestly say I have no fear of a single student plagiarizing: I trust each one, personally, that much. But I still use the service because of all of its feedback functions, and I tried to let my students know that. I prefer it to Google docs or directly emailed Word files.
      3. For the record, I’ve taught 50-100 students per semester since I started using the service in 2006, and I never catch more than three to five students plagiarizing across all of my classes. Most students aren’t plagiarizing, and use of the service may discourage it.
      4. What about purchased papers? The people selling “custom written” papers aren’t particularly honest themselves, so usually do not sell clean product to their customers. These will show up with massive amounts of patchwriting, or copying and pasting numerous sources, without attribution, into a single paper. The service will often catch these papers.
    2. The service makes instructors grade to the comments. This concern is about instructors only looking for items defined by pre-written comments rather than truly providing individualized feedback based on student need. I think this concern is 100% legitimate, and anyone who chooses to use the service needs to watch out for letting the service take over his or her feedback on student papers. Now that I’ve had this idea planted, I’m going to watch myself grade.
    3. The service exploits students. The argument here is that the service has value only because students are contributing papers to it, and then the service charges students to use it (through their institutions, of course — once the institution pays for a subscription, instructors and students use it for no additional charge).
      1. Defining “exploitation” as uncompensated or under-compensated labor, I think this argument doesn’t quite work for the following reasons:
        1. Student papers typically have no economic value apart from the service except to be sold to other students (so a dishonest one). The service itself therefore creates the economic value of student papers for the service, so it’s hard to say that students are being exploited.
        2. If a student’s paper does have monetary value (e.g., can be sold for payment by the student for publication), the service does not prevent students from realizing that value. doesn’t own student work. Publish away. Get rich.
        3. The service provides value to student users in the form of a permanent, informal copyright on their work: once a student uploads a paper to the service from a account linked to their own email address, the student’s work is protected as their own. I uploaded my dissertation to for this very reason.
        4. Uploading student papers to’s repository is optional, as is plagiarism detection, therefore there’s no necessary link between using the service and uploading a student’s paper to the repository.
        5. The service provides many useful tools apart from plagiarism detection.
        6. The service provides a service in exchange for pay, so it isn’t exploiting students. If we reject this argument, we also have to affirm that teachers are exploiting students by taking a salary for their work. Since everyone deserves to be paid for their work, this service is non-exploitative.
        7. The service only costs students a very small amount: maybe $2.00 to $4.00 a year. If we’re really worried about student exploitation, maybe we should look at sports programs instead.
        8. Students don’t have a choice about use of the service. Yeah…so? They don’t have a choice about writing papers, getting graded, showing up for class, etc. What matters is whether or not these required activities benefit the student. What matters most of all is explaining to students the benefits of required activities. All of them.
        9. You might find it interesting that there have been lawsuits against making a similar argument based on copyright infringement. Two. Both of these lawsuits failed.

That’s my overview of the service. I intend to keep using it for many of the reasons described above. But I want to emphasize — we should use it deliberately, carefully, and consciously. It is not perfect. The bottom line is that is just a computer system, and computer systems don’t know how to read. They don’t understand meaning or context. Only instructors can do that. As a result, it’s a supplement to an instructor’s work and care with student papers, not a replacement for instructor care and attention.

Any comments? I’d love to hear from you.

The Five Most Important Things I Tell My Students

Since I’m summer teaching, I have just finished up one semester, entered grades, sat through a graduation, and am now starting up another semester. And just for the record, no, there wasn’t a one-week break between the spring and summer semesters. There wasn’t even a one-day break. There was, in fact, a one-day overlap. The summer semester started Monday, and spring grades were due the next day, on Tuesday.

Since the teaching cycle of one semester overlapped the teaching cycle of another, I’ve had an unusual opportunity to think carefully about the five most important things that I can tell my students about their college classes, especially with me. Something about a simultaneous beginning and ending brought these to mind. These five most important things are even more important than the knowledge that my students might gain in any of my classes, because they affect their relationship to their knowledge.

So here they are, in short order:

1. I’m not your boss.
2. You’re not my boss.
3. I never, ever grade you. I grade your work.
4. Doing the reading matters.
5. Writing well matters.

And now for the details.

1. I’m not your boss. You’re not working for me. Nothing that you do benefits me, personally, in any way, at least in terms of the content and structure of the class. I do manage to learn from my students most semesters, but that’s another matter.

When you come to class, you’re not doing me a favor, and when you complete assignments, you’re not putting out a product that I can sell at a profit. Universities are not widget factories, even though there are very powerful people who want to turn them into just that. Everything that you do — every reading, every paper, everything — is for your own benefit. When you participate in a class, you do it for your own benefit, and when you don’t, you don’t to your own detriment.

So when you don’t do reading, or don’t do an assignment, or don’t study for a quiz or exam, you’re not ripping me off somehow. You’re stealing from yourself. You’re paying for an education that you’re denying yourself. That is your choice, and I will allow you to make it, but you need to understand that you are the one making that choice.

In fact, when you don’t turn in your papers, that means I have fewer papers to grade. My life would be much, much easier if I had no papers to grade at all. But that wouldn’t serve you very well, even though I know you feel exactly the same way.

So the truth is that the teachers who don’t assign work and don’t hold your work to meaningful standards are doing themselves a favor at your expense. The teachers who assign work and expect you to do your work well are doing you a favor at their own expense. That’s the truth.

2. You’re not my boss. Everything that I do is for your benefit, so in that sense I am working for you. But most of you don’t understand the benefit of the study of this material, or the benefit of its structure, or the benefit of the assignments, in my experience. So while I’m not your boss, I’m still running the class, setting the standards, and guiding your instruction. I’m not your boss, but I am in charge of the class. What you need to understand, though, is that even that is for your benefit. I’m in charge of the class because I’m educated in this field, and I’m running the class in order to benefit you.

If you don’t think being educated makes a difference, why are you in this class?

If it does, then pay attention and listen to your teachers. The reputation backing your diploma is no better than the educational credentials and scholarly attainments of the faculty members whose teaching is represented by that diploma. Saying bad things about your college teachers, then, is massively stupid, as it undermines the credibility of the education that you paid for, and especially because they are there working for you, not you for them.

3. I never, ever, grade you. I grade your work. Do you see the difference? I’m not grading your abilities, your character, your mind, or your intelligence. You are not an A, B, C, or D student. You just happened to earn one of those grades on an assignment. When I assign a grade to your papers, I am grading your performance on a single assignment. Your final grade in the class is the cumulative average of your performance on a bunch of individual assignments. That’s all.

You know if you really spent a week writing that paper or if you did it three hours before it was due. You know if you just couldn’t wrap your head around the material this time (that’s okay). You know if you did your level best and still just got a C.

What does the grade mean, then? If you really tried, it just represents your development in this one area at this one particular point in your life. Think of your grade, if you really worked, as a marker of your progress so far and as an indicator of where you need to go. The rubrics I provide you articulate where you need to go.

So no… I never give you a grade either. You earn your grades, at least in my classes. You can see the grade book all semester. Straight points earned vs. points possible. I can’t think of a single student that I didn’t like last semester, but how much I like or dislike you has nothing to do with your grade in class.

4. Doing the reading matters. Where I come from there are two types of people: the people who do the reading and the people who work for them. It’s not always that way in the business world, but in places run intelligently, that’s how it is. That’s also the case in your humanities and science classes. Your education is exactly equivalent to the amount of reading that you’ve finished and comprehended. Every time you read, especially difficult material, you work out your mind. Every difficult book that you finish raises the bar for what constitutes a difficult book. Doing the reading is the single best favor that you can do for yourself. Sometimes your most seemingly useless reading — philosophy, poetry, literature, analysis of humanities artifacts — is the best for your mind because it works out your mind the most.

But let me tell you, reading literature is never useless. When you read a literary work, you’re confronting a representation of the behaviors of motivated individuals expressed through language. The literary work itself doesn’t tell you what that means. You have to figure it out from the behaviors represented and the words used. That’s just how it is in real life. Disciplines like psychology and sociology provide analytical tools for interpreting human behavior. Literature does the same while giving you an interpretable product that closely resembles the interactions of human beings in real life. Figuring out literature means figuring out people: how and why they behave like they do and what their language means.

There are very few professional fields to which this skill doesn’t apply.

5. Writing well matters. You wouldn’t show up for an interview in sweats and a t-shirt, would you? How you arrange your words is how well you dress your mind. Training your words is training your mind. Investing in writing well is a good investment, maybe even more important that the specific content of many of your classes. I’m an English teacher. I want to help you with your writing. I will be trying to help you over the course of the semester. My comments on your papers aren’t there to slap you down. They’re there, like everything else I do, to help you clarify not only your words but your thought.

That’s it. I’m on the verge of having a Jerry Maguire moment — “HELP… ME… HELP… YOU!” — so I’ll stop now. Just remember, though, that I am here to help you.

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