Can I Write on Your Paper? Can I? Can I?

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For this week, we have read “Responding to Student Writing” by Nancy Sommers (NCTE, 1982), and chapter three from The Digital Writing Workshop (Hicks, 2009) entitled “Conferring through Blogs, Wikis, and Collaborative Word Processors.” I’m glad to have read these two texts next to each other, because together they have a solid cover on why/how we respond to student writing and the various available mediums we have available to do that (besides the obvious face-to-face method).

Sommers focuses on the comments that we give to students, and how they tend to have preemptive control over the outcome of a student’s writing. Many times they fail to properly motivate students to make their own revisions to their writing, feeling that it’s not “what I want to say,” but “what I know my teacher wants me to say.” Because students do want that good grade, they are willing to be led by the nose to get it instead of re-visioning their work through their own volition. As a matter of power, a teacher may be actively looking for errors instead of reading for ideas so that they can feel mightier-than-thou in the writing world. Instead of establishing the teacher’s authority, though, such a practice instills a learned helplessness and resignation in the student writer and a misinformation about what higher-order concerns are. Speaking of concerns, Sommers made a distinction between grammar problems and idea/content problems, but I find that the terms “lower-order concerns” (grammar, syntax, spelling, etc.) and “higher-order concerns” (content, ideas, organization, etc.)

After I read Sommers’ article, though, I was left missing a discussion about the effectiveness of teacher-student conferences. My need was satisfied with Hicks’ chapter about collaboration! Not only does he offer ways in which teachers and use technology to offer feedback to students on writing, he also indicates a few ways in which students can collaborate with each other through peer tutoring. I love this. The teacher may still be the moderator for the class and the online collaboration, but the teacher is no longer the only point of reference for a writer. In other words, the power is distributed: the students have the opportunity to lead “writerly lives” and share their writing to find inspiration in each other. That’s important to know as they grow and develop as writers.

As for feedback, I completely identified with Sommers’ point about teachers whose comments dwell only in the reusable “rubber stamp” remarks that are incredibly vague and frustrating. Remember all those comments you probably got in school about your paper’s thesis? There’s an article that’s often used in the English 102 courses (mostly about research writing) to introduce the idea that the thesis does not have to be the first be-all end-all: Let’s End Thesis Tyranny. Yes, your paper needs a thesis. But when writers come up with a thesis first, they often set out trying to prove it instead of conducting inquiry-based research that is so valuable in research writing. I wish I had known that in high school…those comments on my paper about having a “weak thesis” were aggravating because I either didn’t hadn’t a clue about how to strengthen it or how to broaden its scope. Remember: your thesis does not have to dictate what goes in your paper. It should be a docile servant and announcer to the rest of your work. Keep writing and asking questions!

~Sarah

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2 responses to “Can I Write on Your Paper? Can I? Can I?

  1. Having not read the Sommers piece, I appreciated your concise summary! In terms of the “rubber stamp” comments, I agree that most of my teachers in the past have given me these sort of comments. As a teacher, now, I empathize with my former teachers, as the more in-depth comments I want to make create long working hours after an already full day. How do you plan to aim for the lengthier, more valuable feedback in your future classroom while maintaining a balance in your work?

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  2. Sarah, I really like how you put the Sommers and Hicks readings into conversation with each other in this posting. Although decades apart they speak to truths on the writing process.

    Your points about feedback going beyond “rubber stamp” comments, are important. Yet, Marcy also makes a good point about sustainable practice. Such one-word comments can be effective, if they function as cues to larger concepts discussed in class. For example, writing “focus?” or “organization?” can speak volumes to a writer if those concepts have been discussed/modeled in class along with related strategies for revision.

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