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Responding to Student Writing and the Power of the Line

This past week I participated in a faculty workshop entitled “Responding to Student Writing.” In preparation for this workshop, each participant was asked to email the coordinator with the most vexing problems they have when responding to student writing. Most faculty members wrote about the problems of balancing the time it takes to write good comments on papers with their other duties, figuring out how to respond constructively, wondering if students ever read the comments, and wondering whether or not to write extensive comments on end-of-term papers.

I had to “interpret” the assignment since I don’t ever read or grade student papers. Here’s what I wrote:

I’m in the odd position of responding to writing without ever seeing the entire picture or reading the entire paper. I’m most often responding to the student’s interpretation of the assignment and the initial phases of topic selection. In the instances where students come back with a semi-finished product, I generally respond to the bibliography or the student’s summation of the argument and the types of evidence he or she has found to support that argument. In some ways, it’s much easier to respond to students about their thought processes and progress towards their goals when I only get these verbal summaries since it frees me from all the minute details that might overwhelm me if I saw the project in it entirety. But it’s also difficult to give feedback that will support the project as a whole when I only see distilled sections and versions of the project.

I also have to respond on the spot without the benefit of time to compose my thoughts and write something down. I’m often more comfortable writing than speaking, so I usually feel like I’m floundering to put my thoughts in order, communicate clearly, and keep the student’s ultimate needs firmly in mind all at the same time. I often wonder if my tone is appropriate, if they’re hearing what I think I’m saying, and if what I’m saying is effective. (When I’m really worried about this, I’ll often send a follow-up email that reiterates my main points, but then I run into the problem of time, especially when I have days that are packed full of back-to-back appointments with students.)

Like the first assignment, much of the workshop didn’t directly relate to me and my job, but it was nevertheless an incredibly beneficial and enjoyable workshop. I met some wonderful professors and had stimulating conversations about everything from art to assignments.

One of the most interesting conversations was with a studio art professor who, like me, had to interpret many of the activities to fit his teaching activities. He talked with such passion about the history of the line: how The Line started with the urge to represent and communicate and how it has diversified over time to include everything from representation art to writing. He talked about how creating art is always a way to possess, whether it be to capture an image you don’t want to forget or to articulate and keep hold of an idea, and that there is always an element of transaction involved, either literally or via communication.

What a beautiful thought. When we teach students to do research, we give them the keys to this act of possession and transaction. We help them to allow the originators of the work they study to complete this timeless transaction, this fulfillment of the original act of creation, of setting down representations of things and ideas via the eternal Line. And then the students, in turn, set down their ideas, using the same Line, waiting with eager anticipation for their readers to complete this new transaction.

And when readers comment on student writing, they grant that writing weight by taking partial ownership of the work via new instances of the Line, because the Line gains rather than loses power when more people own it, use it, and proffer it to others.