Information Sheet # 18

November 18, 1988


[A longer version of this article originally appeared in the February 1988 issue of College Composition and Communication. Prof. Madigan describes a procedure for handling over 1000 papers per year and still retaining his sanity. If anyone is interested in trying such a conferencing approach, I'll be glad to share my experiences using this approach and to provide additional articles describing similar strategies for using short conferences. With the right assignments, this can be a remarkably effective--and enjoyable--strategy for managing a large paper load. --Bob Marrs]

I normally teach 3 composition classes per semester--about 75 students--and require 7 papers from each. For the last four years, I have allowed an unlimited number of revisions. The average is 3+ drafts per paper, and a few students have revised a paper a dozen times. I assign letter grades only at mid- and end-of-term, and the only mark I put on individual papers is an R (revision required) or a checkmark (revision optional). I give all other responses orally, in 10 minute office conferences that each student attends voluntarily, averaging 4 per semester. The first 14 months I began conferencing, I held 700 conferences.

If my conference procedure were the traditional one--which my students describe as "you tell me what's wrong with my paper and how to fix it"--I couldn't have survived those 700 conferences. Instead, I've used what Donald Murray calls "Responsive Teaching" and actually enjoyed them. I'd like to briefly describe "Responsive Teaching" and identify advantages and disadvantages of the method by sharing some anonymous student course evaluations and my own reflections. First, the method.

Murray explains Responsive Teaching in Learning by Teaching and A Writer Teaches Writing [both books available in the Coe Writing Center]. The writer follows language toward an evolving meaning, and the teacher follows the writer following the language. More specifically:

(1) the student writes;

(2) the student responds to the text (the product) or to the experience of producing it (the process);

(3) the teacher listens to the student's response (rational) and to how it is presented (emotional);

(4) the teacher reads (or listens to) the text from the student's perspective;

(5) the teacher responds to the student's response; and

(6) the student responds to the teacher's response.

Let's assume that a student has written a readable draft and appears for an appointment. As she walks in, I'll ask "What would you like to talk about today?" or "How can I help?"

She'll identify the paper she wants to discuss, and then I'll ask, "What do you like about this paper or the way you put it together?  What are you pleased with?" I won't accept anything but a strength at this point, so she'll find something good about the paper, if only that she liked her subject.

After I've rephrased the evaluation into terms we use in class and we're both satisfied I know what we're talking about, I'll ask, "What are you not so pleased with?" Usually that answer comes very easily. Often a whole catalog of faults spills out of the writer's mouth. If so, I ask, "Of all these faults you've named, which is the biggest problem?"

When I'm sure I know what the writer disliked, I'll ask, "If you were going to work on this paper some more, what one thing would you do to improve it most?" When I can rephrase that revision strategy, I say, "Okay, let's take a look at it," and I swivel my chair so the writer can look over my shoulder as I read, and I run my pencil down the margin to show where I am in the paper.

If I run into problems, I may say, "I don't understand this section. What do you mean here?" or "I'm two pages into this and feel lost. What's your point?"

When I find good writing, I say, "I like that. " When I'm amused, I laugh. Generally, though, I don't say much till I'm done, but I do a lot of nodding and chuckling, grunting and gasping.

Once I've finished reading, I swivel back around toward the writer. If I agree with the student's original self-evaluation, I'll say something like, "you're right about the organization. I never wondered where I was or where I was going next. And the conclusion is a problem. I was surprised when I turned the page and didn't find another paragraph. What are you going to do about that?"

If I thought part of the student's evaluation was off-base, I might say, "I can tell you found a topic you liked. But I don't think your grammar is the biggest problem. What I need is a clearer notion of what you're trying to tell me. What's your point?"

Once a draft is focused and developed, I talk about surface features. Murray says to students, "This is really good writing. Mind if I mess with it?" He models whatever re- vision will improve the piece the most. When the writer gets the idea or bristles at his "taking over," he hands it back.

When the writer finishes or gets tired of the essay, I try to make her conscious of what she's learned before she moves on: "What did you learn from writing this?" "Is this paper different from others you've written?" "See any connections among those differences?" And finally, "What are you going to work on next?"

While I'd never use all these questions in one conference, I might use all on one paper, over two or three conferences. I respond only to what the student has evaluated (one good, one bad feature) and to what I think the paper needs next because I'd prefer writers revise from a few comments than ignore many. And fewer comments keep conferences to 10 minutes. That's my version of Responsive Teaching. The teacher expects writers to evaluate and refine their own writing, asks leading questions, and tries not to side-track the self-evaluation once it begins. How well does it work? Students report they know more about me and, through me, course requirements.

The personal contact increases motivation. One student wrote, "Knowing he was taking time to work personally in conferences made me want to do a better job."

Talking promotes discovery. As one student noted, "On my second conference, you said 'What's wrong with your paper?' I was shocked. [But] I figured out what was wrong with my paper and fixed it."

Hearing themselves generate new, good ideas builds self confidence and a sense of responsibility. Murray calls writing a "rational act in an emotional setting." Overcoming comma splices doesn't help if we simultaneously kill willingness to write.

But Responsive Teaching has its problems, e.g., schedule conflicts between teacher and students; inadequate conference time. Some students can't escape being defensive in one semester. Grade apprehensiveness crave teacher-evaluation, not self-evaluation, as the most direct route possible to higher grades.

Responsive Conferences are not for every teacher, either. They would not suit teachers who doubt students' ability to evaluate themselves or who feel uncomfortable in one-to-one situations or with listening more than talking.

Even teachers who attempt Responsive Teaching fall prey to fears. The worst is "not doing my job." It's hard letting a student maintain title to a flawed paper submitted late in the semester. I fear we won't "fix" everything by the end of term. I'm tempted to identify all the errors; I'm tempted to take over the revision when I see that 11th-hour, please-just-tell-me-what-to-do look.

Despite those problems I intend to continue conferencing because of its benefits:

--Students and I enjoy a far greater range of response.

--I avoid lonely late-night paper reading marathons.

--I enjoy more immediate access to my students' composing process.

--I return papers faster.

--I may be saving time. I'm certainly giving more and better feedback per unit of time.

Responsive Teaching puts the primary responsibility for improving writing where it belongs--on the writers--and I like teaching that way.

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