Information Sheet # 30

October 13, 1989


One of the most influential writers in the field of composition is Peter Elbow from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His books include Writing With Power, Writing Without Teachers, and Embracing Contraries, all available in the Coe Writing Center. While perhaps best known for his advocacy of "free writing," Elbow has frequently written about the need for instructors to find new ways for responding to student writing. The following material (moderately abridged) was part of a presentation that Elbow gave at the College Composition and Communication Conference in St. Louis in 1988.

There is no single right or best way to comment. The best comment is always what is best for this student for this paper at this time. Therefore what we need is for our minds to fill quickly with many things we could say. Most bad commenting comes from slipping automatically into one habitual responding gear.

To comment on a student paper is to interpret and evaluate a text. Yet literary and philosophical theory have notably failed to give us any agreed-upon criteria for deciding between competing interpretations or evaluations. We must acknowledge how little epistemological validity there is to most of what we write on student papers. If we want even some trustworthiness to our commentary, I see only two sources:

(1) Consensus based on discussion and negotiation by a group. When groups or even pairs of teachers work out agreements about specific student texts--or even about criteria or standards--then our perceptions and judgments have considerably more trustworthiness. Discussion or negotiation is time-consuming but we can do it quicker if we set our minds to it.

(2) There is, however, a completely different kind of epistemological validity available to a teacher operating alone: feedback consisting of a frank account of one's perceptions and reactions. These "movies of the reader's mind" are at least true--even if true only for one reader. (E.g., "I started out a sympathetic reader agreeing with your point, but in the third paragraph I started getting mad at you, etc." Or, "I found myself getting bored while I read your main line of thought, but whenever you gave examples or hints of your feelings on the topic, I perked up and felt more involved, etc.")

When we make comments about a student text that purport to be true in general or true for other readers, we are very likely to be telling lies. (E.g., "Your reasoning would be more persuasive if you said...." "Your structure would be stronger if you moved....") Other good readers often disagree with such comments--as students know well from trying the same paper on different teachers. When we write about what happened to us, we are at least not telling lies.

There is an enormous pedagogical power that comes from truth-telling. Students often fight us in our impersonal teacherly "verdicts"--in part because they sense that such judgments are questionable. To win these fights we often resort to institutional authority--which further undermines our students' shaky faith in teacher judgments. But when we simply tell the truth about what happened to us while reading, what we say has a better chance of actually being heard.

Besides, when we give students our frankly acknowledged subjective reactions, we are treating them as writers: "I'll give you my reactions: you decide what to do about them." By treating students as writers, we help them learn to treat us as real readers instead of as mere functionaries who give impersonal verdicts.

Some of my present practices:

When I get the paper, I make myself read it all the way through before writing anything in the margins. If I write marginal comments before I've finished the paper, I am in effect allowing myself to be jerked into an instinctual mode of response before I'm in a position to decide what is the appropriate mode for this paper.

Marginal comments made in the midst of a first reading are more likely to be unfair, unclear, or glib. (Even if I want to give movies of my mind--as I often do--I can do it better after I have read the piece through once.) Finally, I save time if I wait till I've read it through once: research shows us that very few of our comments get through to students and so I must wait till I've read the whole paper in order to decide what are the few things that are worth writing down.

I find I can decide better what kind of comment will help this student at the time if I can get some metacomments from her: about how she wrote, what she considers the strongest and most problematic aspects of her paper, what she wants from me. So I require a "process letter" with each assignment--an informal letter to me talking about these things.

I don't grade individual papers because I distrust such grades: my grade is apt to be different from my colleague's--even on the same paper. (Students know this happens and research bears them out. Of course I am obliged to give course grades, but they seem more trustworthy because they are based on more data.)

{Listed below are a few options Elbow offers for expanding the range of responses to student writing.}

1. Straight and wiggly lines. Read the paper through, putting straight lines where you are pleased and wiggly lines where you are bothered in some way. You can leave this trail as quickly as you can read and it gives the student a sense of your presence as a reader and a surprisingly rich sense of how you were responding.

2. Advice. What single change would make the biggest improvement? Notice how advice feels more supportive and encouraging than criticism: being helped by an ally rather than being pushed down by an adversary. Notice also that we usually have an important choice to make in giving advice: "Here's how to help the paper do better what I think it should do;" and "Here's how to help the paper do better what I sense you want it to do."

3. Praise the text. What's strong, what works, what pleases you? Even if the paper is weak, what are the strongest features? What are nascent, potential strengths that might be exploited in revising? We often need to encourage students for weak writing, especially if they have worked hard to made genuine progress.

4. Describe the text and how it functions--as accurately and dispassionately as you can: this is discourse analysis. Examples: Summarize what the paper says or what it is trying to do. Describe the structural or organization features, genre, point of view, voice or implied author, implied reader or audience, syntax or vocabulary, level of generality or specificity. Make these descriptions as nonjudgmental as you can. Instead of saying "immature syntax," say "short simple sentences." I find purely descriptive feedback appealing for various reasons:

--It's something to say when I can't think of anything else;

--It helps the writer learn to see his own text better;

--When I make the effort to disengage myself from judgment, I come to a new understanding of the piece and can give better feedback.

5. Strategically focused praise. Acknowledge frankly the weakest feature of the piece--e.g., "You have a terrible problem here with organization." But then help the student learn how to organize by showing her places where there is some organization or proto-organization or impulses toward organization. "Here's where you've made some moves the right direction. Do more." This takes careful reading, but psychologists have demonstrated that people learn much faster when we say, "Do more of these things you have been doing," than if we say, "Do more of these things you haven't been doing."

"The greatest part of a writer's time is
spent reading, in order to write; a man will
turn over half a library to make one book."
--Samuel Johnson

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