The agony of writing comments on student work

That’s me, sitting at my desk at home, which is really the dining room table, where dining rarely happens. We usually eat in the kitchen unless company comes, and then I put away my laptop, power cord, scratch paper, and pen.

Lydia took this candid photo with her phone when I wasn’t paying attention to her. The draft of a report by a student was diverting me from my own students, aka children, and their homework.  Sometimes Lydia and Grace spread their books and worksheets on the same table, and we homework-it alongside each other. Let’s hope this gives me credit someday for being an involved parent.

The past two weeks have been all about final papers and final presentations, and I have been meeting with students, helping them rehearse talks and improve slides, and reading submissions. Have I worked on my own writing? Not really. I have thought about it.

In a recent column on her writing habits, Anna Quindlen, who writes every day between 9am and 3pm — “an elementary school schedule” — argues that a writer must lead “a humdrum life” and not “write other stuff.” If you have a busy life, and you are writing other stuff (like, I infer, comments on student writing), “you won’t write it.”  Here, the pronoun it stands in for all that glorious self-authored work a writer is destined to do, unless responsibility gets in the way.  Too many lunches, Quindlen adds, also get in the way.

She invokes her Barnard writing professor, B.J. Chute, who told Quindlen and her classmates “not to take jobs that involved writing of any kind because there was no chance we would then go home at night and take up our own material.”  Very good point. I do wonder, though, how fiction writer B.J. Chute managed to get her teaching done without writing on student work.

When I was in college, John Irving was writer-in-residence. Innocent of what writers did to make money other than write books or long magazine articles, I had no idea such a thing existed until then. It sounded like a good job: it involved free housing provided by the college and the obligation to speak publicly only once or twice a year. Perhaps there was also a stipend.  I did sit in his audience once, as he told a room full of young Wellesley women how to lead a writer’s life: Get a job that won’t either distract you from your writing or tax you so much you come home exhausted and can’t do it. He recommended the life of a high school wrestling coach, which he had been as a younger man.

I could not picture the bifurcation of my work life: one part to make money, and one part to make art. At the age of 20, having already interspersed writing into all the other stuff I did — part-time job, homework, socializing, going home and being home — it seemed that writing happened as much or as little as other stuff happened. I also did not have a writing hierarchy in my mind, with novels, for example, ranked at the top of a pyramid and letters near the bottom, with notes and lists at the very bottom. It was all writing.

This brings me back to the mentally and emotionally challenging task of writing comments on student work. I believe this activity is important; it counts as writing; I do it well; I learn from doing it. Plus, I’m a writer who teaches, or a teacher who writes. Add that to parent who writes, gardener who writers, and writer who putters around in the world and then… writes.

Admittedly, my devotion to responding to student work is taxing.  I’ve been reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, and in his description of the brain’s two systems of thinking, I’ve come to understand why reading and responding carefully is so damn hard: it demands the resources of System 2, or slow, deliberate, and analytical reasoning. System 1 is fast and intuitive, and I may be employing it to come up with a holistic assessment of a draft, but it doesn’t help me in composing helpful and educational feedback for the writer.

System 2 has to wrestle System 1 to the mat and hold it there, before commenting can begin.  Once my friend M. and I, who were trading comments on a set of papers, agreed that commenting would be so much easier if we could speak as frankly and tersely to students as we do to each other, like this: “Just to warn you, Jane,” says M., “This essay has great ideas hidden inside a big mess of sloppy paragraphs.” Compare such a statement to the 250 words of carefully chosen and prioritized suggestions we typically write in a summary comment.

The problem with carving out space as a writing teacher to work on one’s own writing, therefore, may not only be as Quindlen argues, “that there are only so many words per day in the human body: If you do some longish emails and a few tweets, you feel done.” It may also be that the stance we take in our work with students, which relies on a usually analytical and tactful way with words, becomes what feels like the permanent condition, or how I am as a writer.

It can be hard, therefore, to let go and to write from a position of not holding back. System 2 must release System 1 from the cobra clutch that immobilizes playfulness, the unconscious, and creative impulse.

Not all writing teachers may feel this way. Some may struggle with getting to a place where System 2 rules. Such is not my struggle.

3 thoughts on “The agony of writing comments on student work

  1. Quindlen’s advice seems the writer’s equivalent of a wealthy person telling someone who lives paycheck to paycheck to just save some money. I’m relatively fortunate in that most evenings I have an hour or more to write, but my work days involve writing–sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Like you, I learn from it, even when it uses all my writerly resources for the day and I need time to recharge. Rather than change our lives, it’s helpful to remain aware of what’s happening to us as writers dealing with real life (I’d argue mine is plenty humdrum) and press on as we can.

  2. Press on, yes.

    Any writing is writing practice. My worry is that I don’t get enough of the open-ended ‘freewrite’ kind. It’s like I’m building up my biceps and neglecting my triceps.

  3. Pingback: Lost and found writing | leaf – stitch – word

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