How I Learned to Stopped Worrying and Love the Comments

I just read an article called “The Pedagogy of Trolls.”  You can read it too if you like. I’m not going to stop you.  It was a short, scholarly exploration of why having writing students read the comments can be a useful teaching tool.  Now, I know I’ve warned you in the past about not reading the comments, but the truth is, I’m a big ole hypocrite. I almost always read the comments left on my articles. I do this for three main reasons: one, I have an ego and I like to see what people are saying about me; two, I like to have fodder for future articles; and three, I am a bit of a troll myself and I want to up my troll game by learning from experts. Also, I am a professional commenter—it’s legitimately part of my job description.

The article recommends reading comments left on online articles written by students for other reasons as well, and although the author doesn’t say specifically that it will help young writers develop a thicker skin, it’s implicit in the meaning. Here lies the point of my blog today: reading the comments helps writers become less sensitive to criticism, whether it’s legitimate criticism or nut-job quackery. Of course, to begin this long and difficult journey to becoming an icy writer with nerves of Teflon, one begins by reading the comments from one’s instructor. For many students, this is a difficult but important first step.

Contrary to popular belief, instructors do not use a dart board and/or dice-based games of chance to determine student grades on essays. There are specific criteria, outlined and provided to the students ahead of time, which instructors use to make assessments. While both writing instructors and the internet trolls named DrStranglelove (sic) will criticize students' incorrect use of "your" versus "you’re," instructor feedback will differs from trollish comments in some important ways; first and foremost, instructors are interested actually helping writers improve. Trolls see a piece of work as a finished product; instructors view everything as a work in progress. Also, instructors will not suggest inappropriate behavior with writers' maternal relations. If you get comments from your instructor containing the words “your mom” I suggest you contact the dean.

The issue of course, is that students often view instructor comments as “optional reading.” This leads to the existence of conversations that would otherwise be unnecessary. Usually, those conversations go thusly:

Student: “Why did you give me X grade on this paper? I worked really hard on it.”

Instructor: “I can’t grade you on effort. Did you read my comments?”

(Brief pause while student thinks of a plausible lie.)

Student: “I glanced at them.”

Instructor: “Well, I think I explained my reasoning pretty well. Go back and re-read what I said. If you have additional questions after you look over the comments, then come talk to me.”

I can’t tell you how many times I have had this exact conversation. It’s a lot. By a lot, I mean like multiple times for multiple students for multiple assignments every freaking semester. It gets kind of exhausting. I start taking shortcuts. A good pedagogue will tell you that effective comments should be in a sandwich; that is, a top and bottom bun of positive feedback with the meat comprising the constructive criticism. I confess that having students consistently ignore my comments has resulted in my sandwiches becoming open-faced. I am sometimes tempted to have sandwiches that are meat-bun-meat configurations. I've made a concerted effort to limit my KFC Double-Down comments to the internet. Of course, the bottom line is that writing comments to students is a waste of my time if the students don’t read them. Which they should.

In summation, read the comments. You may hit some nut-jobbery, but some trolls are actually semi-articulate English professors.