Telling people they suck at writing is part of my job. As a university writing professor and a magazine editor, I’m no stranger to reading badly written essays. The difference between functioning as an editor and a professor, of course, is that when I interact with students as a professor, I have to 1) be nice and 2) explain what they need to fix. As an editor it’s quite liberating to simply respond to gobbledygook writing with a “no thanks, it’s train wreck” and then wash my hands of the whole disaster. I don’t have to be concerned about the writer’s feelings. I don’t owe them an explanation of what’s wrong (or right) and I don’t have to tell them how to fix the problems. And, most importantly, I don’t have to justify the grade I gave. F+, random sir. Good day.
I’ve read a lot of essays fitting the derailed steam engine description. The model I’ve been given for providing feedback to students on writing is the “sandwich” style. That is, positive comment bread and constructive criticism meat. Perhaps I’ve said this before, but after a while, my sandwiches start to feel a bit too heavy on the carbs and I need to go on an Adkins feedback diet. This results in my comments turning into open-faced sandwiches. Or the opposite of that, since the bread is on top, creating a very weird and messy looking one-slice of bread, meat, and gravy pile of commentary. I don’t know what the gravy is a metaphor for. The analogy starts to fall apart at this point. But I am now craving diner food.
The point is, the requirement of a writing instructor to provide students with both positive comments and constructive criticism is sometimes a challenge, especially when the student’s writing is just god-awful. This is difficult because you can’t tell students their writing is god-awful and you’re struggling to find something the student “did well with” to comment on. “You did a nice job with your font choice” is a pretty vapid bit of feedback. I think the students can tell I’m struggling to find something positive to say, but frankly, I’ve got another 60 papers to grade and I really just want to write “do better” on every one of them. Also, they probably didn't choose the correct font.
Sometimes, giving any feedback—positive or negative—seems like a waste of time because you know the student invested a minimum of effort on the assignment and could not be bothered to read or follow the instructions. It’s incredibly annoying to have to provide feedback to students who aren’t going to read or care about what I say. They’re the ones that immediately flip to the grade page to see if they passed, then shrug at the C I gave them and toss their essays in the trash on the way out the door. (Sadly, I’m not even kidding about this.) Students who receive B’s are the most likely to bitch and moan about grades, because in their home galaxy, they’ve been taught that exerting any effort at all, regardless of the results, merits an A. I think I’ll add a "welcome to the Milky Way" section to my syllabus this semester.
The irony, of course, is that writers who’ve submitted articles for publication have in fact invested a good deal of time on their essays and will read and care about the feedback I might give them. Except I don’t have to figure out what needs improved with their writing and don’t need to bother giving them feedback. If it’s good, I can tell them welcome aboard. If it’s bad, I can just tell them to move along to the next whistle stop. Choo choo, Charlie.
The challenge of course is in making certain I give the appropriate level of feedback at the appropriate time. I recently read an email (published online for critique) from a professor whose go-to response to lazy and/or careless students is “get your sh!t together.” In fairness, we’ve all wanted to tell students to better organize their fecal matter at some point in time, but tenure issues notwithstanding, it’s hardly useful direction. Most people need a bit more detail on what they did wrong. I mean, is it total diarrhea all over the stall or does it simply need a second flush? These are the things that go through my mind when I get a rejection letter.
In summation, giving meaningful feedback is hard. If it’s not A work, I’m not going to bother. It’s probably not A work.