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Advice for a new TA: revising/editing student papers

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Hi everyone,


In my new role this year, I'll be working with students on revising and editing their papers. Normally, they come into office hours and we look at the paper together, and discuss it there together, in person.


To the many of you with TA experience: how do you give feedback on papers? What steps do you go through, or what questions do you ask yourself, to look for weaknesses in student papers?


I'm a bit nervous doing this for the first time...

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Oh, great question! I'm just going to throw out some thoughts:

  • When looking at a paper, prioritize global concerns over local concerns. For example, thesis that doesn't make sense or relate to the rest of the paper is a bigger concern than a formatting error.
  • Try to keep your comments to what has been discussed in class, and even then, try to focus your feedback on three or four main points the whole class is working on. For example, if you are working on maintaining an argument through close textual analysis in class, your feedback should focus on that.
  • Keep marginal comments brief and sparse. It can be overwhelming for students to get papers back with tons of marks. I try to limit myself to one or two comments per paragraph, if that.
  • Also comment on the strengths; students learn just as much from positive models (even models created by themselves) as from constructive criticism.
  • Form your feedback as questions, pushing the students to come to their own conclusions and make their own choices as writers. Questions like, "how does this quotation/outside source back up your initial claim?" is more helpful than "Doesn't back up your original claim." So often, students have smart connections in their minds but don't articulate them on the page, so questions can help push them to making their analyses and claims clearer. 
  • End comments should focus on the future. Even if students won't be revising this draft for class, frame the comments as "here's how you can improve your next draft or project" rather than "here are all the things you did wrong with this one." 
  • For you, set a time limit for each paper. It can be really easy to get sucked into a problematic paper, but you don't have time for that. Go through a few papers, time yourself, then figure out what would be an appropriate amount of time to give yourself for each of the remaining papers. Don't go over it! 
  • If you are TA'ing, feel free to ask the professor to look over your feedback and give you feedback on your feedback! Or if not the professor, another experienced TA can also give valuable feedback.
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The above is great, but I'll also throw in my two cents. I've never TA'd in the traditional sense, so some of this might not apply if you don't have control over the assignments:

  • I never assign rough drafts as something that's going to come to me, get feedback, and then go back to them before the final draft. Reading a paper twice times 50 students isn't something that I have time for, but it's also something that steers students into a pattern of only addressing the things you come up with, and then assuming it's A material, which isn't always the case. What I do offer, though, is to let students bring their rough drafts to my office.
  • When students bring a draft to my office, I have them read it to me. This has two effects: it keeps there from being an awkward few minutes where I'm reading and they're silent and it lets them hear any sentence-level errors that might crop up.
  • I refuse to edit student papers for grammar and spelling before the final draft; getting into the nitty-gritty before the final structure and idea is finished is like polishing a car before you put the fenders on it.
  • While I set the assignment's boundaries, I don't give out rubrics and I ask them to come up with the criteria for self-evaluation sheets as a group. Part of what they turn in is an analysis of how they've succeeded or failed at what they've been assigned to do. This really helps with curtailing anxieties about evaluation. (I think. It has so far, anyway; I'm still experimenting with how this actually works in practice.)
  • As an in-class activity before the rough draft is due for workshopping, I ask students to think about one aspect of the paper they think they're doing well, and one that they think they're doing poorly, according to the criteria that we've agreed on as a group.
  • Once final drafts are in, I agree with what proflorax said above. Keep things brief. Focus on global comments.
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Nancy Sommers wrote "Responding to Student Writing" in College Composition and Communication 33.2, May 1982. Summer Smith wrote "The Genre of the End Comment: Conventions in Teacher Responses to Student Writing" in College Composition and Communication 48.2, May 1997. What got me the most was Joseph M. Williams' "The Phenomenology of Error" in College Composition and Communication 32.2, May 1981 (http://www.english.illinois.edu/-people-/faculty/schaffner/Williams%20Error.pdf) William Irmscher put out an interesting chapter, Evaluation (chapter 13) in the book Teaching Expository Writing, 1979. I also like Patrick Slattery's "Using Conferences to Help Students Write Multiple Source Papers" in here: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED357365.pdf I have students read Valerie Krishna's "Syntax of Error" when I run into those that have trouble with convoluted syntax (http://wac.colostate.edu/jbw/v1n1/krishna.pdf)


I believe that written English fluency is acquired the same way as spoken English fluency. A semester's worth of grammar and mechanics squeezed in when possible isn't going to help students that aren't motivated to practice it on their own. I do point out grammar and mechanics and I do grade with them in mind, but I refer them to the writing center if they need a lot of help with it so they can get used to going to the writing center to have their rough drafts proof read. They will not have a comp teacher for every class they have to write papers in. For some with a lot of trouble and the motivation to do something about it, I have them read a few opinion articles of their interest on one of the major newspapers (like New York Times), and come to my office hours once a week to discuss it. We diagram sentences. It's fun. I care about this stuff and I emphasize how important good presentation is (particularly with grammar, mechanics, and word choices) not only because of ethos but also because people to tend to judge a person's intelligence and education based on use of language. Bad spelling = you're stupid in our culture. Still, there's only so much a comp teacher can do that 12 years of school hasn't already done. Anyway, the primary reason why I do not put much focus on rules of writing is that students come into college, and into paper writing as well, with the assumption that there is a correct way to do things and an uncorrect way to do things. They focus too much on correctness and fail to grasp that correct is based on the rhetorical situation, not on a specific set of unchanging rules. Language rules shift over time, and shift depending on audience. This is particularly important because certain "rules" in the English discipline are not only not the rules in other fields, but are incorrect. For example, in English, we would never use "The purpose of this paper is to...." as the first sentence. We are taught that the "rule" is that all papers must have a hook, and that is in the first few sentences. However, in other disciplines, particularly the sciences, you will find a statistically significant number of peer-reviewed, published articles that start with phrases exactly like those or similar to. So, I don't want to reinforce the idea that there is a correct way of using language based on rules.


There are two parts of assessment in a paper that makes comp courses challenging in ways that no other course has to deal with: content and form. I assess both. Like everyone else, I start with and focus on the global. A good paper has good, holistic logic, both in content and form. (This is why I never allow students to write about polarized subjects: you get someone else's talking points. Nor do I allow them to write about religion because they can't practice the kind of holistic logic that academic rigor demands. Not that they pick topics anyway, I'm not an expressivist.) The central idea must be expressed, there must be supporting points that develop the paper in a logical fashion, and these must be supported with evidence, and they must all be linked with solid logic, and they must all be accurate. This is why I pick topics, I can't judge the accuracy of content in baseball, so I can't assess a proper grade.


The next step of assessment is the middle sized stuff, mostly in sections or paragraphs. One of our texts uses the phrase "sections of thought" which I like.; It has a main point (which acts like a thesis statement for that segment of the paper), might have subpoints, has evidence, and has analysis. All of this works together with holistic logic. I sort of transition, in my thinking of the paper, from the global to the regional, with organization. The global paper should have each section of though organized in the best fashion for the purpose of the paper and its intended audience (for my class, the discourse community--reference, James Paul Gee---is always peers in an undergraduate composition program).


The last step of my assessment is local stuff. Sentences, transitions, word choice, grammar, punctuation, documentation style (I use APA since it does a better job of transfering to the majority of other styles than MLA, and our rules book doesn't have a strong enough section on Chicago). When it comes to error, I will highlight error when I catch it (all my papers are submitted online so I can grade via word processor). If an error is made more than three times, I will explain it. I will explain no more than one consecutive error per page of text. So if the paper is three pages long, I will explain three broken rules errors. I don't want them to shift focus from the holistic paper to correct/incorrect. Correct papers are the ones that use logic and language that best fits the rhetorical situation. You want to have students scream against anarchy? Have them read Williams' Phenomenology of Error.


Form and content have equal footing for me. An A paper has excellent form and excellent content. If I don't notice an error, the error does not exist. I have grammatical pet peeves, but I do not use them for assessment. One of my profs will knock off a point for ending a sentence in a preposition. I do point these idiomatic usages out so that they are aware that these choices can negatively affect ethos. However, so can using "in which" in the wrong rhetorical situation. I had a student in an automotive major tell me his prof thought the phrase "in which" or "to whom" meant stuck up. I told him that this reaction showed that you can never really predict the preferences of everyone in your intended audience and should do your best to use the language of the discourse community because that will be the most widely accepted.


As for commenting on papers? Smith's work on the end comment has been my guide, along with Slattery's suggestions about commenting. Ask questions rather than write imperatives. Example: Why did you choose a personal anecdote to support you point? Consider the rhetorical situation when you select evidence. Sometimes an anecdote is the best choice. Considering your audience and the discourse community you're working with, what do you think in this case? I like Slattery's suggestions because I tend to see my role as a comp teacher to teach them to comment on their own drafts the way I would comment on their drafts if I were not asking questions instead.


I have my students turn in rough drafts (no points for rough drafts, so no immediate penalty if they don't turn one in), and I comment on them. I have conferences after rough drafts are done (I give myself a weekend to make preliminary comments, then add more as we conference) and then give them 5 to 7 days to turn in their graded draft. I don't comment on graded drafts. I have a rubric that I use and I copy and paste a few relevant points from my rubric into the final draft to explain why they got the grade they got. I don't comment extensively on rough drafts in my preliminary work because they will only pay attention to so much. If it's too marked up, they'll ignore most of it and I've wasted my time. If it's not marked up enough, they'll assume they did fine and turn in the rough draft as a final draft. It's why I put a few annotations per page and do the bulk of commenting in conference.


I also have my students workshop drafts. It's a guided workshop. I have them read the whole thing without commenting. Then I stop class and we discuss what global issues are (I have my rubric up on the media screen) for a few minutes, and then I have them go through and comment on global issues. I direct them to write at least two questions from the who, what, where, why, when, how categories, and to make at least one comment about something they liked about the whole paper and one critique. Then we stop and discuss the regional issues, followed by a time for them to comment on regional issues. Then we do local issues. Finally, we get out the handbook and check APA. The workshop is ostensibly to give them more feedback on their work, but it also teaches them how I assess a paper, and it teaches them how to assess their own work in a systematic manner.

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I forgot to mention: Mary Soliday's "Reading Student Writing with Anthropologists: Stance and Judgment in College Writing", College Composition and Communication 56.1, Sept 2004, is a real eye opener. It examines how graduate students in anthropology assess and judge undergraduate papers. It's different than what comp TAs do. Rarely will we teach English majors.

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I'm TAing for the first time, and I'm not giving any written feedback before assessment. I'm forcing them to rely on peer feedback during the writing process, and the only real feedback from me will come during final assessments (though I'm allowing them to revise after that)

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