Is This What You’re Looking For?


There’s one question I hear from students more than any other. Before a big essay is due, or a poetry portfolio or short story, students tend to wander into my office, rough draft in hand, a nervous shiftiness in their eyes as they slide the pages across the desk to me. “What is it, exactly, you want my help with?” I’ll ask. And the answer is almost always, “I just want to know if this is what you’re looking for.” And I never know quite how to answer this question. Yes, we spend several class sessions discussing what goes into a well-written short story (a well developed character with believable dialogue, attention to detail in setting, a clear catalyst, a plot that consists of distinct scenes that build in tension to a clear climax scene where the protagonist finally acts–rather than reacts–and makes a decision from which he/she can’t turn back). And we read chapters in a textbook that also talk about these elements of good fiction (or poetry, or essays). And these textbooks aren’t written by me (the text I use for Introduction to Creative Writing was written by Stephen Minot, for example, and I’ve never had a student come into my office and ask “Is this what Minot is looking for in a short story?”). But there seems to be this idea that what makes up good writing is unique to each individual instructor, and if the student can just manage to puzzle together what that “something” is that each instructor believes to be good writing than the student can ace the essay (or short story, or poem).

I think this is also why, in the hallways between classes in Preston Hall, I’ll often overhear a distraught student complain to a friend, “Professor ____________ just doesn’t like my writing!” There’s something so personal about that comment. It seems to imply that some students believe that writing professors grade in an arbitrary, subjective way (and I imagine the professor in her office, red pen in hand, complaining about how well structured the essay is, and how clear the thesis statement is, but *dang it* the writer uses too many adverbs for the professor’s liking and, so, the essay must fail!).

Granted, those of us who grade writing can not simply go down a page and look to see if the equations add up properly. We can’t run a form through a scan tron machine to tabulate a grade. But I would argue that most instructors of writing are probably going to be able to pick out the weaknesses in any essay, and will (in turn) be in the same ballpark with the final grade for the essay. There is an objectivity to how we grade, even if some of the students prefer to shift the blame of a poor grade on an essay off of themselves and onto the professor. In other words, some students believe that the grade they received was not the one that they earned, but rather the one that was given to them. And another professor–if they could just find the right one!–would give them the “A” they so justly deserve.

When I was in graduate school, those of us about to teach composition for the first time were required to attend a series of “teaching prep” classes, many of which concerned grading procedures. A tenured professor had us read a small pile of student essays and we had to grade these essays (privately, on our own) and then come back to the class and announce the grade we had given each essay and why. We spent hours going over each essay (taking off a certain number of points for a poor thesis, more points for unclear topic sentences, etc.) and by the end of the training–amazingly–the thirty or so of us in the room had come within a half-letter grade of each other. It’s not that we didn’t all understand going into the training what to look for in the writing, we just weren’t sure how many points to take off for each lacking element. And maybe this is that loophole that leads some students to believe that if they could only find the professor that *likes* their writing then they’d be set.

I’m usually suspect of a student that comes to me after receiving a “C” on an essay and complains that they’ve always received “A’s” on their essays before. I find it hard to believe that any two writing professors, when confronted with the same piece of writing, wouldn’t at least come up with roughly the same letter grade. I find it very hard to believe that student can be an “A” writer for one instructor and a “C” writer for another (and I’m not talking about those anomalies where a traditionally “good” writer turns in an uncharacteristically poor essay. Life happens, kids get sick, or midterm pressures pile on, and so they whip something out the night before the essay is due and they don’t look the professor in the eye when they hand the thing in. And I’ve found that these students are aware of the poor writing they’ve done and take responsibility for the poor grade).

But this business of grading isn’t easy. Just the other day, I had a colleague ask if I find grading creative writing assignments more difficult than grading academic essays. And the truth is that I really don’t find a difference. There are still quantifiable, objective elements that I’m looking for. What’s difficult for me is knowing that, on “paper handback” days, a lot of students will leave class disappointed with their grades, and rather than accepting responsibility for the grade that they’ve earned, they’ll find a friend in the hallway after class and will wail, “Professor Kopchick just doesn’t like my writing!”

-Laura Kopchick

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