Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Bit of a Grading Conundrum

I pride myself on writing really extensive comments on my students' work. A page, at a minimum, is the norm for me per essay. Now that I'm teaching large classes, this is becoming a bit more of a challenge, but I think it's worth it.

To a certain extent, my comments are highly stylized; that's not to say that they are repeated student to student, but rather that I definitely still use many of the techniques that I learned through the Knight Institute at Cornell, which definitely has a very prescribed program of how student writing should be commented-upon and marked. But it works, so I stick with it. Examples of the techniques include: descriptive rather than prescriptive commenting and sticking to the text both to model good analysis and to avoid passions running high when papers are returned (ie, "The essay lacks specific citations" rather than "You didn't cite your sources").

But this most recent assignment for my intro lecture course offered students a choice of three essay prompts, one of which tended more towards creative writing: Students had read a work of short fiction in which a Christian count laments his flagging popularity and his adviser recounts to him the story of an Umayyad caliph who expanded the Great Mosque of Cordoba, making that his legacy; I asked the students who chose that option to write their own short work of fiction in the same style, reflecting some aspect of the ways in which Christians and Muslims viewed each other's cultural achievements. But now that I have the assignments in hand I'm not really sure how to write comments on these effectively. If anyone out there has experience in marking and commenting on more creative-type writing (I hate the term, because it implies, especially to students who may not really know any better, that a really good analysis isn't creative, but that's beside the point) in a literature/history class, I'd very much appreciate hearing how that worked out.

Edited on 4/2/12 to add an image of the assignment sheet to facilitate the discussion happening in the comments thread:

(Click to enlarge to readable size.)


  1. It's a bit late now, because this has to be made clear in the assignment itself: creative assignments have to come with footnotes, and what you really grade is the notes/apparatus. This presumes that students have some familiarity with, for example, Norton editions. In the really elaborate version, there can be invented critical selections after the creative piece. At any rate, the notes give students a chance to signal that they understand the stylistic conventions they're imitating, show what deliberate choices they have made, draw connections to other things they have read, and so on.

  2. Many thanks, Dame Eleanor. You'll see that I've added an image of the assignment sheet just to illustrate what I'm going to say in response: That was sort of what I was getting at, but your comment is really helpful in terms of the way you've articulated it. This is really the first time that I'm writing assignments that don't contain many telescoping parts, and I think that the trick in the future will be to write a scaffolded assignment even for non-scaffolded assignments. You'll see that I've alluded to writing an apparatus, but making that more explicit will definitely resolve the issue. If my students are familiar with Norton editions it's not from my class -- the one relevant text that exists in a Norton version is Don Quijote, and that's not the best available English translation. That said, I have introduced to them the idea of glossing a text in the middle ages and of the critical apparatuses of modernity. I also use a book called The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture, which is very self-conscious about documentary techniques. So they see how contemporary scholars do a kind of running commentary in the place of standard footnotes, and also read what is essentially a manifesto in defense of that kind of documentation (Menocal, Writing Without Footnotes). So really it's a question of articulating that better first in my own mind (what am I really looking for?) and then in the assignment; it's funny, because I really do know better than that, and somehow just found myself stymied by the addition of a "creative" element.