Part 2 of the series on appreciate responses to student writing. Explains the specific structural elements of my responses and their function, together with an elaboration of the appreciative rhetoric that makes it effective.
The following structure has proven to be effective in my responses to over a hundred student texts from short essays of three pages and term papers of 10–25 pages to Bachelor’s and Master’s theses. All works that I receive are argumentative papers in the field of literary and cultural studies.
In section 4) Examples, I have added sample responses that I have written so that you can see how it works in practice.
(1) Paraphrase the paper in two or three appreciative but non-evaluative sentences
First, I show students that I have read and understood what they have argued without lapsing into praise, reproach, or corrective comments. I’m convicend that the importance of this step cannot be overestimated, especially for students in early semesters. In my neutral paraphrase, students can recognize their own work as something that stands on its own and is not just subject to assessment. As soon as I make clear, simply by mirroring their thought process, that I take their work seriously, students also take me seriously as a partner in discourse.
For more experienced students, I sometimes paraphrase their work in advanced theoretical terminology which they don’t yet have full command of, to validate their thinking in its connection to our discipline and to model for them a scholarly rhetoric to aspire to.
(2) Highlight especially successful elements
After the neutral paraphrase, I change register to a more personal and subjective tone to emphasise one or two aspects about the paper which I especially liked on the level of content and/or form. It is important to be specific and to explain what criteria of good scholarship were met particularly well. 1
(3) Provide expert critique of higher-order problems
This is the most extensive part of my responses, where I pick out one or two (often related) problems of the paper which seem most relevant to me.
Three things are important here:
(3.1) To provide an expert critique requires that I treat the paper as the work of a scholar with an independent epistemological interest and a communicative intent. This stance keeps me from falling into the trap of deficiency orientation where I only read for ‘mistakes’. Taking a student paper seriously as an academic endeavour also means that my critique cannot remain superficial but must be situated on a high level of scholarly discourse. Often, my criticisms are quite severe – but students can ‘take it’ because they are being taken seriously.
(3.2) What constitutes a higher-order concern is subjective: My critique is never all-encompassing but focusses on aspects of academic practice that I feel are most important. For example, I often focus on problems with argumentative coherence (i.e. the scholarly communication of ideas), on problems with the theoretical framing of the research question, and on problems with superficial or banal interpretations. I tend to completely ignore issues of language correctness – it is just not a higher-order concern for me. Some of my colleagues see this very differently, and that’s fine.
(3.3) Part of the critique are suggestions for revision, as we all would expect them in a good peer review. Rather than directing students to make certain changes, which would relieve them of the responsibility of thinking about what to do, I offer strategies of revision. For example, if I comment on structural issues of argumentation, I try to outline the criteria of logical progression or I suggest that the student print their chapters and rearrange them physically to experiment with structure. If I comment on theoretical shortcomings, I suggest terms, concepts, authors, titles or at least search terms which students can research to improve their analysis. If I comment on a lack of depth in interpretation, I try to recommend exemplary professional articles with elaborate close readings.
(4) Add brief comments on lower-order concerns
While step (3) often encompasses several paragraphs, I usually write just one paragraph to comment (positively and negatively) on several lower-order concerns of decreasing importance. This comprises the use of secondary sources (both in terms of their quality and in terms of how they were used to support the argument), the adherence to formal and stylistic criteria (formatting and citation style, academic register of our discipline, individual voice), and the level of language correctness.
(5) Conclude with assessment and prioritized suggestions for revisions
In this final paragraph, I sum up my response with an assessment and a rough, preliminary grade. In case of a fail grade, I first explain which revisions are necessary for the paper to pass, often I then discuss the grade and further suggestions for revision as if the pass conditions had already been met. In case of a pass, I suggest – with reference to my comments in (3) and (4) – which kinds of revision have the greatest potential of improving the grade. Students can then set their own priorities: Whether they want to revise and to which extent is entirely up to them. 2
Here, an appreciative stance and rhetoric is again of great importance: No matter the grade, I adopt a constructive, pragmatic rhetoric, as I would toward a colleague. I work on the premise that the quality of any paper reflects the best that a student was able to achieve in a particular situation of their life which I have no insight into and no right to judge. Thus, my aim is to facilitate a process of intellectual work, not to dwell on the shortcomings of one single by-product of this process. 3 As a result, my rhetoric must be process-oriented and empowering, instead of result-oriented and evaluative. 4
Of course, I don’t promise a better grade, and I also sometimes have to point out that a very good grade may simply not be achievable (not without a completely new approach to the topic, or not at all – the latter mostly because the student’s proficiency in academic English is not yet high enough).
(6) Close with signature and date
I explicitly include this in the list of steps because I think that signing the response is an important communicative act, it signals my appreciation and personal commitment: Students will always take their own work seriously when they see that I do. Often, I include a closing remark like “Thank you for your hard work!”
We often assume that students who succeeded in meeting or exceeding our standards knew exactly what they were doing – but in my experience that is not at all the case. Even students whose work is very advanced can profit enormously from our reflection and explication of their skill in relation to our own scholarly practice. ↩
For an explanation of this rationale, for details on my grading criteria, and on the greater context of student revisions see the complementary article on Revision-oriented supervision of student writing. ↩
In my recent responses, I’ve adopted the practice to situate the paper’s quality in relation to the module progression of our undergraduate course of studies. I may point out, for example, that a very good basic module paper would need greater argumentative complexity to also be a very good profile module paper, and on top of that a distinct and elaborate theoretical approach to become a very good advanced module paper. Or what it would require to develop an advanced module into a Bachelor’s thesis. That way, students can appreciate their achievement on their current level of studies while keeping in mind the future learning curve we expect of them. ↩
This especially means that I avoid any phrases which shame or blame the student, or which express disappointment, anger, or even concern. ↩