12/13/2010 04:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What? No Comments on Your College Paper?

Confessions of a Writing Center Tutor

I have one of the best jobs at the university. I teach large classes with students from every discipline and I work at university writing centers, where I help students with their papers one-on-one. Both parts of the job are fabulous for many reasons, but at the writing center I also experience something unique: I get to meet and help students from every discipline, read interesting work, learn about new topics, see students improve their writing skills and learn to revise their own papers with increasing independence. It is truly stunning to encounter such a broad cross section of the student population in this manner. Also greatly rewarding over the years, teaching at a range of institutions, both large research and small private liberal arts universities, has been the chance to read so much different work at different levels. I have witnessed the written evidence of the wonderful dialogue students enjoy with their professors. On a daily basis I see the whole process from the writing prompt, to the outline, notes, drafts and revisions, which often come back with thoughtful commentary by professors, explaining to students what they need to do to revise and write a better paper, a better argument, a better research article.

The only depressing part of my job is that I also see some papers with sparse, hurried, not always helpful comments and a grade with very little explanation or elaboration on how this choice was made. Sometimes there are no comments at all. Just a grade, and silence.
What to do about such papers? They exist everywhere. I've seen them at every institution. I hear about them from students who read my blog and write to me. Tonight I saw the final paper and final grade of my nephew who is a freshman at a big public university in another state. C. No comments. No explanation. Having witnessed him sweat over every draft, learn by trial and error and revision, how to write a college paper with proper structure, language and citation, I was impressed to see how far he'd come. Usually this is the best part of my job. I watch students develop their own skills and voices.

But what if the professor doesn't notice the progress? Why does the professor not notice? How can a professor not notice? Was the improvement somehow not great enough? Whatever the reason for the lack of comments, the student will find it impossible to understand the professor's judgment on the paper unless the professor explains the grade with thoughtful comments. A letter grade alone says very little.

Surely no miracles happen in a single semester. Students remain in a state of continuous development throughout their college careers. Sometimes new topics are so challenging that this development seems to screech to a halt or go backwards for a bit. But generally, if students work hard, listen and understand helpful criticism, they improve. Improvement might not translate into an A for the semester, but it should register somewhere, most of all in the professor's comments.

Maybe your professor was rushed? Maybe he or she has a number of large courses and stacks of papers to mark? Maybe he or she is rushing off to a conference somewhere or to meet a deadline on a research publication? Or maybe he or she is one of those "freeway fliers," an adjunct professor, who teaches at several different places just to make ends meet? Whatever the cause -- class size, research, poor working conditions -- you are still entitled to detailed and thoughtful comments on your paper. Don't settle for some quasi-legal looking rubric either. You have a right to an explanation of the grade and to guidance as to how to do better.

Get your professor to explain where your work fits on the grading rubric and exactly how your writing needs improvement. You should ask for specific points and explanations. All such explanations may not translate into a better grade for you but at least you'll know why you got the grade you did. The more you insist on your right for an explanation, the more professors are held accountable for their grading, the greater the potential for professors and students to collaborate effectively and to promote student learning -- which after all should be the main target for colleges and universities.

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