Monday, March 01, 2010

Grading by hand: the Amish quilt of the classroom?

Over at University Diaries, Margaret Soltan quotes from a newspaper opinion piece by Robert Duffley:
My loudest complaint is the impersonality of the online model. There’s something reassuring and intimate about a hand-corrected paper. To print a paper is to finalize it, making change all but impossible. Printing a paper brings the writer’s ideas and craft into the physical world. In a realm as tenuous and self-conscious as academia, tangibility provides a reassuring degree of legitimacy. A professor’s handwritten corrections are a sign that, even if the grade is poor, the student’s effort received individualized attention. Inserting feedback via track changes, or any online form, is chillingly anonymous and curt.
The commenters, mostly professors, don't seem to agree; I especially liked Anthony Grafton's comment that "My handwriting, always cryptic, could now be used to defend Google against Chinese hackers." That's been my experience, too: seeing a few students come up after class, I hope to hear something like "these comments were so helpful!" but instead hear "can you tell me what this word says?"

I'm of two minds about grading via inserted comments versus handwritten comments. For one thing, the inserted comments are easier to read, assuming that the students have some flavor of Word (which they mostly seem to use). Also, I then have a record of the paper and what I said, so I can refer to it if I have to write a letter for the student later.

But is this "chillingly anonymous and curt"? Do students assume that because I'm grading using a computer that the comments are somehow generated by computer rather than by me? Is there something personal and handmade, like an Amish quilt,* in writing comments on the paper by hand? I know one thing that I miss in the computer version: all the swooping lines, arrows, circles, and brackets that I can use to point out connections in the paper. There's a nonverbal but visual quality to those marks that can't be duplicated when typing on the computer.

As I veer back and forth, preferring first one and then the other, I wish I knew which one the students prefer. (When I've asked, the answer has varied by individual students; there doesn't seem to be a clear preference.)

Which do you use, and why?

*"Amish" because the quilts are "personal and handmade" by the thousands, like the papers we grade.

18 comments:

Annie Em said...

As my handwriting continues to deteriorate, I'm going to try typing comments out again (I have done it for online classes, of course, but not for "live" classes) to see how that goes for me: I'm just so used to handwriting comments, that the comment features of Word or Grademark seem so clutsy and time consuming to me.

But going by past students, they definitely like it. I'll do a survey this time and let you know...

Carl said...

I handwrite, but I may eventually translate my practice over to e-commenting. I agree that there's something satisfactorily sensuous, more really real, about a printed paper with smudgy pencil comments (never red pen, too crass a power move). But that's a dying prejudice.

To me the practical and moral divides are elsewhere. There's the practical problem of overcommenting; I find that most students can only process one or two substantive criticisms at a time, after which they just get overloaded. But morally much worse is undercommenting, boilerplate commenting, or merely line-editing. A couple semesters ago I had a junior here look up from the paper I'd just handed back and quietly remark that mine were the first comments he had ever received on a paper, meaning that I was the first reader to engage with his thinking, not just its form. That ain't right. I don't think it matters much how we do it, but we must engage with them as thinkers, not just text producers.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Handwritten all the way, since the only position in which I can bear to grade at all is curled up on the couch, and trying to balance a laptop on oneself is not conducive to comfort. Besides, I have a sneaking suspicion that it would take twice as long if I typed my comments, since I'd probably end up writing more than I needed to, and the compulsion to edit and second-guess myself would be irresistible. If you have to fetch the White-Out and wait for it to dry, you tend to go with your first instincts.

heu mihi said...

I typed comments one semester when I had 57 composition students, and, while it saved my hand (which still hurt all semester from marking in-class and short homework exercises), I *did* end up writing waaay too much--probably in the same amount of time, but it was pretty overwhelming for the students, I think. Fatigue keeps my comments shorter sometimes, and that's a good thing.

Earnest English said...

My margin comments are still handwritten, though I do type out some final comments in a letter. I really hate the track changes and comments features in Word. I really dislike the way Word reduces the text and makes the comments and changes look as official and finished as the text that has been labored over. (It's easier to comment and correct than to write the darn thing, but comments and corrections are hardly well thought out and crafted, but Word makes them look all the same.)

Once, I admit, I got really upset when a classmate commented on my draft in Track Changes (even after the professor highly encouraged us to use summative comments). It just seems so presumptuous! So I don't use Track Changes as a professor either.

(I'm about to go into a writing group situation where one colleague always uses Track Changes, so we'll see how it goes. I might be nuts.)

Carl said...

Of course there are material conditions to artisanal commentary, most obviously the number and general quality of the papers one is reading. Twenty or thirty at a time is different than ninety at a time is different than two or three hundred; and 'You might want to consider George Eliot's use of metonymy' is different than 'Get down to the Writing Center for a refresher on nouns and verbs'. It's also true, though, that if your numbers are low and your quality high enough it might make the most sense to skip the written comments and have personal conversations. I always think of my comments as part of a conversation anyway.

Carl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tenthmedieval said...

Both, and not by choice. Well, I suppose I handwrite by choice, though I'm not sure how I would grade without manual mark-up. But my department requires a typed mark sheet in Word of which copies go to three different places. It's probably as well since even my printed block script is only just legible after years of scribbly note-taking. But there is redundancy I'd still not mind avoiding. And then of course we talk it through in tutorials.

Moria said...

I prefer to do comments for my students electronically – I can write way more (whether that's a good thing or not, I don't know) and find it much easier to go back and forth through the piece.

But I will say one thing: it breaks my heart that I don't have a single bit of paper marked in the hand of one of my grad profs. One wants one's advisor's handwriting – such an important kind of intimacy. This was formative in undergrad. Part of my training is in palaeography – I can work out the cryptic passages. Just give me my teachers' hands in ink on my pages.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I had uniformly positive responses to electronic/printed comments, when I used them. Partly, students liked the legibility. But mostly I think they liked that the neatness of the comments made it look like I'd taken their work seriously. I think the found the printed comments more respectful, in a way, than handwritten scrawls all over the top of their own (semi-carefully typed) work. Plus, it looked like I'd really made an effort - they felt like I'd put more thought into my responses. (I'm sure many students who never look at the comments anyway didn't care, but I did get positive responses.)

I think is kind of the opposite reaction to Earnest English's - my students *liked* that the comments had the same weight as their text. Of course, given the kinds of papers I was usually grading, in many cases I probably *did* spend as much time on my comments as they did on the text!

The benefits for me of electronic comments: I type faster than I handwrite (if I want to be legible), and I could edit the comments as my understanding of what the student was doing changed.

The journal I'm on now uses Track Changes for everything. I actually like it a lot. But I also like the little balloons in which comments appear.

undine said...

Annie Em, let me know what your students think. I'm writing out the comments this time, just in case.

Carl, I'd agree about overcommenting. I've had that same student remark--that these are the first comments ze has seen on a paper, since usually there's just a grade.

Fretful Porpentine, I actually timed myself one time, and yes, typing the comments takes a lot longer, in part because I write more.

undine said...

heu mihi--you, too? I keep thinking it's going to be more efficient, but for one thing, handwriting takes up more space on a page, which limits the amount I can write.

Earnest English, I hadn't thought about the "finished" aspect of Track Changes and comments, but that makes sense. It makes the paper look as though it hasn't been touched by human hands, somehow.

Carl, so which do you prefer? I agree that conferences with the students are better, but unless you make the whole setting-up-conferences apparatus a part of the course (as I used to in teaching comp), it's tough to get everyone to come in. They get more and better comments, though, if they come in to talk with me about the paper. The comments can only ever be a kind of shorthand for what I'd tell them in person.

tenthmedieval, that's fascinating. Do the various offices actually look at the marks sheets, or do they just want a record of them?

Moria, thank you for that insight. I've done graduate papers both ways but always thought that they would prefer the track changes version since I can write more. Thinking back on it, though, I valued my advisor's handwritten comments, too, so I'm going to think twice before going solely to typewritten comments.

undine said...

New Kid, I hadn't thought of the "property" aspect of writing on their papers. Writing on them by hand is more personal but also more, well, dominant, maybe, than the equal typefaces and little balloons of comments. Maybe that's why using a red pen (which Carl doesn't use) is more of an affront than using another color: the level of difference (black typed text/red handwritten text) is greater and reinforces that sense of "I own your paper." Hmm.

tenthmedieval said...

The three copies are one for me, for when the office or student loses theirs or in case of dispute; one for the student; and one for the office, to source transcipts and the like. It makes a kind of sense though I presume that only a fraction of a per cent of these pieces of paper will ever be consulted again. Mine and, I believe, the office's only exist digitally however.

I see the level of ownership that is expressed by red pen, or whatever difference marker one uses, but when it's work for submission I'm not sure it is necessarily bad to remind them that ultimately they are working to someone else's order. Mainly I use red because then they can't as easily miss small marks like missing punctuation. (Yes, I do correct the punctuation. Who else will?)

naptimewriting said...

For all the reasons Fretful mentions, I prefer handwriting comments. I tell students my policy is to mark the grammar extensively on the first page and that they need to extrapolate throughout the rest of the paper for technical issues. Then I handwrite comments about content, style, thinking...the substantive issues for the rest of the paper.
Typing comments for me takes too long, is too formal a process, and makes me want to edit and edit until I get a comment correct. Handwriting lets me give first impressions, open a dialogue, and cut my time short in case they don't care.
(As a grad student I didn't like typed comments from profs because it felt like a performance review instead of a conversation about making my work better. But I acknowledge that sounds insane.)

profacero said...

For a small class (as in, 10), conferences.

Otherwise, hand written marks and typed comments -- a little typed paragraph or letter.

I'd do track changes for either really good or really bad work. But what I get is extremely variegated and the track changes would probably mean I'd spend more effort grading than they do writing.

Also, I would have to read on screen, which I truly hate.

undine said...

tenthmedieval, thanks for answering that question about the copies. I still do use red sometimes, mostly on tests, because as you say, reminding them that there are standards that they have to meet is necessary.

naptimewriting--"cut my time short in case they don't care"--exactly. There's a point of diminishing returns, sometimes, and sometimes it's more apparent when I type the comments.

profacero, I kind of like reading on screen, but screen = internet access (to check for plagiarism) = distractions.

The Bittersweet Girl said...

Many good comments ... I'll just add: In my experience, I get fewer grade complaints when I type up comments. Maybe this is because I tend to give more feedback/longer comments when I type, but I suspect that it has something to do with type seeming more "official" than handwriting ... and makes me seem more like an authority that cannot be questioned.