Reading Papers Takes Too Long? Don’t Read Them (Straight Through)

So, you teach composition, and it takes much, much, much, much, much too long to read papers? You spend your mornings, afternoons, evenings, and weekends slogging through essays until you are cross-eyed and drooling, your shoulders slumped and your back aching.


Don’t give feedback like this.

Well, don’t read them–at least not straight through from beginning to end–at least not at first. I recommend going through your stack of papers one by one, looking for a pyramid of priorities. First you look for a thesis statement in all the papers, then topic sentences, and finally evidence, in the form of facts, statistics, names, dates, places, titles, summaries, quotes, and anecdotes. As you check each of these items, make a quick comment in the margin or at the end of the paper or on your rubric. Usually, you will see enough of the grammar and use of source material to make a couple quick suggestions about these as well. You will find that you have written plenty before you read the entire paper.  On the fourth and final round, quickly scan the paper and finish up the comments with something positive and encouraging.

As you go through these rounds, if any paper fails a test, set it aside. Once the round is done, give the papers that failed that test a quick read. Keep in mind that many well-written essays do not have a clear thesis statement near the beginning of the paper or topic sentences, as with James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son or Annie Dillard’s Total Eclipse.  Nevertheless, these essays are clearly focused from the first word to the last. You will be able to tell right away if the essay transcends the typical essay format.

I have sometimes been surprised to find a well-written essay by a student without a thesis statement or topic sentences, but this is extremely rare in the developmental classes and first and second year composition classes that I teach. In such cases, I cross out what I wrote and write a new note, but in most cases, the notes I made about the thesis statement, topic sentences, and support are the most important feedback I can give to the student. I may add something encouraging like, “Many good ideas here. I look forward to seeing what you can do with them in later essays / in a revision” or “You can write clearly and effectively, so I have no doubt that you can become an effective academic writer” or “I look forward to reading more of your writing,” then I am done!

This approach is quicker and more enjoyable (because there is more variety in what you are reading), but even more importantly, you, as a teacher, will not get caught up making comments about small grammar points when the paper lacks a central argument or support. Instead, you will be focusing on the big issues. Now, I also get students to use the same method when doing peer review, so that they are directing their feedback to what matters most: argument and support.


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