“You’re Sick!” Says the Diagnostic Essay

“You’re sick!” says the diagnostic essay, and students hear the message plainly enough. In classes on connotation, I ask students what the associations of “diagnostic” are. Normally, I don’t need to prod students, but if I do two questions will suffice: “What is a diagnosis?” “Who gives a diagnosis?” A doctor diagnoses a patient with an illness, so a “diagnostic” essay turns students into unhealthy patients and teachers into medical practitioners whose primary job it is to determine what is wrong with the student.

Because of narrative madness, a term I invented to explain how language and stories affect our perception and behavior, students write a “diagnostic essay,” knowing that there is something wrong with them. The message is “You have to practice writing because you are so bad at it.” No wonder then students come to me in my office hours to talk about their “problems,” the word solidifying their weaknesses into inherent character flaws. I insist that they discuss “areas that need improvement” and remind them of their strengths as well.

On the flip side, teachers who give diagnostic essays look only for faults in student writing. Based on the diagnostic essay, instructors at College of San Mateo fill out a tutoring form telling other instructors what they should focus on during writing conferences. Naturally, these suggestions are always negative. I now call this essay an “introductory” or “in-class” essay. Last semester, I tried to include positive comments as well on the tutoring form, such as “Capitalize on her strong personal voice and narrative skills,” or “Utilize his effective rhetorical techniques.” Both students and instructors expressed confusion, so I did not write many positive suggestions on the writing center form this semester. Nevertheless, I am determined to do so in the future.

Constructive criticism is necessary, of course, but positive reinforcement has always been more effective for me. I am motivated to improve when teachers have told me, “You are very good and this and this, but need to work on that.” When I have been told how poor my writing is, I have been discouraged and approach writing tasks with bitterness. I am also trying to move away from the pattern, “Lots of good material here, BUT…” As the criticism comes last, faults are what students’ remember, just as we remember the end of a story better than the middle. Now I try to begin and end with positive criticism, wrapping my suggestions for improvement in encouraging statements.

Medical metaphors fill the composition class with the stink of disinfectant. While some teachers have stopped using red ink — in 2008, hundreds of schools banned red ink, which symbolizes blood — many teachers still splatter their students’ pages with gore. Many students have picked up the habit, but I forbid red pens in my classes, especially during peer review.

recent study by psychologists Abraham Rutchick, Michael Slepian, and Bennett Ferris of Phillips suggest that “the very act of picking up a red pen can bias . . . evaluations.” Three experiments show that red pens cause teachers to focus almost exclusively on mistakes. “Red pens,” they wrote, “ubiquitous in academic settings, are not inert objects. They are laden with meaning.” Since red is associated with aggression, red ink might actually raise testosterone levels in the blood.

Some teachers use blue ink instead, but green ink, which suggests nature and growth is better. However, I prefer graphite. Pencil says to the student that the marks are temporary, changeable suggestions. During revision, some students erase the suggestions one by one as they deal with them or decide to ignore them.

Also, pencil allows me to revise my tone. After reading a poor paper, I can go back and erase the frustration from my comments and replace it with encouragement. Sometimes I have a hard time finding anything positive to say, but even the most juvenile writing is incredibly complex. If I haven’t found any strengths, I go back and look again.

Lately, I have gone further than using pencil. Teachers normally write their comments over their students’ writing, showing a clear power relationship: “I am the master, and you are the novice.” Now I put my comments below the students’ prose to show that they are in power, and I am a consultant or a coach. They are the ones who must make the final decisions about their own writing.

Let’s change the message from “You’re sick!” to “You have many strengths, and here is how you can capitalize on them and improve in other areas.”

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