On Being a Red Pen Instructor

In the wake of the post on grading and minimal marking, the cockles of my heart have been warmed by the people who were willing to confess to being “red pen instructors,” correctors of every single comma and verb tense fail, either in the present or at some point in their teaching career.  God bless you people!  I think most college instructors have been there, especially if we are teaching/have taught as know-nothing graduate student TA’s.  Like I said on that post, the minimal marking thing isn’t my original idea.  Other people had to show me the way.

Approaching grading in that way has saved me a ton of time and energy, and sometimes I still feel like I’m getting away with something.  I feel like I’m supposed to work much harder at grading, and honestly, I wonder if that isn’t where the impulse to be a red pen instructor comes from.  It’s the Good Student impulse, not really the good teacher impulse.  It’s the impulse to show our work, to prove we tried hard enough, to justify our conclusions right there on the page.  I haven’t actually been teaching that long, but I think I’ve seen enough to know that the abilities and instincts that make us good students only take us so far when the time comes to stand up in front of the classroom.

When one is trusting entirely to one’s “good student” instincts–which feels entirely natural, because they’re what got you in front of that classroom in the first place–it’s fairly easy for teaching to devolve into performance, a demonstration of what the instructor knows rather than an effective transmission of that knowledge.  It’s obvious how this happens in the dominant instructional model in giant public universities–the lecture–but teaching can also quickly become about performance in seminars.  I’ve been in graduate classes of twelve people or less in which the professor has repeatedly hijacked the “discussion” to talk about his interests, and in my own classes I have felt the almost irresistible urge to answer my own questions, because I’m afraid my students will never arrive at the answer I had envisioned when I was preparing for that day.  I have felt the urge to settle student confusion without allowing them to work out a problem themselves, because I want to look like I know what I’m talking about.  And I have felt the urge to mark every mistake in a paper, to essentially do the student’s work for her in order to show that I know the errors are there, in order to look like I did enough work.

But while teaching does require knowledge and preparation and lots and lots of work (we teachers have to study for our own classes to be sure), at some point I suspect that the subtle difference between the good student and the good teacher in every one of us is in knowing when to stop, when to trust students to be responsible for their own learning.  And that means allowing them to spout a lot of cringingly wrong answers, permitting confusion to remain when it’s pedagogically sound to do so, and letting students copyedit–with some guidance–their own goddamn papers.

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One thought on “On Being a Red Pen Instructor

  1. I’ve read your piece on minimal marking totally agreed with it. When we were taught to teach, as TAs, we used a portfolio system where we did not give a grade until the end of the semester… a disastrous approach for many reasons… and yet we were to give feedback. Our mentor professor wisely instructed us to bracket off a _small_ portion of text (a paragraph or even smaller) and ‘do our thing’ with the red pen (or green, as I used) in that section.

    It _is_ too easy for teaching to devolve into performance, and when that performance becomes editing instead of teaching, there’s a problem, and I think many of us felt like you mentioned – in marking every error to let the student (and ourselves) know that, yes… we know what we’re doing. I found myself doing that the first year because I had no idea how to teach! If I saw my first students, I would either cross the street to avoid them or want to apologize!

    I thought about a different kind of performance, when reading that part. Last year, I taught at a community college. These were amazing students… real people with real problems and little money and on and on. Each of them came with serious issues, and many of them were second-language students. Because I had taught second-language students for over three years, before this, I knew how to address learning-style types of issues… and I found myself almost, literally, performing in front of the class. These kids were trying so hard to ‘get it – and – they wanted to please so much… so I would literally dance around, or even pantomime in order to get my point across. I have never had so much fun teaching as I did with these students, but it took a tremendous amount of energy.

    Like you mentioned, I could only do so much, and then I had to let them do the rest… which is why, like you, I encourage multiple drafts, treat the first one holistically, etc., as you mention in your earlier blogs.

    Love reading your thoughts…

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