Tag Archives: Revision

The Biography of a Dissertation Chapter

The Moscow move approacheth. I depart on Thursday with The Husband following a few weeks later. Blogging has been sporadic because I have heretofore been incapable of tackling creative problems more demanding than, “How many of these books and clothing items can I live without for a couple of months while I wait for our shipped items to travel to the other side of the planet and clear customs at multiple borders?” This, however, is a post I have been meaning to write, and there was a new development today, so I might as well go with it. 

I think even seasoned writers need reminders of just how intense and even repetitive the revision process can be for pieces that actually get published. One time when I was doing a revision workshop for a freshman comp class, I brought in the six extant drafts of my dissertation prospectus, each covered with advisor comments to make a point. The point was that at multiple points during the production of a successful piece of work, you are probably going to want to put your eyes out with a fork. This is normal.

In about a month, I’ll finally see my third article–which originated as a dissertation chapter–in print. Without a question, this is the piece of work I’m the most excited about, but also without question, it has been the most labor-intensive. In order to remind myself that I don’t completely suck and to show ailing grad students out there just how normal this sort of thing is, here is the story of how my beloved monstrosity was brought into the world.

July-August 2011 – During my first research trip to Boston, I made a significant finding that ruined my plans for the dissertation chapter I thought I was writing but turned into something way more awesome. In a sort of fugue state, I hammered out multiple drafts (probably 3-4) of a 14,000 word chapter in two weeks, edited the rest of my dissertation, and sent it all off to my co-chairs before my 5 week stay was up. I felt like a freaking god.

September 2011 – Co-chairs make a bunch of suggestions for small changes but deem the dissertation defensible. Graduate Advisor pushes for Fall semester defense in order to make it for certain job market deadlines.

November 2011 – Dissertation is successfully defended. Committee members note that because of the sharp left turn my research took in the summer, that chapter no longer really fits the rest of the project in terms of scope and methodology. They suggest publishing it as a stand alone article instead of including it in book revisions.

January – February 2012 – I work with a committee member who is enthusiastic about that chapter to turn it into an article submission. It goes through a couple of additional drafts (we’re at like 7 or 8 now) in which I strengthen it’s claims, explain central concepts for non-experts, and completely rewrite the first third and the conclusion Because we are planning to submit it to a flagship journal with no length limits, I add a new section based on more recent reading. 

March 2012 – Major scholar in the sub-field gets wind of my project from a couple of sources and requests the article for a special journal issue to appear in Fall 2013. The special issue topic is a perfect fit for this research, and multiple mentors advise me to go ahead with it. 

April – June 2012 – I revise the article again to better suit the theme of the special issue and to speak more directly to the concerns of scholars in that sub-field rather than to a more general audience. I submit my “final” draft to the editor well ahead of the deadline.

January – February 2013 – Editor gets back to me with several suggestions and asks for the changes in six weeks. I go ahead and make them, and the editor is pleased with the results.

May 2013 – Editor has bad news: the amount of space available for the special issue was radically overestimated, and in order to keep costs in line, the journal is asking all contributors to get their submissions under 11,000. At this point, my article is 18,000, which is an absurd length, but I was so close to getting away with it. I am also in the midst of selling/giving away most of my earthly possessions, submitting final grades, planning another research trip and an international move, and having a nervous breakdown. This latest development becomes the topic of my next couple of therapy sessions, and for two weeks, I’m sort of paralyzed by the whole thing, unable to look at the article without wanting to cry.

June 2013 – I finally finish making the cuts, and admittedly, the article is better for it. I remove certain sections that were admittedly digressive and indulgent entirely. I streamline some paragraphs and remove extraneous examples. I combine sentences and paragraphs to say the same thing with fewer words. The very apologetic editor is again pleased with the results.

August 2013 – The journal editor (different guy, reads this blog apparently – Hi, Tim!emails me the publication contract and a list of minor changes that need to be made before the thing goes to press. This is what I’ll be doing on the 12 hour flight to Moscow. 

So that’s like 14 drafts or something. I don’t even know anymore. Because I’m a psycho, I save a lot of intermediate drafts (though not all of them) as new files. One day, I might print them all out and show a class to make a point. That point will be that writing and professoring are stupid things to do for a career if you want to keep your sanity. But somehow, sometimes, it’s kind of worth it. 

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Revising Tip: Don’t Fall in Love With Every Idea

All good writing is the same.  All bad writing is bad in it’s own…ok, this doesn’t really work.  Writing can be good or bad in any number of ways, but part of the embracing the revision process in all of it’s glories and miseries is figuring out the unique ways in which your first drafts tend to fail.  I continue to be astounded by how much I do actually have to learn about my own writing process.  It seems like it ought to be pretty transparent.  I’m the one doing it after all, but I’m starting to realize that some of the things I *thought* I knew about how I right are actually about how I wish my process worked.

One of the fantasies I have long held about my writing is that I walk into a first draft with a clear idea about what my argument is, when as it turns out, writing the first draft is the invention process that gets me to the argument.  This is why I wind up with introductions that are six pages long and contain 4-6 major ideas.  It reminds me of what someone (I can’t remember who) once wrote about Michael Bay.  One of the myriad reasons why Bay movies tend to suck is that he falls in love with every idea he has, every shot he directs and doesn’t seem to know when to cut stuff out.  So you wind up with bloated robot fights where the audience can’t tell what the hell is going on.

I think I place too much faith in the late-night epiphany, and get too attached to material that might contain a great idea, just not in the context of that particular writing project.  Disciplining myself to cut those intros down to 2 or so pages with one really clear central argument is a little excruciating, but my current projects are all the better for it.

And thinking about writing as a relatively open-ended process helps.  That way I know that those ideas can be turned into projects of their own.

Revision Blues

I’m deep into revisions of the first two chapters of my dissertation, and it is going so slow and taking so long that I feel like I can see myself aging in the slight reflection of my laptop monitor (I really should have sprung for the non-reflective, anti-glare screen).  As such, I don’t have the time or mental energy to be witty and insightful on the blog.  In fact, the number of blog posts I produce in any given month is probably a direct measurement of how much is not getting done on my thesis.

You’d think that the revision stage would be easier than the drafting stage, especially when you already have a pretty good document to work with, as I do right now.  You’d think that it would be pretty automatic, fun even.  But the revision process is decidedly lacking in the euphoric moments that the invention and drafting processes seem to be full of, moments of discovery, moments when you suddenly realize you know exactly what to say and how to say it, entire days where you can scarcely tear yourself away from the keyboard because you are so inspired and have to get that thought down before it flies away.  That doesn’t happen as often when you’re revising.

Revision is where you have to go back and look critically at those epiphanies, those products of inspiration and figure out if they are worth keeping, if they are really as brilliant as you thought they were the first time.  Revision is where you have to take that list of additional sources your advisor thinks you should cite and figure out how to work them into a vision you thought was so complete when you sent it to him.  Revision is where you have to look at those places where the reader went, “Huh?” and figure out why they aren’t getting it.  When I’m drafting, there are moments where I stop and say, “Damn, I’m good at this.”  Revision is the opposite.  Revision is where I start updating my resume and wondering if I should just go back to working in retail or medical billing.

I’m guessing that this stage of the process is why a lot of people don’t finish.  It’s like spending hours of each day looking at your face in a magnified mirror in florescent lighting.  Also, did I mention that it takes forever?  In order to work in five additional citations, which will amount, at most, to a few new paragraphs of material, I first have to read all those books, and then figure out what new light they might shed on my particular research problem.  Then I have to figure out if they merit lengthy summaries and discussions of their own or if I can get away with assigning a few footnotes of the “see also” variety.

The one advantage revision has over drafting is that I have a pretty clear set of priorities.  I have a checklist.  Read X, Y, and Z, then alter this section to accommodate them.  Then get rid of this section and disperse some of the examples into other sections.  Then write a better conclusion.  Et. freaking cetera.  I normally like checklists, but right now, I, a textbook Type A control freak who has her entire personal library alphabetized wants nothing more than to become a Jack Kerouac-style beatnik, but without the casual sexism and racism.  Also, I want to set fire to my computer.

It helps to be a little bit nice to yourself when you’re revising.  I’ve been relocating to various Panera Bread restaurants all week, to avoid the insistent, judgmental silence of my home office, the bleakness of the college campus during the summer, and the urge to avoid the inevitable by going out and weeding my flower bed in triple digit heat.  I am spending way too much money on fancy schmancy salads and Chai Tea Lattes lately.  But that’s how I cope, I guess.

The Value of Editing a Colleague’s Work

No LFF post this week, because that just isn’t where my head is, and if I can’t put together a decent post for that series, I am just not going to do it!  Where is my head right now?  Well, I’m in the midst of editing my boss’s book, which is an enormous project but is also, quite frankly, the most fun I’ve had as a graduate student in quite some time.  Natalia Cecire of the blog Works Cited recently posted on how to receive a colleague’s feedback on your work (hint:  graciously and thoughtfully), but I’m also finding that giving feedback on a colleague’s (or superior’s) work can be a valuable rhetorical exercise and stimulate self-reflection.

My boss is a professor outside the English department who works in a field that nevertheless interests me.  He holds an endowed chair, recently won the book award from the top organization in his field (an entire journal issue was dedicated to responses to that book), and the book he is currently working on is his fourth.  In other words, editing this guy’s book feels like kind of a big deal.  Yet the experience has taught me that even prestigious faculty have to work extremely hard at their writing and have to deal with rejection.  See, his book has been under contract at a major university press for the past couple of years, and having submitted the final draft in February, he is now in possession of some readers reports that are making him second guess the project or at least his relationship with this particular press.  They just seem to want a very different sort of book than the one he wrote, which isn’t an indictment of his scholarship so much as it is a reflection of the divergent visions of author and publisher.  Now, we’re talking about a high class problem when the scholar in question can say, “Well, Oxford UP is interested in this project, so I may just take my work there,” but the less-than-smooth road to this book’s publication has given me a helpful, if somewhat scary window into what one has to face in getting one’s work out into the world.

So, he is having me edit the entire book before he sends it off to Oxford and a couple of other presses that have expressed interest.  So, I have been commenting on each chapter, and sending it back to him.  He makes some changes and sends them back to me to see if I like them, and he genuinely seems to appreciate my feedback and suggestions.  We have a dialogue, a dialogue (if I can say this without sounding weird) that is very much like the ones I try to create with my students, not an authoritarian call and response, but a colleague offering up an opinion as an informed reader.  I’m finding that the rhetorical moves I was taught to use in writing center consultations and in paper comments–stating your reaction “as a reader” rather than ordering the other person around–are perfectly applicable in this situation as well.  It helps that the person on the other end of the conversation adapts to the needs of his reader rather than insisting that the reader just work harder to understand.  Where he has pushed back against the reader’s reports, it has always had to do with philosophical or political disagreements.  The argument of his book is more populist than the press wants, thus making them feel that it should me published for the trade market rather than for scholars.  Also, the book deals with some politically sensitive issues that pissed one reader off to no end.  I’m guessing that the ability to adapt the writing to the reader’s needs without compromising the entire visions is how he came to be writing his fourth book and can basically choose the press he wants to work with.

So, it’s been a good lesson in how to both give and receive feedback, but it’s also been a confidence builder and an experience that has driven home the importance of peer review exercises for me.  Reading someone else’s work–whether the other person is a classmate or a superior–fortifies your instincts about what good writing looks like and how problematic writing could be adjusted.  There is something about the way we are taught about textual communication that makes us think that it is entirely up to the reader to “get” the author’s meaning, that makes us forget that readers are sometimes qualified to make certain judgments about how well an author is communicating that meaning.  In my earliest grad seminars, we often had to critique each other’s work, and I would often get intimidated by particularly dense papers whose brilliance I assumed I just hadn’t grasped.  When I started this editing project, I similarly feared that I would be revealing my own ignorance or unsophistication if I pointed out things that were unclear to me or places where the prose became cumbersome, but after getting through a few chapters (and my boss’s gracious attitude helps), I’m reminded that I am part of the audience for this work, a legitimately informed reader with enough expertise to comment on how well the author is communicating.  And that’s a pretty cool realization.

Editing someone else’s work is also a reminder that everybody’s writing has quirks, that everyone struggles with some basic aspects of usage or structure.  I, for example, have a weird penchant for using “this” ambiguously by burying the antecedent.  This guy tends to overuse “however” and often doesn’t tie parts of his historical narrative to his interpretive argument in order to remind the reader what we’re supposed to be taking away from the narrative.  In other words, one of these chapters under utilizes commentary sentences, assuming that the evidence speaks for itself, one of the writing concepts that so often bedevils my undergraduates.

It feels like I’m going to end this on a kind of “Everybody Poops” note, but it’s true.  Everyone writes shitty first drafts, and sometimes even the second or third drafts are problematic.  But the real lesson I’m trying to convey here is that you should jump at opportunities to critique other people’s work.  For one thing, you may need that person to give you feedback on your own stuff.  But it’s also important to recognize that taking the time to do this sort of thing–even if you’re not getting paid for it–may have valuable consequences for your own self-confidence and your own writing.

Why I Don’t Do Late Penalties

A recent commenter asked me to address my late paper policy (mentioned briefly in another post), so I’m going to do that here. I just want to be clear, however, that this is MY late paper policy. It works for me and my class, but I am not going to sit here and insist that it will work for everyone. If what I describe here sounds like a nightmare to you, then simply ignore it.

The short version is that I don’t penalize students for turning in papers “late.” I provide a schedule with recommended deadlines for the submission of first and second drafts, and I refuse to take papers after a set date during exam week, but I do not take points off for lateness. I used to. For the first three semesters in which I taught my own classes, I took a letter grade off for each class day that a paper was past due and then tried to grant “grace” extensions where I felt they were warranted. The reason I changed is because this policy caused more problems for me than it prevented. Having to listen to every student’s emergency and determine which ones were real and which ones merited an extension made enforcing this policy more trouble than I felt it was worth. It felt arbitrary, and I was not comfortable with it. But that’s just me. I know plenty of instructors who have no problem enforcing a late paper policy like this, who believe that it does, in fact, make their lives easier. I’m just not one of those instructors.

The way I see it, paper deadlines and the late policies that accompany them are designed to do two things:

1) Provide the student with a reasonable timeline for completing assignments.

2) Divide up the instructor’s grading load into manageable, predictable chunks.

Most people who defend the “one letter grade off” late policies cite managing their own workload and teaching the student valuable lessons as reasons for why they enforce it. I often hear things like “in the real world, their boss isn’t going to listen to their excuses.” I think that’s perfectly valid, but here’s something to think about: in the “real world,” unless the future graduate is juggling between 4 and 6 separate jobs, in which their supervisors do not communicate with one another, they are unlikely to encounter the sorts of deadline “perfect storms” that students often encounter in college. In most “real world” situations, there will be opportunities to delegate, collaborate, and negotiate deadlines in order to deal with unusually high workloads. Furthermore, time management isn’t always about meeting deadlines at any cost. It’s also about managing commitments and figuring out how you can produce work of high quality within the constraints that you are given. Since my assignments are designed to foster reflection and revision, I want to emphasize those other aspects of time management.

The key to the wording of the late policy on my syllabus is making the twin goals of late policies transparent and working the logic of incentives to help students understand why the schedule is there and what the advantages of following it are:

Papers are to be submitted online by midnight on date indicated on the syllabus. There are no grade penalties for submitting a late paper. Providing deadlines, however, ensures that I can grade and return papers to the class in a timely fashion and that you get the full benefit of a “process-oriented” approach to writing instruction. I regard the due dates listed on the syllabus as a contract with you, the student. If you meet your end of the bargain, then I can promise that all papers submitted on the scheduled Thursday will be returned on the following Thursday with extensive feedback to assist you if you choose to revise. However, if you submit a paper late, then I am not obligated to return your paper to you until the next time I grade, and I always grade in batches, so you may have to wait until the next major deadline. Papers submitted after May 6 (the last day of class) will receive little (if any) feedback due to time constraints unless you specifically seek me out during office hours.

This late policy works best in the context of unlimited revisions. Students are usually quick to recognize the importance of timely feedback in allowing them to improve lackluster paper grades. In the three semesters that I have implemented this new policy, the majority of students have hewed pretty close to the schedule, though even my very strongest students have gushed with appreciation over the opportunity to spend a few more days working on a paper that isn’t yet as good as it should be or to focus on the four exams they have that week and address the paper the next. In truth, I would much rather read papers that the student had taken an extra day on than something that was hammered together in a caffeine-induced fugue state at 3:00 in the morning.

I still get to schedule my grading exactly as I would like. I grade on the weekends that papers are due and usually check to see if there’s a chunk of late papers or revisions on off weekends. The advantage is that I no longer feel compelled–as I did under the previous model–to grade random late papers in the middle of the week in the name of getting it back to the student in a timely fashion. It’s possible that I’m the only person on earth whose brain works like that, but there it is.

Now, there will always be a couple of students that take advantage of this policy in the worst possible way by waiting until the absolute last day to turn everything in. These students come in two varieties:

1) The graduating senior who has sort of checked out or is preoccupied with something bigger (like an honors thesis) but is nevertheless so advanced that she can turn in outstanding, A-level work even at the last minute. My standards for an A are so exacting that these students are like unicorns. I have never actually seen one, though a couple came close (they got B’s). I would just let it go. This student doesn’t really need to be taking the class anyway, so if they did not breach my attendance policy, turned in daily work, and did well on reading quizzes, I’m not going to begrudge them the grade their work merits.

2) The slacker with zero time management skills. I have this student every semester. In the Spring, there’s usually two of them. Here’s the thing, I had these students even when I was enforcing a late penalty. These students rarely even pass. Both of mine failed this semester, due to turning everything in but the final paper. What having no late penalties saves me is the agonizing late semester negotiations.

And here’s the thing: grades rarely motivate these students. They sort of know that they are supposed to care about grades, but for whatever reason, they really don’t. One way I try to motivate them is through the threat of public embarrassment. All students sign up to have a paper workshopped in class at one point during the semester. If they do not show up with a completed paper on that day and have not made arrangements to reschedule, I announce it to the class. Furthermore, at mid-semester, after the first major essay has been turned in, I require each student to have a 15 minute one-on-one meeting with me about that paper. It is stunning how quickly papers start appearing in the online submission system once these conferences approach. In some ways, the an awkward conversation is more intimidating than a reduced grade.

My husband, who uses a similar policy with his advanced high school students (he teaches biology) has his students sign a slip of paper that says that they know they missed a paper deadline and understand what the possible consequences of doing so will be. In practice, it’s actually pretty evil. There are also ways to use positive reinforcement to encourage students to follow the schedule, such as giving a prize to the first student to turn in a first draft of every writing assignment.

All in all, I’m happy with this policy. The lazy students who put things off until the last minute still do poorly. The good students aren’t arbitrarily punished for having a single bad week. I still get to grade according to my own schedule, and I earn capital with my students for appearing benevolent and reasonable.

Marking a First Draft

If you allow unlimited revisions, the first draft is the entry point into a dialogue between you and your student.  It is the beginning, not the entirety, of a conversation that may progress over several drafts across a period of weeks or months. If you are concerned that allowing multiple revisions of a single assignment will just make your grading load even worse than it already is, than hopefully thinking about it in this way will bring some relief.  If the first draft is merely the first exchange in a dialogue, then you do not need to note everything that is wrong/right with the first draft. So much of the time we spend marking a paper is spent justifying the grade itself, showing what you “counted off” for, so that the student won’t complain.  If you allow for revisions, then the first grade the student sees (I actually don’t even show them the grade they would have gotten on the first draft of the first paper) is merely a starting point.  It is a measure of the distance they have to go in order to reach their goal.  Your job is to show them how to take the first step toward that goal–not the entire route, mind you–just the first step or two.

The following is adapted from a set of talking points I used for a panel discussion on grading during orientation for TA’s.  A lot of what I’m about to say will not be news to some experienced instructors, but if you are considering implementing something like this in your curriculum, here are the mark-up techniques that make it workable.

Use technology to your advantage. Paperless grading has changed my life.  I am slow when it comes to hand-writing, so typing up comments automatically saves me a great deal of time and allows me to say more without needing to ice my hand.  Using Microsoft Word’s review features like Track Changes and Comments can make draft mark-up easier, but the real benefit is being able to save your final comments to your computer for retrieval when you receive the next draft and the next.  That way, you don’t have to bother with asking students to resubmit old drafts, and you won’t have to lug gigantic folders home for grading.  Keep in mind that if you still prefer to mark up the draft itself by hand, you can always do that too.

Triage. Like I said, if you are allowing multiple revisions, then you do not need to note everything that is wrong with the first draft.  I actually limit myself to 3 issues that need to be addressed in revision.  Sometimes, I’ll just mention one, especially is the problem is at the Conceptualization level (see below).  Students can get easily overwhelmed if they get back a paper covered in red ink and a two page narrative response, listing half a dozen issues that need to be addressed.  Give your student an achievable task, knowing that you can always address lower order issues at a later stage.  A colleague of mine talks about tackling draft problems according to a hierarchy of concerns.  Here is my adaptation of that hierarchy:

Conceptualization

Is this a workable topic?

Does the paper have an arguable thesis?

Has the student done enough research to support that thesis?/Does the student have enough textual evidence (if no research was required)?

Organization

Does the macro-level structure make sense?  Are any paragraphs out of place or irrelevant?  Does the argument progress in a logical manner?

Does the student effectively transition between topics both within and between paragraphs?

Are individual paragraphs organized appropriately?  Do any need to be broken up or combined?

Does the paper have an effective introduction and conclusion?

Style

Is the tone appropriate for this sort of assignment?

Does the writer convey a strong ethos?

Is there a preponderance of overly long/short sentences and/or awkward but grammatically correct constructions?

Is the paper wordy? (unnecessary modifiers, overly complex phrases)

Editing

Is the student prone to any particular grammatical error (comma placement, doesn’t know how to use a colon, etc.)?

Any words used inappropriately? (thesaurus fetishism)

Is the paper relatively free of typos?

Originality/Wow Factor

Is the paper presenting an argument that is truly original or is it likely that you have two or more papers in your stack that sound more or less like this one?

Does the paper convey an individual, mature voice?

I have actually used this checklist as a rubric.  Remember that your goal is note no more than three issues that the student can address for the next draft, but the higher up on the hierarchy that you have to start, the less you really need to talk about in comments.  If the student has selected a wildly inappropriate topic, then you are essentially going to be telling them to start over, anyway.  The only reason to say anything about research or even organization would be to simply note that those are problems they may wish to avoid when they re-write the paper.  Any problems at the conceptualization level usually indicate that major overhaul is necessary, so beating grammatical issues to death is only going to waste your time and overwhelm the student.

The reason why Originality/Wow Factor is listed last is because these are arguably the most subjective aspects of assessment.  The originality, individuality, and voice of a paper are what make the difference between a B+ and an A in my class, and not all papers are going to ultimately reach that point.  Typically, I wait to talk about those issues until the paper has reached the B level, when the writing task is being addressed effectively but there is just something missing in the way certain parts of the argument are worded or the level of insight in the conclusions the student is drawing.  Surprisingly, originality issues don’t always require major overhaul.  It is usually a matter of fine nuance, and how individual instructors assess that is always, unfortunately, going to be subjective.  That question about whether or not the student really is “saying something new” (and by new, I mean making connections that undergraduates do not typically make, not that the student is making a major scholarly breakthrough) is what I use to assess this category, but you may take a different approach.

Minimal Markup. This is sort of redundant, but it bears repeating.  Unless your student already has a solidly conceptualized paper with a more or less appropriate organizational scheme, do not waste time marking every single grammatical error or awkward construction.  There is no point in copy editing sentences that are going to be scrapped. Use marginal comments to note places where the argument goes off the rails, when the reader is losing the thread, etc.

However, if your student is ready to begin focusing on micro-level issues, still mark copy editing problems sparingly.  Particularly if you want your student to learn something about correct usage or fluent phrasing from the experience, resist the urge to mark every error.  If you mark everything, the student has no incentive to do more than copy the corrections you’ve already made.  You just did their work for them.  Instead, note the first couple of occurrences of a particular problem and then talk about it in your final comments while directing the student to a page in your style handbook or an online resource that will help them learn semi-colon usage.  For fluency and awkwardness problems, I often recommend that the student read their paper out loud to themselves or have a friend read it out loud to them.  Places where the reader falters often signal an issue.

The advantage of this approach is that you can essentially spread out all of the commenting you would do on a single draft across multiple drafts, except with multiple revisions, the student actually has the chance to apply and learn from your suggestions. If you spend more than 15 minutes commenting on each draft, you may be doing too much.

Furthermore, once you receive a revised draft, you can simply lay it alongside the old one (electronic submissions are quite advantageous here) and see what has changed.  If the student hasn’t done what I suggested the first time, I simply refer them to the last set of comments and call it a day.

Comic via PHD Comics.

Multiple Assignments and Unlimited Revisions in a Writing Curriculum

A few weeks ago, I was browsing the Fall course offerings and came across an upper division undergraduate History class called “Religion and Popular Culture.” The content of the course looked fantastic, as the pop culture focus was on the Ben-Hur tradition (something I am currently researching), but in the part of the course description that lists assessment criteria, I found cause for concern:

Fifty percent of the course grade will be determined by class attendance and sustained and useful participation in class discussion. There will be no examinations as long as students do the assigned reading and sustain effective discussion. The other half of the course grade will be determined by the semester’s writing project. Students will write a paper of at least sixteen pages on a topic that traces a theme or development through all of the cultural manifestations of Ben-Hur over the past 125 pages. In preparing that paper they will write a brief prospectus, a longer prospectus, a first draft of the essay and then a revised draft. At all stages of the writing project leading to the final version, students’ work will be evaluated by the instructor and then re-written to reflect that evaluation.

I have said my piece about participation grades already. Basing half the entire course grade on participation seems to me to be a recipe for migraine headaches at the end of term, but this professor has been doing his thing for a long time, so I guess he has a method.

What I really want to talk about here is the logic of basing almost the entirety (given that most participation components are kind of bullshit) of a final course grade on a single written assignment and then marking it–as this course was–with a “Writing Flag.” Ok, from what I understand, “Writing Flag” courses are meant to teach undergraduates something about writing in that particular discipline. A good half of the student body tests out of the required freshman comp class here, so most writing instruction is inevitably happening in these Writing Flag courses that can be hosted by just about any department.

Now, a sixteen page research project in an upper division course is probably pretty reflective of the kind of writing one might do in the history field. At least, that’s been par for the course in all of the graduate seminars I’ve taken in the humanities and social sciences. My concern is that writing is something that one can only learn by practicing, by trial and error. Even though this particular class requires a good deal of preparatory work for the final paper (two prospectuses and a first draft), I would worry that students aren’t really getting a whole lot of practice at this particular kind of writing before it comes time to start working on this massive omnibus project.  They ought to have some lower stakes opportunities for figuring out what kinds of topics work, what counts as a thesis, how to structure and organize a smaller argument before doing a larger one, etc.

And this is a course being taught by a professor who I know to be excellent. I can see him doing quite a bit of writing instruction in the classroom, presenting samples, holding students hands through the process, giving ample feedback on proposals, etc. But there are a number of “Writing Flag” courses out there (enough that the chair of the Sophomore Literature committee warned all new instructors against following this example) that really do just demand a final draft of a huge paper on the final day of class and call that a writing course. I imagine these are the same professors who whine about the under-preparedness of college freshman (without a clue as to what the conditions are in public high school English departments) and refuse to teach “writing fundamentals” in any form whatsoever. I imagine that these are also the same professors who take off a point for every grammatical error.

Knew the material before you walked in the door and doesn't really need to be in this class.

My issue with this type of grading policy is that it does not encourage actual improvement. It’s designed to disproportionately reward students who came into the class with a lot of experience and strong skills while disproportionately punishing those with less experience and rougher skills. There’s a column at The Chronicle of Higher Education that I mostly find insufferable (for reasons I may talk about in another post) but that makes this point pretty well. Describing his first experience as a graduate student composition instructor, when he was asked to curb the trend toward grade inflation, the pseudonymous author says:

What Dr. Cathcart didn’t say, but that I realized afterward, was that Elite National U. did not want me to teach first-year students as much as sort them according to the abilities they brought with them to my classroom. Having been asked to halt the progress of Marty, a student with special needs, I had no desire to find out what happened to a TA who didn’t sort papers according to a bell-curve standard. After that day, my grading report sheets displayed lovely bell shapes.

Because first-year students’ success depended upon skills they had mastered before showing up on our campus, I suspected the same principle applied to teaching assistants.

Trying to teach writing without a strong emphasis on shorter, lower stakes assignments, regular instructor feedback, and opportunity for revision, without–in a word–PRACTICE built into the curriculum makes about as much sense as trying to teach a musical instrument via a lecture course. Imagine you are a student sitting in this hypothetical lecture course on, say, the piano, in which the professor waxes poetically about the piano itself, about the technique of great pianists past, even demonstrates his own remarkable skills and then asks everyone to learn a Sonata by the end of term without any opportunity for one-on-one instruction. The bald reality of the situation is that teaching writing–like learning an instrument–requires a great deal of back and forth between student and instructor and requires ample room for the student to take risks and mess up and then start over and try again. Teaching writing requires room for shitty first drafts.

So, while a long assignment may be desirable in your class–especially if you want your students to engage in focused research–it’s worthwhile to consider adding shorter assignments–ones that are unrelated to the larger project–to the syllabus. My students do a long paper on a text assigned in class at the end of the semester, but they also do three short analysis papers, all of which receive feedback from me.

And here’s the kicker: I allow all of my students to revise any assignment as many times as they want up to a certain date. I’m not exactly an innovator in this respect, but it’s worth mentioning here because I think this policy scares a lot of instructors, mostly because it seems like it would translate to a lot more work. It really doesn’t have to. I’m going to do a follow up post to this tomorrow (because this one is already really long) that will explain how the concept of unlimited revisions can actually drastically decrease the amount of time you spend commenting on individual drafts while actually increasing the amount of aggregate useful feedback your students get from you throughout the term. Other benefits for you include:

Fewer grade disputes: Students who know that they can revise their essays feel that they control their own destiny in your class. They are less likely to be shell shocked by a bad grade if they know they have the opportunity to change it, and that leads to less demoralization, less defensiveness, and the decreased likelihood that they will blame you for their poor performance. All of my nightmare, stalker grade grubbing incidents happened before I started allowing unlimited revisions.

Intrinsic motivation for submitting papers on time. I actually don’t even have a late policy in my class. I don’t need one. I tell students what my grading schedule is for each week, so if they want timely feedback (and I get papers back within 3 days, usually) that will allow them to revise the paper, they have to get it in by a certain time on a certain day. I love this policy for so many reasons. For one, it causes students (and therefore me) less stress, but mostly I love it because it flips the logic of due date incentives on its head by offering a reward for timely submission rather than a punishment for lateness. Also, it works.

More meaningful engagement with the writing process when revision is for a full grade replacement. Two years ago, I taught in the freshman writing program, which emphasized the revision process by requiring a revision of each of the three major essays. These revisions were recorded as a separate grade from the first draft. The problem with this approach is that most students would essentially just turn in the same paper, resigned to the fact that they were going to get more or less the same grade no matter what they did. I started seeing remarkable, thorough revisions when I offered students the opportunity to actually improve their grade by revising the paper. Furthermore, I no longer felt sketchy about encouraging revision by assigning grades strategically. Under the “separate grades” model, I felt like I needed to reward excellent first drafts (they do happen) with “A’s,” even though I knew that meant that they wouldn’t engage with the revision process. Now, I can give a strategic B+ here an there to encourage the strong students to make their papers even stronger, because they almost always do (and phooey to them if they let the opportunity slide).

The student’s final grade is ultimately a true reflection of where they are at the end of the semester rather than where they were at the beginning. And that, for me, is the true beauty of allowing unlimited revisions for a whole grade replacement, yet this seems to be a real psychological barrier for a certain type of pedagogue. The type of professor that the Chronicle essayist describes, seems to me to remain highly invested in pigeon-holing students into the “good writer/bad writer” categories. I’ve written before about why I think doing so is damaging. For one thing, it privileges students who came from the best high school programs, i.e. students who are inherently privileged already. For another thing, that’s not teaching. That’s sorting, and I find the investment of certain instructors (who often engage in this practice in the name of stamping out grade inflation) in engaging in this practice to be both cynical and discriminatory.

Not all students advance light-years in a single semester, but if you allow unlimited revisions and give some shorter, lower stakes assignments, you will often see a B- student start turning in A- work by the end of term. Not all students will revise every assignment, but almost all students will revise at least one. Not all students will learn to love writing, but some will actually start to think of themselves as people who are capable of writing, and for me, that’s good enough.

Worksheet: Editing for Readability

So, this has definitely been Usage Week here at Shitty First Drafts.  I thought I would put a cap on it by posting one of the handouts I use to teach copy editing for readability in my class.  Despite all of my ranting about Grammar Douchery this week, I do actually think that it’s important to address grammatical concepts in the classroom, but I find it works better if you talk about them in the context of readability and clarity.  The exercise below is pretty self-explanatory.  I gave this out last time I was teaching Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, but you don’t need to know the literary references in order to get the point.

A good way to use this worksheet is to put students in groups and have them revise the examples together.  Then have each group write their revisions on a blackboard so that they can see the range of workable alternative constructions.

And if you’re bored this weekend and want to play along in comments, I support that!

Editing for Readability

Though the rules of grammar may seem arbitrary, complicated, and counter-intuitive, the function of grammar and punctuation is simply to make our writing more readable.  The following sentences demonstrate a variety of problems that impair readability.  As a group, work your way through the examples and see if you can identify the problem and correct the sentence to make it more intelligible.

Possible errors (each sentence may contain more than one of these):

  • Dangling or misplaced modifiers (the modifying word or phrase seems attached to an inappropriate object).
  • Pronouns without a clear antecedent
  • Insufficient/weak punctuation (Run-on sentence, comma splice)
  • Excess or inappropriate punctuation (sentence fragment)
  • Wordiness, redundancy
  • Ambiguity

1)      Shallow.  Naïve.  Materialistic.  Words that describe Dreiser’s character.  Carrie Meeber.

2)      A sprawling city with a variety of pleasures, Carrie Meeber fell in love with the city of Chicago.

3)       Hurstwood is a man who knows what he wants which is fine food the company of wealthy men and celebrities and the love of a beautiful woman like Carrie, for him she is merely another possession worth having.

4)       Carrie doesn’t really want a husband preferring instead the material pleasures his money can provide.

5)      Hurstwood and Drouet went to the theatre, where he realized he wanted to be with Carrie forever.

6)       Another aspect is that Carrie seems more interested in what Drouet wears than other qualities.

7)       It has been said that Carrie is a an example of the New Woman, a type of modern woman who makes a living independently without the support of a husband, oftentimes entering into jobs and occupations that were previously dominated by men or considering unacceptable for women for a variety of reasons having to do with social norms and traditional morals.

8)       While looking for a job; Carrie is turned away by shop owners repeatedly.

9)      Carrie is a beautiful woman with excellent taste in clothing, who proves to be a talented actress, this is why Hurstwood falls in love with her.

10)    Ultimately, it has been observed that readers of Sister Carrie generally sympathize with the hapless Hurstwood more than they do with her, abandoning him to fend for himself at the end of the novel.

Celebrity Professors, George Lucas, and the Myth of Inviolable Genius

I’ve been sort of keeping up with the comments on The Sexist post that mentioned this blog, specifically my take down of first paragraph of God’s Brain. A few people are sort of mad about it. This one, in particular, stuck out at me:

The writing itself is only packaging for the ideas and research, secondary and kind of irrlevant, unless you are looking for a strawman to attack.

The commenter also suggests that Hess and I are criticizing Tiger because we think boys are icky, but I don’t plan to address my fear of cooties on this blog. I’m also resisting the temptation to digress at length here on the definition of “straw man,” but I think I may cover logical fallacies in a separate post. Instead, I want to address the substance of this critique, which is that when the ideas are good, the packaging (i.e. “the writing”) doesn’t really matter. This sounds an awful lot like a classic lazy student defense: MY IDEAS WERE GOOD WHY DOES IT MATTER THAT MY PAPER WAS ONE 6 PAGE PARAGRAPH!!111!!1 But isn’t there also sort of a statement about privilege going on here? Some people are required to make themselves congenial to their audience in order to hold their attention and have their ideas validated but some are not? I think I’ve heard that before.

Truth is, I think all of us need editors, people who can tell us how to best shape our message, how to make ourselves intelligible, how to present our work in the best possible way.  Western culture is deeply invested in this idea of The Author whose genius is special and individual and must break free from the constraints of “Society” or “Other People” in general in order to find his or her most authentic mode of expression.  But this obscures the fact that creative work is an inherently collaborative process, that no matter whose name gets put on the project, there are a legion of other people who helped bring it into the world.

The dissertation chapter I’m working on right now is on Theodore Dreiser, who wrote some of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, novels like Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy.  Dreiser’s relationship to the world of publishing was a fractious one.  Some publishers refused to print his works because of the sexual frankness (frankness that would appear decidedly tame now), and his work was frequently censored.  Recently, we’ve seen a variety of “uncensored” editions of Dreiser’s work come out with the juiciest stuff put back in (again, “juicy” is relative here).  The problem is that the difference between what was actually censored in his work and what was culled in order to make the prose more readable gets confused sometimes.  The additional 80 pages of Sister Carrie are a bit more sexual, but they are also pretty repetitive and  do not add very much to the story itself or the development of the characters.  The truth is that Theodore Dreiser, left to his own devices, is difficult to get through.  Raised by working class parents without much in the way of formal education, he was a terrible speller and barely had a working knowledge of punctuation.  But more problematic than that was his tendency to ramble, to repeat himself, to make his novels perhaps a bit more bulky than they absolutely needed to be.  Dare I say that in spite of his difficult relationships with his editors and people like H.L. Mencken, who helped bring his work in to the spotlight, Dreiser really sort of needed them?  That they maybe contributed to making his work precisely what we know and love today?

Another strong example of why accountability is important is George Lucas and the cinematic atrocities that were the three Star Wars prequels. If you have never seen the YouTube video critiques of these films by RedLetterMedia, you must set aside a day to watch them ASAP (disclaimer: There’s kind of a bizarre slasher film parody running alongside the commentary, which definitely warrants a trigger warning). They are hilarious and presented from the perspective of a true Star Wars fan who was disappointed by the tonal inconsistencies, plot contrivances, and overall sloppiness of the way the films were written and put together. In the the final video on The Phantom Menace, the narrator looks at the DVD special features to try to determine what went so wrong:

TRIGGER WARNING: There is a very weird moment at the end that might be upsetting (see above). I think this video series is kind of a cool lesson in narrative technique, and there actually are some excellent points about gender and race fail in Star Wars, so I sort of scrubbed it from my brain. Stop the video around 8:00 if you want to get the gist without being surprised.

The gist of it is that when Lucas was creating the first three films, he was a young, unknown, and untested filmmaker. He had to constantly make a case for his trilogy to skeptical studio executives and the experienced filmmakers who were more or less “put in charge” of him. Many of his original ideas–including bizarre concepts for the main characters, who were originally supposed to be aliens–were scrapped. When Lucas was creating The Phantom Menace, he had a free hand. As the narrator says, everyone in the room seems scared of him, of questioning his judgment. You can actually see how really, really, awful ideas like Jar Jar Binks and a bloated, six part ending are getting a pass, because no one wants to question George Lucas of the George Lucas Empire. As such, “The Phantom Menace is the biggest case of blue balls in cinematic history.”

I know that alot of people liked Avatar, but I have to say that I found James Cameron’s work to be a hell of alot more compelling when he was doing Aliens and Terminator, before he became the King of the World. And here’s the thing: unlike a lot of people, I do not believe that Lucas or Cameron are hacks. At bottom, I think that they are gifted, creative individuals capable of producing both important and enjoyable work. But, EVERYONE NEEDS AN EDITOR. Theoretically, I like the idea of creative people being given the freedom to just create, but I also know that some of the most important art has been created when the artists had to fight for their vision, when they had to overcome adversity and naysayers and budget constraints. Adversity and accountability don’t always go hand in hand, but sometimes they do. When your colleagues are so terrified of challenging you and so intent on impressing you that they are no longer capable of delivering honest feedback, your work is probably going to suffer.

I think that happens sometimes to famous academics as well. Publishing houses are so excited just to sign them, knowing that they could have gone elsewhere, that they do not challenge them as much as they would a previously unpublished scholar. Given the state of academic publishing right now and the extent to which it may become dependent on its ability to produce material accessible to the general public, that is a real shame. And it’s also sort of perplexing. I realize that Lucasfilm, which has to consist of more people in authority with substantial stakes in the company’s future than just George Lucas, made gobs of money off the prequels. I wonder how much more they might have made if they had been good. Because academic publishing barely clears the costs of printing some books (though to be clear, marketability and the profit-motive shouldn’t be the only concern here), can publishers really afford to print ones that are poorly written?

On Good and Bad Writers

Rebecca clutched her A paper enthusiastically and said, “Wow, I never really thought of myself as a good writer.”  I am always astonished at how often I hear something like this come out of the mouths of undergraduates.  Every semester, I distribute a first day survey that asks my new students, among other things, how they describe themselves as readers and writers, and most readily sort themselves into categories of “good” and “bad” writers.  Their identification with the label is clear and usually has very little predictive value in terms of the quality of the writing they do for me or their ultimate grade.  Many self-described “bad” writers do very well, while many “good” writers struggle.  That sense of identity does, however, seem to relate to feedback they have received in the past and the ways in which they have been taught to think about the writing process.

Most students seem to think I expect them to spit out a diamond on the first attempt and are both paralyzed and relieved by an approach to writing pedagogy that teaches that—as Anne Lamott famously said in Bird by Bird—most first drafts are shit, and all writing entails revision.  My training as an educator began in a Rhetoric and Writing program that strenuously emphasizes revision, but it is rather easy to insist that students accept a “process-oriented” approach to writing and engage in the process of rewriting and polishing without realizing that for the vast majority of us, there are huge psychological hurdles in the way, including our tendency to label ourselves as good and bad writers.

Rebecca’s A paper began quite humbly.  In fact, I do not grade the first draft of the first paper submitted in my lower division literature class precisely because of students like Rebecca.  The grade she would have gotten might have traumatized her beyond repair.  Asked to perform an analysis of an artifact with religious significance in accordance with one of the critical schools we had discussed in class, Rebecca produced a muddled and immature screed about why religious objections to tattoos were silly.  She had begun with good intentions, but the first draft didn’t really even meet the terms of the assignment, reading, as it did, more like a personal opinion (and not a well-articulated one) than a cogent analysis.  I considered telling her to choose an entirely different topic, but in a conversation after class, we came up with an idea that made this topic work.  That three page assignment went through three total rewrites, and ultimately she did a fourth in order to turn that short analysis into an extended research essay that described the history of religious tattoos as a practice and analyzed three modern examples of tattoos in light of that history.  She cited seven sources (she wasn’t actually required to cite any) without any prompting or leading from me and ultimately produced a document that taught me something I did not know and did so in an articulate, polished manner.  But until that point, Rebecca had never thought of herself as a good writer.

As a graduate student with a history of excellence in school, particularly in my chosen field of American Literature, I had always thought of myself as a good writer.  I used the past tense just now because that sense of identity has been challenged by the process of writing a dissertation and the seemingly endless cycles of getting feedback and rewriting, and it is particularly in this space of trying to grapple with my own writing demons that the links between my academic work and my teaching really seem to become one.  In so many ways, writing a dissertation is just like writing any other school assignment, except that some of us high-achievers who are accustomed to having the first thing we put on paper declared a diamond, it precipitates an identity crisis.  “Who am I,” we secretly wonder, “if I can no longer call myself a good writer?”

I have a hunch about why I, and others, experience this.  Writing a dissertation and all of the prospectuses and fellowship proposals and conference abstract and job letters and articles that go along with writing a dissertation present the first opportunities to write for an audience that knows and cares little about you or your topic.  “Good writers” often spend their academic lives from the time they were taught the alphabet figuring out what their primary and typically only audience wants, what sorts of ideas, words, sentence constructions, and references get them excited and coax from their pens the desired and expected “A.”  Such writing often occurs in the context of a pedagogical relationship in which clear roles have been negotiated:  “I am the ‘good student’ who always makes delightful comments in class and stays ahead in the reading and you are the A-generating machine charged with assisting me along the golden path of my Honors career.”  The people reading your fellowship proposal, or deciding whether or not to sit on your committee, or reviewing your article for publication, have no such relationship with you.  Furthermore, they haven’t been teaching you the very topic of your submitted piece.  So, as an advanced graduate writer, the bulk of your work is spent gauging what this unenlightened and potentially hostile audience might want , and that means getting lots and lots of feedback from people who will be honest and occasionally petty and then revising, revising, revising.  It would be wrong to say that I envy people like Rebecca, who expect very little of their writing and therefore experience no disappointment when they receive a mediocre grade and lukewarm feedback.

But all of us use the labels of “good” and “bad” writer for ego-protection, to convince ourselves that we don’t have to engage in that process because the outcome is predetermined by our own innate talents.  If you’re a bad writer, then there’s no point in trying very hard.  This just ain’t your thing.  If you’re a good writer, then you shouldn’t really have to try either, because you’re just that “good.”  When the bad writer receives a lower than desired grade, he attributes it to an inborn lack of talent and avoids writing whenever possible.  When the good writer receives the same grade, she feels that something in their world is terribly, terribly wrong and may attribute the event to some external force:  the teacher hates me, she just doesn’t understand what I’m trying to say, this assignment was stupid, etc.

I’m envisioning two major purposes for this blog:

1)  To provide practical advice about writing to students and those who must write for their jobs but do not consider themselves to be professional writers.

2)  To engage in some meta-commentary about writing pedagogy, including how and why we tend to sort ourselves and our students into “good” and “bad” categories.

So, here we go.