There is so much to say on the topic of student feedback, so much to discuss and debate. Peter Elbow in his article “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking” and John C. Bean’s chapter “Writing Comments on Students’ Papers” from his book Engaging Ideas really highlights the importance of the right kind of feedback.
Elbow’s article was very intriguing, and I agreed with him on most of his ideas around feedback. Elbow advocates for moving away from ranking and holistic scoring and moving toward more evaluating and even non-evaluating (low stakes) assignments. When discussing ranking and holistic scoring, he talks about how many who are in favor of this type of feedback say that their rubric is based on things that all/most readers would agree on, and he challenges this idea. Elbow points out how rare it is to find a group of people who would be in such agreement and that when those cases occur it is a small group with like-minded values and ideas, and shouldn’t we be looking for a diverse and wide group for evaluating papers? He argues that agreement shouldn’t be a goal and I (ironically) agree. What is research if not debate? As a writer and a student, the more eyes I can get on my paper, the more thoughts and perspectives, the better.
He also talks about the effect of ranking and holistic scores on students. One note he made that really resonated with me was, “But oddly enough, many ‘A’ students also end up doubting their true ability and feeling like frauds-because they have sold out on their own judgement and simply give teachers whatever yields an A,” (Elbow, 190). I wholeheartedly agree. I have chosen topics and written many papers, not caring if I enjoyed, liked, or even cared about what I was writing, as long as I knew what I was producing would be something the teacher would enjoy or grade highly.
Too many times, I have played Ariel and given my voice up, not for a Prince or love, but for a grade and an opinion that in the long run didn’t really matter.
In writing for school, I have always played it safe, and Elbow highlights that through non-evaluative low stakes exercises teachers can push their students to take risks in their writing and that this process without evaluating or ranking can still improve the writing and has more benefits than evaluating or ranking have: it leads to clarity, more interesting voices, livelier and more fluent writing, and investing and risking more in their writing. All things that are at the crux of teaching writing and what I would hope all teachers want their students to improve upon.
His last advocation in the article is for liking and having both students and teachers like the work they are doing and reviewing, respectively. This section really made me think about projects that I have conjured up with so much passion and then set aside. I never considered the importance of liking my work at all stages, but it makes so much sense. If you Google or ask many people how to write a novel, you will get different answers, but all would tell you to write the first draft before revising, to write and focus on the words that come next because when you don’t like your work you lose momentum in wanting to continue with it and your first draft might be something you don’t like. It’s also important to get other eyes on it that even with criticism will highlight the parts that they like, and sometimes those eyes are that of a teacher (and they are usually the first set of eyes on that paper which is even more influential). Elbow talks about how readers’ liking your work can help you like your work and that you can realize the writing is terrible, but you still like it and vice versa that the writing is great, but you hate it. It really makes me think hard about my writing and be more thoughtful about the people I share it with.
John Bean’s article was a little different from Elbows. Bean really focuses on the teacher aspect and takes on more of a teacher role himself. He walks us through not just the benefits of the right kind of feedback but gives examples and step-by-steps. One of the first comments he makes in the article was really shocking for me and something I never thought about as a student, he said, “Sometimes [teachers] do not treat students’ work in progress with the same sensitivity that we bring to our colleagues’ work,” (Bean, 317). This was a short but eye-opening sentence for me.
When I think back on all of my academic career and the teachers that I felt connected to and remember as being influential teachers with my writing, they all had one thing in common: they took my work seriously. For those teachers, my work wasn’t just another essay or assignment or just some 6th grader’s idea for a book, the works were that of a future and current writer who was asking for honest feedback and criticism and they treated it that way. This idea is so important, but I think it’s groundbreaking. To have teachers who take your work seriously, especially at stages when you don’t feel comfortable calling yourself a writer, it is life altering. I think it can be really easy for teachers to forget that there are individuals behind each paper, and I understand that, either Bean or Elbow, I don’t remember which one, spoke on how reading wasn’t meant to happen on a scale of 25-50 papers, that isn’t how we consume writing. Just like you get into a flow of writing, I believe you can get into a flow of marking/grading/evaluating and it can be easy to disconnect from the writing and the person who wrote it. Looking at a student’s work similarly to that of a colleague’s is invaluable.
Bean also showed how students have interpreted simple comments and stresses the importance of positive feedback. He talks about direct criticism versus mitigated criticism and that students prefer mitigated criticism and it’s more helpful for any writer. He also discusses how revising isn’t just editing but “rev-visioning” and I really loved that. As an editor this is so important and something many people tiptoe across because we feel like we are “changing” their paper or idea, but presented in the right way, it is just something for them to think about, it is another perspective, and they need that (we all need that) to grow as writers. Bean spends a lot of time giving examples and shows exactly how to take what he has discussed and put it into practice, which is so helpful. It’s hard to just understand that you need to change the way you do something, but he really helps show where and how to start.
Both articles made me reflect on ways teachers and professors have influenced my writing, both made me see ways I can improve my peer feedback and commentary when I am editing for work or extracurriculars. I feel like a more aware student and while these are important articles for teachers and future teachers; I think they are imperative ways for students to empower themselves and challenge the feedback they have been given.