After my last post, it only seemed fair to write about the other kind of stubborn memory that stays in the mind… When a teacher flames your writing with a harsh marginal comment.

There are several such embarrassing moments for me, but one that really got under my skin happened in grad school. And you have to understand that this context made it all worse because I was getting my master’s degree in English Composition, where there was a reasonable expectation that students should be able to turn out some highly wrought prose. For me, and for one teacher in particular, that wasn’t the case.

As an undergrad, my teachers had exposed me to a handful of theoretical texts; I don’t think I read them too closely. But it wasn’t until grad school that I was reading this stuff week in week out. It was ordinary to trudge through authors who wrote sentences like:

“It is rooted in an essential function of language itself, a function that is wholly realistic, and is continually born anew; the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols.”

Unfortunately (or fortunately for some?), when the mind is swollen with this kind of writing, the style seeps out. I sometimes wonder if this is only the curse of English majors – we couldn’t help but start to sound like the things our teachers made us read so there was always a little Jane Austen and James Weldon Johnson in my literature essays. At any rate, the habit carried on into my Comp essays, so I would find myself trying to wrest some profound thought out of my meager sentences and would just end up with a convoluted string of gobbledygook.

I can’t remember exactly what I wrote or even what I was writing about, but the above was my process for creating a paper I submitted that was returned to me with a single comment, “Work on your writing. You’re in grad school.

Mortified, I turned the page over on my desk and looked around. Other students were gleefully feasting on their own long marginal notes written in the teacher’s classic purple ink. I didn’t have that. What I did have was an immediate impression that I did not belong in the room, in the program, or even at the school for that matter.

The comment made me retreat back to my Strunk & White and other style manuals that I hadn’t looked at in years, and I labored over the other essays I wrote in that class to a point of tedium. But I’m not sure any of this made my essays better. It just made me embarrassed to turn them in.

What strikes me about these two stories (this one and the one I posted last week), is the way a teacher’s comments can mark out a student’s position in the university. One welcomes them in. The other does not.


4 thoughts on “DISAPPROVAL

  1. Ah… the days of receiving feedback on our essays… The days when we thought we had turned in well wrought words, only to find out they were, well, rotten words… I remember them, some all too vividly.

    But I can’t help thinking that I must be fortunate to see those harsh words. How awful it would have been to have had no comments or feedback at all. No news may be good news, but in the world of creativity, I came to realize the truth in the saying that to be ignored is far worse than being condemned, albeit unfairly.

    In fact, this is what I often tell my programming students. That if they write an app and it receives bad reviews, and a storm of bad feedback and angry comments in forums, they really ought to be happy – ‘Cuz that means people are using their app and finding needs that it doesn’t yet meet. How much worse it would have been if their app had been silently ignored, as are the vast majority of them?

    Thanks for sharing.



    1. I agree. Critical feedback is absolutely necessary, especially for us as teachers as we try to negotiate how to best help our students learn new concepts. I would say, though, that some of the kinds of feedback we give can be better and some can be worse. Take the example from my own paper; what would help more: “Work on your writing” or “Here are three key areas where you can work on your writing…”? I’m leaning more towards the latter and have been trying for more clarity in both the positive and constructive feedback I give to students. Even if I like something they’ve done, I try to briefly explain why it’s effective. If I think they need to work on something, I point them to specific resources that can help. Gone are the days of vague responses like “awk” and “?” and “✓”.


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