The End Comment:
Maximizing the Teaching Moment in Teacher Response
Two weeks into my inaugural semester as a first-year writing instructor I received the first stack of rough drafts. While sitting at my desk, contemplating this formidable mound of student composition, I realized that my students expected my responses to teach them how to improve their writing; I felt not only the weight of their expectations, but the weight of the expectations of the institution that hired me to teach. As a first-semester instructor, most days I felt like a pretender at the front of the classroom, and yet here were twenty four-page papers for me to review. I took up my pen and began to read; at first, my efforts felt much like what Donald Murray calls “repetitive autopsying” (3), replete with copious suggestions in the marginalia, regular—sometimes heavy-handed—copyedits, and a coup de grace end comment. I not only wanted to sound intelligent to my students, but I wanted to prove myself a capable, competent, and caring reader. Careful reading and responding taught me, however, that “responding to and commenting on student writing consumes the largest proportion of our time” as instructors (Sommers 352). Each paper required twenty-five minutes of my precious time: time that I had to balance between completing my own graduate coursework, class preparation and instruction, and response to student writing.
When I realized that college composition experts could not agree on a reasonable commenting strategy to strike this delicate balance, I began earnestly researching response strategies, but found little guidance from Richard Straub’s conclusion that “the optimum style of response for any teacher is going to be a function of her personality and teaching style” (247). As I reviewed the scholarship surrounding the various modes of commentary, the end comment seemed to provide one promising strategy to reduce my response time, while allowing me to fulfill my responsibilities to teach principles of effective writing to my students. Composing an end comment that incorporates the suggestions of response scholarship might provide an effective response method by allowing an instructor to reduce response time while encouraging students to maintain control over their work and to explore their own ideas through writing.
Much teacher response scholarship focuses on the power dynamic that exists between students and instructors inside the classroom and in response to student writing: a power dynamic where teachers and students negotiate authority over student writing (Brannon and Knoblauch 158; Dohrer 51; Giberson 412; Sommers 353; Straub 233). All agree that control over student writing should be returned to the students, but few articulate the best commenting modes for accomplishing that task. Brannon and Knoblauch argue that directive comments tell students exactly “what to do” in revision and thereby place control of student writing in the hands of the instructor (163). They argue that directive comments “show students that the teacher’s agenda is more important” and tell students “that what they wanted to say is less relevant” than what the teacher thinks they should have said (158). Most often these types of comments evidence themselves as sentence-level revisions and heavy-handed commands in the marginalia. Facilitative commentary, they argue, asks questions that “make the writer think about what has been said” in the writing and thereby cede control over writing to students (163). Facilitative comments are often phrased as questions that ask the student what he or she meant to say, or ask how he or she might elaborate an idea more clearly. Brannon and Knoblauch propose that the multiple-draft assignment provides “an opportunity for dialogue” between the student and instructor helping both to focus on revision (162). They argue that we should make facilitative comments, but stop short of explaining which commentary modes serve as the most facilitative (161).
Richard Straub challenges the notion that a diametrically opposed dyad exists between directive and facilitative comments. He proposes, instead, that actual response is a hybridization of the two, which manifests itself “by the way [an instructor] frames his comments” either in the margins or the end comment, but he too does not articulate which modes are preferable for ceding control to students (234). Gary Dohrer argues that instructors can cede control over student writing by reducing the quantity of comments and by avoiding “comments that do not give the students enough information” to make substantive revisions (54). Each of these scholars presents a sound argument, but each fails, in turn, to propose a particular mode of commentary capable of attenuating the complications a traditional power dynamic presents to student writing and revision; Straub comes the closest when he champions Peter Elbow’s approach as “the least controlling” of the four pedagogues he studied (245). Though Straub highlights the fact that Elbow’s only response to student writing is a letter to the student, Straub fails to articulate that the type of comment he finds least controlling is the end comment. Formulating a thoughtful end comment, therefore, might provide a means to accomplish Dohrer’s suggestion to minimize student confusion, while also following the suggestions of Brannon, Knoblauch, Sommers, and Straub to increase student control over student writing.
The end comment can provide a way to make the instructor’s responsibility to respond to student writing more productive for both the instructor and the student by opening avenues for students to assume control over their work. End comment scholarship pushes some of the arguments of earlier response research, but end comment scholars are few indeed. Some scholars argue that response inhabits a rhetorical situation of which instructors are often unaware (Batt; Giberson 413), while others argue that response should be more dialectical in nature, providing students a voice in the dialogue involved in the writing process (Fife and O’Neill). Any rhetorical situation, dialectical or otherwise, must recognize that confusion can occur at any point during the course of persuasive appeals. Scholars agree that instructors must “consider the possibility that our [students] might not understand what our comments mean” (Giberson 413); however, scholarship only hints at the root to student confusion (Dohrer 53; Haswell; Sommers 356). In Dohrer’s review of the problems that students confront, he argues, “students often have difficulty determining which of the teachers‟ comments are most important” (53). While he does not explicitly state that the confusion stems from abbreviated marginal comments and copyedit shorthand symbols, those who have faced the struggle to respond to student writing can imagine that the end comment, with its fleshed-out prose style, provides one method to reduce the risk for student confusion. Not only can embracing the end comment reduce the confusion students feel in reading our response, but by appropriately incorporating the suggestions of response scholarship into our end comments we can also reduce our response time and cede control back to the students over their own writing.
My study includes provisional information that the classroom of one semester’s coursework can provide, but I believe that the method can be adopted and modified by other instructors who struggle to balance graduate studies and teaching assignments. The end comment is not without its own set of challenges. In my own classroom, I found that I tended to rely on marginal comments to convey revision strategies to my students and, more often than not, the end comment was tacked on at the end of the paper, next to the grade, as a final complimentary afterthought. In some ways, this made my commenting strategy feel underhanded: a way of pairing a grade the student might not like with a positive comment, while hiding the real critique in the marginalia. I also found that when students received a graded paper from me they looked at the grade, then the end comment, and finally the marginal comments—but they looked at the marginal comments only if they had to. I realized I failed to make an attempt at suggesting gaps in their arguments, at identifying confusing organizational patterns, or at articulating questions a common reader (like me) might still have in my end comments. And yet, I knew that students preferred “response formats that [allow] for more elaborate comments” (Edgington 288). In my experience, “elaborate” does not mean that a comment should be essay length or byzantine in structure or scope. It does, however, mean that the prose style of the end comment permits more space to elaborate issues that might help students to more fully reconceptualize their writing projects than the marginal comment. The end comment might also help to “sabotage” student notions that their work is finished (Sommers 358) because it raises new questions for students to answer about their own writing. The end comment also allows me to let go of the self-destructive impulse to commandeer student writing, which shortens my response time and allows me to complete my other responsibilities.
I opted to implement an end-comment-only strategy for the rough drafts of the largest assignment of the semester in my first-year writing class, a research-based argument of eight to ten pages in length. The reason was quite simple: commenting on multiple drafts of twenty eight-page papers usurps time from the other work that I do as a graduate student. I was guided by scholarly advice to be text-specific (Sommers 356), to be more facilitative than directive (Brannon and Knoblauch; Straub 246), to make fewer comments (Dohrer 54), and to elaborate critiques to my students (Edgington 288); however, I also incorporated some key end comment recommendations from Thomas Batt and Summer Smith. Smith provides the seminal text for all discussion of the end comment. She notes that teachers normally write the end comment under generic constraints, which limit, or determine, what we feel we can say and how we can say it; she argues that these constraints “reduce the educational effectiveness of the [end] comment” (266). By effectiveness, she intends to imply that end comments serve rhetorically to persuade our students to revise their ideas as expressed in writing. She worries, however, that the end comment conventionality of overwhelming positivity undercuts, and perhaps supersedes, in the eyes of students, any negative commentary found in the margins. Batt revises Smith’s model by embracing the rhetorical situation presented by the end comment to both the instructor and the student, incorporating a strategy derived from rhetoric; he proposes a rhetorically epideictic approach because “epideictic, or ceremonial rhetoric, is concerned with praise or blame” (214). By focusing on both praise and blame, an epideictic approach helps to assuage the anxiety that Smith feels. He further argues that “[b]y pointing out not only where but why the student’s essay was effective” we can implicitly argue that the student “should continue making use of the rhetorical strategies that have worked” for him or her (215).
After my students submitted their research-based argument rough drafts, I made an effort to reserve all comments for the end. I admit to certain misgivings that I was somehow failing to teach them by not circling misspelled words, indicating awkward sentences, asking for clarification, and even that I might risk students interpreting the lack of excessive comments as a sign that their papers were complete. I hoped, however, that my slightly more hands-off approach might remove the path of least resistance that copious commentary normally paves for students—to reduce, as Dohrer argues, any encouragement for students to “abandon the goal of improving their own writing skills for the more immediate goal of getting a higher grade” (51). I found that my end comments averaged a little over two hundred words. I structured each end comment in a similar way. I began by praising each student for one area of the grading rubric where he or she had excelled: incorporating quotes, accounting for counterarguments, responding to counterarguments, or praising excellent research. I then had two options: I could ask the students how they could duplicate something they had done well in one area of their paper or I could explain some element with which they seemed to struggle. To direct their attention to specific passages, I included the corresponding page number and paragraph number. In this way, I hoped to incorporate Batt’s suggestion that the praise be “rooted in specific textual references, which are held up as examples for the student to follow in revising other parts of his or her essay” (221). By eliminating the marginal comments, I shaved off an average of ten minutes per paper, which saved me over three hours. I returned the papers to the students during individual conferences that I had with them.
Even after having accomplished this work, I still had to account for one final major gap in response scholarship: student reaction to teacher commentary. While some scholars hint at the need for dialogue (Brannon and Knoblauch 162; Fife and O‟Neill 309) and others recognize that creating space for dialectic in the response process might improve the effectiveness of commenting by fostering student-centered revision (Edgington 288; Giberson 412), very few actually present methods or metrics for gauging the success of various response strategies. In order to get a preliminary glimpse at the effectiveness of my end comment approach, at the beginning of each individual conference I asked the student to read through the end comment before we began our dialogue. The response was mostly positive. However, I wanted to know what they thought about the method so I prepared a short survey and distributed it to my students to measure the method’s strengths and weaknesses. The survey included two parts. Part one consisted of six short-answer questions that aimed at gauging which commentary modes students preferred and the overall effectiveness of the end comment in meeting my objectives to be facilitative, text-specific, and epideictic, and whether or not they would revise their papers as a result. Part two requested that they respond to my end comment in one paragraph. I wanted to know if they felt cheated by my end-comment-only approach, or if I could at least challenge them to commence a dialogue with me about their papers.
The results of this survey overwhelmingly confirmed that the end comment could successfully meet Dohrer’s suggestion to reduce the number of comments and that students would respond positively to an end-comment-only approach. However, one student wrote: “quite frankly I probably most prefer marginal comments because not only do they make the editing process easier…but it also allows us as students to see your thought development along the way…it makes the finishing process a lot simpler and less demanding.” This student’s comment indicates that the student’s objective was different from mine. The student was writing for a grade, while I had hoped that the student would write to explore ideas and to learn. Another student countered that she preferred end comments:
Through the questions posed in the end comments, I can reflect on my own paper and figure out myself what needs to be improved instead of depending on my teacher [to] tell me exactly what to do. I learn better this way because the next time I write a paper, I remember what I discovered on my own the previous times and can immediately apply those things to my first draft.
This second student’s comment confirms that making an end comment text-specific, by citing the page number and paragraph number, can empower students to make writing a learning experience by making it their own. Yet another student wrote she liked the end comment because it “made me look over my concepts and strengthen [them]. I came up with new ideas that I probably wouldn’t have thought of if the end comments spoon-fed me what I needed to change.” The importance of this student’s comment is that she came up with new ideas on her own. This is precisely the kind of cognitive development that I hope to teach my students, one in which my comments encourage them to find new ideas on their own. Far more class members agreed with the second and third students than the first, though another student wrote that marginal comments served a purpose because they “make it a lot easier to talk about a specific paragraph…and it makes it easier to see what you are talking about.” Though the end comment for this student included the page number and paragraph number, he still valued the marginal comment because it helped orient him when he went to the referenced passage.
When discussing the facilitative (based on Brannon and Knoblauch’s suggestions), versus the directive, nature of the comments, most students agreed that end commentary was facilitative, or that it encouraged them to reassess the effectiveness of what they had said. I stressed the use of open-ended questions when framing the end comments so that students could not merely answer them yes/no. My hope was that the questions would require students to reevaluate their own arguments from a metacognitive perspective. To some extent it seems that my students feel that I succeeded. One student wrote that the end comment facilitated her active participation in the revision process. She appreciated that it made her “go back through the draft [herself] and find the specific places in the paper that can be improved” instead of relying on the instructor to highlight them all. Most students in my class echoed this sentiment. Most actually appreciated the chance to take personal ownership of their writing, but one student still worried “that I may not discover the ‘correct’ solutions. What I may see as a solution to a problem…may not necessarily be the way you intended for me to fix it.” I think that this student voices the legitimate anxiety that students feel when writing in a new environment, but this line of thinking is precisely what I am trying to subvert in the way that I comment. I hope to create an environment where students feel like they can say what they want to say, according to the guidelines of the assignment, in a way that they feel expresses their individual voice. My intent in an end-comment-only approach is to avoid demonstrating that I have “intentions” for their writing, other than facilitating their learning.
The fact that responding in a new way to student writing produces anxiety in both the instructor and the student should not dissuade instructors from using the end comment as a means to incorporate the most beneficial suggestions from response scholars. Far from reiterating Straub’s conception of optimum response being a function of teacher personality and teaching style, the end comment provides an effective commentary mode to reduce response time, while increasing student participation in mapping out the revision process. My provisional research results indicate that the end comment provides a useful method for an instructor to cede control over student writing to the students themselves; however, my own experience indicates that the end comment itself might still be too vague to convey a feeling of text-specificity when responding to student work. In taking my student comments into consideration, rather than merely citing a page number, I might use a brief marginal comment or symbol to indicate the specific paragraph(s) under consideration in the comment. In this way, I might be able to overcome the fact that my strategy could not eliminate student confusion. In the future, it might be beneficial to reproduce the structure of this end comment inquiry, but to incorporate minimal marginal markings that allow students to locate the element of their paper under discussion.
Marginal comments are beneficial to both student and instructor in teaching elements of writing, like style and punctuation. They also serve as signposts in helping the student understand how a real reader responds to his or her writing, but the abbreviated nature of marginal comments reduces an instructor’s space to elaborate evaluations of rubric-specific criteria. I recommend using marginal comments primarily to teach the student how his or her work conveys meaning. Marginal comments are well suited for asking students to clarify a particular element in their paper or to explain an inconsistency within a paragraph. Consequently, both these strategies are facilitative in that they ask the students to explore how they can revise their own work, rather than merely telling them what to do and how to do it. Following Dohrer’s advice, I recommend that we focus on two or three things that we feel are the most critical for the reader to understand what the student wants to say. Our multiple-draft assignments allow us to focus on a few problems per draft in student writing, since we know that we will have a next draft to focus on other issues. I recommend using the end comment, then, as the primary mode of commentary to elaborate the questions raised in the margins, making sure to reference the page number of the marginal comment under discussion so the students can orient themselves to the passage. By making the focus of our commenting strategy the end comment, I believe that we can become better teachers by helping students to make “a powerful first step in the development of mature competence” if we commit to facilitative comments which prompt students to rethink their ideas (Brannon and Knoblauch 166). In encouraging our students to take the step toward cognitive development, we find one more avenue for us to fulfill our responsibilities to teach.
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