I have been grading lately (or procrastinating instead of grading) (hence the plethora of memes and quizzes), and it reminded me of something that I meant to write about earlier: gradingspeak.
This is a term I've just coined, and it's kind of ugly and cumbersome, but it seems the best way to describe what happens to my writing when I comment on student papers. All my ideals about active, direct writing slide away, and I find myself adopting a completely different voice, one that makes considerable use of the passive (something I try to avoid in my own writing and which I beat down with a stick when I see it in student papers).
First of all, I almost never say "you" when I offer criticisms, only when I praise the paper. For instance, I will say, "You do a very good job of recognizing the contradictions between X and Y," but then I will say, "The paper needs more examples/evidence to support its claims in the last two pages." "The paper" takes on a life of its own in my comments, doing or not doing various things that it shouldn't/should be doing. (I say "almost never" because if I have a paper that really is truly crap, I abandon the polite fiction of "the paper" and say things like, "You need to provide evidence," "You need to explain the topic in your introduction," "You need to include citations," etc. Basically, if I say "you [didn't do something you should/did something you shouldn't]" in comments, you're in trouble.)
The passive voice also magically appears in my comments, although I try really hard to avoid it in my own writing and beat it down with a stick in my students'. (As an aside, yes, I know passive voice is fine if used for a particular purpose, but in general, a history paper is not the place for it.) So, for example, I'll say something like, "in the conclusion, what exactly do you mean about Lucrecia not being a progressive woman? I think you are getting at an important point about why even write about this woman [see, "you" + positive comment], but it could be made a little more explicit," or, "rather than simply saying the book is a microhistory that provides this inside view of the era, it would be possible to say something a little more decisive here." Not: "you could make this more explicit" or "you could say something more decisive" - just the hints of the passive voice, delicately suggesting what might or could be done - by someone, something, unnamed - who just might happen to be the student author in question.
This reminds me, irresistibly, of something a fellow grad student once said about the Spanish language - how it allowed its speakers to abdicate responsibility so easily. Said grad student was climbing a mountain while doing research in a Spanish-speaking country (mountain climbing being a favorite hobby of his) and partnered up with a native of the country. They were camping for the night and it was cold and windy, with ice on the ground, so they really needed the pad that goes under sleeping bags in such conditions (I have no idea if there's a better name for it), and they only had one, which they were sharing. Well, the Spanish speaker managed to drop the pad and the wind instantly snatched it and whisked it away into the darkness. When my friend looked at his partner, appalled, the partner said, in Spanish, with perfect aplomb: "It fell from me." Not "I dropped it," but "it fell from me." This was, my friend explained, a perfectly normal construction in Spanish, even though an English speaker wouldn't put it like that. The passive voice in my comments serves the same purpose - to remove blame, to maintain a polite fiction that the student, had they been paying enough attention to the strange independent being that is their paper, would have been able to produce something better, but in this case the paper got away from them and worked mischief of its own.
I should add, too, that I never consciously decided to comment in gradingspeak - it's a style that I just developed over time, and only recently have come to recognize for its distinctiveness.
I suppose that one could argue against gradingspeak, and make a compelling case for retaining directness and responsibility in paper comments. It may be that my students entirely ignore the criticisms couched as possibilities in my comments. One might accuse me of pandering to students by sheltering them from even the minimal possibility of hurt feelings occasioned by telling them directly that they've done something wrong. But I think I'll stick with gradingspeak for at least while longer. I don't think it hides the meaning of what I'm saying from my students; In the comments as a whole, I try to provide very specific, concrete suggestions about what needs to be fixed or worked on further. And while sometimes it seems like students consciously choose to infuriate us by leaving out evidence, operating on unexamined assumptions, failing to organize, or leaving out introductions and conclusions altogether, I try to remember that if students knew how to do better, they would do better - that they have far more important things in their lives than figuring out how to piss of their history professor. They're not trying to write to piss me off. Moreover, writing is incredibly personal, and scary. I've been scarred one too many times by thoughtless comments on my own written work (to the day I finished my degree, I could not read comments by my advisor until I was safely home, alone, for fear that those comments would make me cry. Okay, so I'm kind of a wuss, but it was still a revelation for me the day I got comments back on the first piece I had published, and they were so - well - reasonable! They had criticisms, of course, but they offered - wow - specific suggestions on how to improve! And they were encouraging! You mean comments can look like this? Amazing). My hope is that gradingspeak helps students keep their emotions out of their response to grades/comments, and think about the criticisms as about their writing, not them as people.
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