How Teaching Has Made me a Better Writer — a Guest Post by Feminist Figure Girl

This week, the Lianne McTavish and I swapped posts! She writes the Feminist Figure Girl blog and if you haven’t seen it before, go read it right now! It’s epic and is, without question, my favourite blog. Lianne is a 45-year-old female professor, who decided to combine her identities (scholar/gym rat) in 2010 to create Feminist Figure Girl, a bodybuilding honey badger. She started her blog blog when she was training and dieting for her first figure competition, held in June of 2011 and has now written a book inspired by the process.  Her blog is filled with feminist reflections on food, working out, sexuality, and bodies, and I heartily encourage all my readers to check it out! Here, Lianne takes on teaching. In many ways my mirror, she explains what useful lessons can be pilfered from the classroom and used in the presentation of one’s research.

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[Feminist Figure Girl]

Many professors and teachers are preached the golden rule: teaching and research go hand in hand, mutually informing each other. Yeah right, you might think. So why are we rewarded with less teaching when we win large grants or move up the food chain to become senior scholars? I think you can see the irony. Here I will admit that I am one of the bad guys, actively striving to spend less time in the classroom as I gain authority/seniority. In fact, in my dream life I would never have to teach again. If you are shocked right now, then you are no friend of mine. For when I close my eyes and click my heels together, I am transported from a classroom filled with twenty-year olds wearing pajama pants into the kitchens of King Henry VIII at Hampton Court. There I work as a food historian, recreating Tudor recipes using open fire pits, large cauldrons, and heavy spits laden with chunks of beast. In another dream, I do research in archives, libraries, museums, and gyms 100% of my time, never again offering an undergraduate course. Now don’t get me wrong; I do not loathe teaching. Far from it. I even think that I am pretty good at it. All the same, course preparation and grading prevent me from doing what I absolutely love and find far more gratifying: writing. Whenever I am not cooking or lifting weights, I am producing academic books, popular articles, catalogue essays about contemporary art, and posts for my blog called feministfiguregirl.com.    

At this moment, I am sitting in a classroom at the Rare Book School, held at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, secretly composing both a chapter of my book and this guest post, while listening to the instructor talk about Doctor Beaumont and his stomach experiments. Cool. I am clearly a big fan of multi-tasking, linking activities together to produce a superior form of knowledge. That is why I am also trying to look more favourably on my 20 years of teaching experience at universities, medical schools, and art galleries. I realize that in addition to learning how to manage large groups and grade efficiently, I have become a better writer by teaching. For the rest of this post I will list some of the writing tips that ultimately stem from the classroom. Please expand on and respond to them in your comments.     

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[FFG’s current reading material]

1)      Be methodical. There is no need to deliver all of your material on a particular subject at once. It works best to start with the basics and then build up toward complexity. Just as you would not overwhelm your students with too much information, so too should you avoid overwhelming your readers. Resist the urge to show off by displaying everything you know and instead focus on the more important goal at hand: communication.

2)      Pace yourself. While teaching I regularly pause or create some kind of interlude in order to give my students a rest from taking in new information, to let them catch up on their notes, or simply to allow them to close their eyes for a moment of peace. Do the same for your readers. Unroll your argument at a regular pace that will depend on the topic at hand, being sure to give readers time to reflect and rest along the way.

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[Pace yourself]

3)      Repeat yourself. Or at least drive the point home by reminding readers why what you are saying is important. Just as your students cannot pay attention for hour after hour even when fueled with Tim Horton’s coffee, nor can your readers concentrate endlessly. Provide them with signposts in the form of subtitles, key terms, or literal reminders of what you have previously argued in order to guide them along the way, something that is particularly necessary in long articles and chapters. In short, be kind to your readers without insulting their intelligence.

4)      Be generous. Don’t adopt a defensive or know-it-all tone while writing, just as you should never do so while teaching. In my experience, students will simply stop listening if you become bombastic. Similarly, even the most interested readers will disengage if they decide that you are a pompous ass. By all means be opinionated and self-confident while performing both types of work. Do so, however, in a way that invites rather than forecloses questions. While writing, allow people to take your ideas and use them to pursue their own projects and questions.  

5)      Follow your passion. This is the advice I give most often to my graduate students. After reading their drafts I will say: “I can tell that you hated writing this section, but that you are in love with the second half of this chapter. So delete all the shit in the first half and expand on that about which you actually care.” If you write out of obligation rather than genuine interest, the results will most likely be laboured and unpleasant to read. I learned this rule during my first job teaching a 3-3 course load that required me to develop new courses every single year. As I worked my way through about 21 new course preps—and yes I did manage to publish at the same time though I did not do too much partying—I realized that I was a terrible teacher when I was uninterested in the content. When forced to teach a survey course on Canadian art, something I had never studied, I lightly skipped over the eighteenth-century landscapes that I considered boring and focused on modern and especially contemporary Aboriginal art, which I found fascinating. Moving quickly to a subject that I cared about was the right decision.  Hopefully you are in a position to choose what to teach or at least how to teach it. You almost certainly have this freedom with your writing, so (to repeat) do not write about something that bores the living crap out of you. Your readers will be able to tell.

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[Write what you love or face the consequences]

6)      Work organically. With this elusive advice I essentially mean that you should not write in separate sections. Just as you teach with the big picture in mind, reminding students of key themes along the way while weaving back and forth in time, so too should your writing unfold within a larger framework. Do not write in a piecemeal fashion, for instance by producing a historiography section, followed by one about syphilis, and then one on tuberculosis. [Can you tell that I am an historian of medicine and the body?]. I have heard that some people will actually write up such sections in random order, using written or typed notes, and then paste them together in a quilt-like fashion. If you write this way, I want you to stop it right now. Yes your work will still get published if you are a “chunk” writer, especially if you are in a non-writerly field, but it will never be as good as something that unfolds in a more organic way by building seamlessly from beginning to end. I am clearly biased, for this is how I write, without using notes of any kind, and always with an expansive goal in mind but without a rigid plan. I attend carefully to style, sound, and pace, as well as to content. I believe that this method of writing requires self-confidence and mastery; it requires you to “own” your material and make it work for you, not the other way around (ie you are not a slave to sources or simply intent on delivering information). I might be a giant weirdo, but I write entire books in my head, without ever taking notes from the hundreds of sources I read, re-finding and then adding quotations, factual details, and notes as a final stage. By the way, these books are both archival and scholarly; they are not just opinionated musings. Perhaps you are thinking: “Professor McTavish, you are completely nuts,” and you are no doubt correct. But give it a try. You might find that this free-wheeling method allows your voice to come forward with strength, while increasing your ease of writing. In the meantime, I will be taking great joy from my own creative process, while doing about a hundred other things.

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The Space Between

Almost a year ago, I published a piece on Facebook which then became an op-ed in The Meliorist. In it, I announced my intentions not to pursue a tenure-track position. Instead, I had decided to seek work in Quebec’s CEGEP system (for those unfamiliar with the acronym, a CEGEP is a college through which students in Quebec must pass before they enter university). When I wrote that piece, I still had a year left on my contract as a postdoctoral fellow at McGill, which I wanted to complete unless my dream job came along. No such job materialized, and so I completed my contract, which expired June 1, 2013. It therefore strikes me that now is the time to write a follow-up.

People keep asking if I have a job yet. The answer, unfortunately, is no. Part of this is that the CEGEP hiring cycle is much more in tune with the “real world” and you don’t need to apply 9 months in advance. But part of it, if I’m being honest, is just that I haven’t yet been successful. I failed to secure any of the summer school positions which were advertised. I lost some to internal candidates, some to my own errors when making applications, and was undoubtedly simply passed over for the rest. Currently, I have a few applications out for positions which begin this fall, but I have no idea if they will come to anything. I am giving myself until fall term 2014 to land something, and after that, I will have to re-evaluate my situation.

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[What do you think, should I try this?]

So how do I feel about all of this? Well, first of all, I feel like the well-worn postmodern argument that there’s agency in liminality is suspect. Being unemployed – no longer a course lecturer at the university, and not yet a CEGEP instructor – isn’t empowering, it’s just awkward. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about my situation. I chose it and I’m happy with my decision. But I can’t really see how it’s enabling either. That’s because much of my agency is usually rooted in my ability to manipulate systems, in this case, educational institutions. I tweak these systems, strategically attempting to improve the environment and efficiency of the word around me. I also play the long game and plan into the future with an obsessive-compulsive precision. Right now, though, I can’t do any of this. I’m not part of any discernible system; I’m standing on the outside looking in. So I’m trying to be proactive, but there’s only so much I can do until I get my foot in the door somewhere.

Despite this, I am surprisingly comfortable with my decision to opt-out of the professorial job market. While my (hopefully temporary) unemployment does occasionally cause bouts of anxiety (for example, when I think too long or too hard about how I’m going to continue to feed myself), I’ve never felt like I’ve made the wrong choice. Universities are special places where intellectually curious undergraduates are encouraged to learn anything and everything that they are interested in. I wanted a career where I would be able to continue to soak up information in this manner, and redeploy my knowledge in such a way as to improve the world around me. But the Ph.D. experience altered my approach to learning. To get a job, I needed to be the best in my field. And specialization meant a lack of time for other forms of knowledge because I needed every waking moment to read, compete, and publish about early modern Britain. Knowledge therefore became goal-oriented, the ultimate achievement being publication in a top-tier journal where other specialists would encounter my work but where the potential audience would be small.

I’m not trying to be harsh, and I know that to some of my colleagues, this model is very rewarding. Those interested in pure research and in the painstaking excavation of subtle details will excel in this world. It’s just not for me. I long to learn other things too – things completely unrelated to seventeenth-century Britain – and I have no desire to quarrel with my colleagues over details that I’m not convinced are entirely important.  Moreover, the crisis in the universities is real, and it has further complicated my relationship with the academy. A scarcity of funding has renewed debates about the purpose of higher education, both within the universities and within society at large. Administrators and politicians look to metrics that supposedly reveal the “practical value” of a university degree (which, somehow, never seem to include any of the important analytic and communicative skills that humanists provide to our students), while faculty members rightly defend the unimpeded pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. As this battle rages on,unfortunately, the students themselves can get lost.

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[This never seems to get old]

I am, first and foremost, an educator. Getting back into the classroom last January made this even more apparent than ever before. I need to teach, and everything else I do – the research, talks, and publications – are skills that I practice in order to make my teaching better. This places me at odds with the general atmosphere in Canadian universities at the moment, where many faculty members are learning to say that “it’s not in our interest to spend time doing x for students.”  This is because very real pressures are backing them into a corner, but I can’t join them in exclaiming that I no longer have time for my students. This creates a problem for me since professors who refuse to siphon off energy usually used for teaching and to pour it into research or bureaucratic duties often work themselves to death. In today’s competitive market, you need to work all the time. And even then, you need to cut some corners. Cutting research time isn’t an option; not if you want either to get a job or to maintain one. It also seems that no matter how hard you try to cut committee meetings or to dig yourself out from under that pile of paperwork, it never works. This leaves teaching – but what do you do if you refuse to cut into teaching time? I’ve pushed myself over the edge before, and I have no desire to give myself a second nervous breakdown before I hit 40. Thus, I’m ready to look for something new.

As several of my peers have secured tenure-track jobs, or moved to take up temporary contracts at new institutions, I’m happy for them, but I’m never jealous. My values just aren’t in line with the current climate in the universities, and I’m tired of trying to put the square peg in the round hole. I also remain happy with my life in Montreal, and even happier with the prospect of being able to live in the city of my choosing. I have developed incredibly meaningful friendships here, especially with the weird and wonderful group of women I’ve met while kickboxing. And yes, I have become romantically involved too, which has made me even more attached to this city. I want to emphasize that my relationship in no way influenced my recent career decisions, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t find it liberating to have the freedom to explore long-term relationships again (let’s be honest, the early-career instability of an academic is not particularly welcoming to such things). I’ll never cease to be an intellectual, and I have vowed to publish my book, sick of writing it though I may be. I believe, however, that I can do this – and conduct new research – from outside the university almost as effectively as I could have by remaining within it.

Some of my colleagues have expressed dismay at my departure (though I’m sure others are not-so-secretly glad to get rid of me). These people have stated their concern about the flight of another woman from academia, as well as the loss of a dedicated teacher. And this brings me to my final point. If you’re one of those people who are sad to see me go, here’s my challenge to you: fight harder and fight smarter for universities which strike a better balance, and people like me will stay and fight at your side. I’m not unique, and there are plenty more driven, young, female intellectuals who are interested in both research and teaching, and who are waiting in the wings. They want nothing more than to take up a place at your side, to continue their research, and to guide the next generation of minds towards maturity and an active engagement with their community. My journey is taking me elsewhere, and I’m grateful for all that my education has given me, but it’s time for me to go. That’s all for now. I’ll report back again if and when I find work.

If you haven’t seen my original op-ed, and you’re curious, it’s available here: http://themeliorist.ca/2012/09/im-out-some-thoughts-about-leaving-the-academy/

Learning to Lecture as a Grad Student — a Guest Post by Colin Gilmour

Colin Gilmour is finishing his second year of the Ph.D program at McGill under Dr. Peter Hoffmann. He did his BA at Queen’s University in Kingston and his Masters at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. His research focuses on celebrity culture in Nazi Germany, and specifically the role of mass media in military hero-propaganda.

Giving lectures, it seems to me, is one of those boxes that grad students must check in order to make themselves attractive to prospective academic employers down the line. Given the competitiveness of the academic job market, it is now more necessary than ever to be an experienced and skilled lecturer. Some such boxes, such as superior writing and research skills, can be developed and honed in the course of one’s own research and by attending conferences and seeking publications. To gain experience in lecturing, however, a grad student’s development is largely dependent on the generosity of course instructors who are willing to lay down their professorial prerogatives. Thus, when Sarah generously offered me the chance to teach a lecture in her course on modern European history which was close to my field, specifically the Holocaust, I jumped at the chance. I actually got to deliver the lecture again in her summer course, and I am very grateful to her for giving me these opportunities and now also the chance to take over her blog for a week.

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After initially seizing the chance to teach this important, not to mention controversial, aspect of European history, the full weight of responsibility for the education of 150 students on this topic set in. Although an overwhelming feeling at first, I actually welcomed it. I looked forward to saturating 150 ‘dry sponges’ with all the fascinating and disturbing minutiae of the complex history of the Holocaust.  It would be, quite frankly I thought, the best lecture they had ever seen. Thinking this a healthy enthusiasm, I keenly began researching and writing the lecture months beforehand, spending hours in various coffee shops (and by various I mean Starbucks) pouring over old notes and sources. Trying to include what I perceived to be the most important facts, figures and themes of said material, I soon found myself cutting-and-pasting whole pages of information into my ‘Holocaust Guest Lecture’ Word document. As a result, my initial ‘lecture’ resembled in length a reading of the book of Leviticus, and Power Point slides looking, commensurately, like pages from the Gideon bible. In effect, what I was doing, as I eventually realized, was trying to ensure the students could pass a course on the Holocaust (something not offered by the university, which saddens me no end), instead of having them leave with an understanding of its general narrative, major themes, etc. Coming to grips with this unfortunately necessary ‘drive-by’  nature of survey courses and reigning in unrealistic expectations, although a basic part of preparation, was to be the most difficult part of the lecture.

What made this realization so difficult in my case was not so much the act of cutting information, as any graduate student does this regularly in the course of writing papers, presentations, abstracts, etc.,  as it was my emotional attachment to the subject matter. While any historian will no doubt say much the same of their own period, informing others on the narrative and relevance of the Holocaust lies close to my academic heart and the thought of chopping up its complexity, which historians have worked for years to accomplish (although that will no doubt sound odd to some readers), seemed unconscionable. Like a robbery in a museum (please excuse the analogy), I had to leave some priceless items where they lay for the sake of time and the size of the getaway vehicle (in this case the capacity of moderately-interested students’ minds for detail and the speed of their typing-fingers). I had to choose only those items which would yield the biggest capital return: i.e. students leaving with the most retention and comprehension of the material. In my experience, it was coming to grips with this wrenching of the academic soul which was the most time consuming and challenging in preparing my lecture; far more than actually giving the lecture itself.

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While others understandably have difficulty lecturing to large audiences, I have been blessed (or cursed, depending on your perspective as my girlfriend will no doubt say) with the gift of the gab, which, combined with a bit of helpful feedback from select friends and some excellent advice from Sarah, made the lecture itself relatively easy. First, I made the point to try and practice my lecture on some non-grad student friends with similar historical backgrounds as the students (something I found key), and fortunately found such a group of interested (at least after pizza was promised) friends who were willing to listen for the hour and a quarter while I worked out the kinks in the lecture. Besides giving a rough estimate of the time it would take, something I think really can’t be done effectively in one’s apartment or office, it also provided the opportunity for some helpful comments as to how effective the information was communicated, what could have been emphasized more, or seemed superfluous. While such practice sessions are obviously impracticable for every new lecture one might give, I, as a student still gaining my lecturing sea-legs so to speak, found it immensely helpful and would most heartily recommend it to any grad student.

As to the day itself, I found that it was the small things that made the experience easy. One piece of important advice from Sarah was that I bring some coffee to carry around while speaking. While I never ended up actually drinking from that Starbucks cup during my talk (something noted by several amused students), it did help psychologically as a simple way of putting me at ease. Likewise, I have a natural tendency towards movement while speaking, in terms of wandering from the lectern. This accidental advantage, I felt, was important for conveying information in a more conversational manner and therefore build some student engagement, since I’m sure most university grads can remember with a wince at least one professor whose voice resembled Ben Stein’s and his/her movement during lecture a statue of Buddha. Moreover, I must agree with Sarah that from a lecturer’s point of view, having less information on Power Point slides is definitely preferable, since it ensures that when I am speaking I know that the students aren’t struggling to copy down tons of information. As Sarah aptly put it: “If you put it up, they will try to take it down.” The feedback from students also emphasized two aspects which I will incorporate into future lectures (if I am so lucky). I was told that taking frequent quick breaks to summarize sections of material instead of (though not discounting) 1 big summary at the end, was very helpful. Second was the inclusion of primary source material from the events discussed, as opposed to about the events discussed. Particularly as regards the Holocaust, such inclusion, I was told, not only brought home the material but also gave the students’ frenzied fingers a quick rest.

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That said, however, and as anyone who was there particularly for that first Holocaust lecture could testify, it was not perfectly delivered by any means. My biggest problem was speed. Perhaps because I had, even after the cutting process, so much information to get through and a natural tendency to speak quickly, it was the equivalent of a P90X vocal-chord workout. I suspect that the lecture, in retrospect, would sound ‘normal’ only if someone had recorded it on an old walkman, and then put flat-batteries in it.

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In sum, then, my development as a lecturer is still very much a work in progress. Since most of my experience has been in teaching subjects with which I am well acquainted, as well as in which I am emotionally invested, it is definitely still missing a lot. Working on things like diction, speed, and more important, becoming academically detached and objectively-selective about the subject matter are most definitely things still to be improved and practiced. Getting the opportunity to do so is somewhat problematic, since as outlined at the beginning of this post, not all grad students do, or do regularly. Since this is the case, the question emerges as to whether ‘practice’ at lecturing can come in other forms and a myriad of possible spit-ball solutions follow. Could there, for example, be semesterly seminars on lecturing hosted by experienced instructors and professors for grad students, or perhaps a program of free lectures for undergrads on various interest-topics given by grad students to hone their skills and gain feedback and experience? Realistically, there couldn’t and shouldn’t be a course for grad students called ‘lecturing 101’ which imparts wisdom like holding a coffee cup for psychological support. Such tid bits of wisdom, I suppose, are simply part of the natural academic order and come, as with many other parts of grad student life, with a bit of luck in terms of who you have the good fortune to meet and learn from.

Grading Assignments: Motivation, Timing, and Substantive Commentary

Grading is a central part of our role as teachers, and yet I know very few people who enjoy it. Part of this, once again, is structural. Over the past 15-20 years, many – although not all – North American universities have gone to a 2:2 teaching load, which changes the format in which we see our students. Instead of meeting 4 classes per term of between 20 and 50 students, we often meet at least one of between 80-250 students and then balance this by teaching a smaller senior seminar where we can provide a more personal environment. Although universities assign TAs or graders for the gargantuan classes, if you find yourself teaching a class of 60, you’re probably on your own. In any of these large-scale classes, the impersonal nature of the process contributes to the drudgery of marking because you will never actually have a one-on-one interaction with most of these students and you have no idea how hard they have or haven’t been working. And although I lack experience with the UK system, I suspect that the requirement to have everything reviewed twice magnifies the tediousness of the task by removing the last vestiges of a personal relationship from the equation (I invite my UK colleagues to post thoughts or corrections in the comments below).

When talking about evaluation, it’s important to note that marking tests is very different from marking assignments, and today I want to focus on the latter. Confession: I absolutely loath marking final exams for reasons that should become apparent by the end of this post, so my decision to focus on assignments reflects that bias. But hey, it’s my blog, right? Getting back to the matter at hand, there are three issues that need to be addressed here. How do you motivate yourself to tackle that depressingly large pile of papers? What sort of timeframe should you be looking at? And what level of feedback should you be taking the time to provide, considering that you probably have a thousand other demands on your time?

Step 1: Motivation. Well, self-bribery always works in a pinch, and I am frequently guilty of telling myself that after I’ve marked x number of papers I am then allowed to watch the latest episode of some seedy crime drama, whose sweet siren song I can hear beckoning to me from the internet. Then there’s the tried and true “mark with a bottle of wine and bar of chocolate” method. Warning: do not consume the entire bottle of wine, or the grades at the end of the pile might be inappropriately high or low, depending on your personality. The chocolate, however, is fair game.

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[Some evenings do, inevitably, come to this]

Surprisingly though, what often works best is pausing to remind yourself what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Marking isn’t just about assigning a percentage or letter value to a piece of work. It’s an integral part of teaching students how to complete a given task and how to improve their skills. In the humanities, this means it’s a stepping stone in their journey towards improved critical thinking, communication skills, and argumentation. And feedback on written assignments is just as important – if not even more so – than the information that students receive from you in lecture.

Step 2: Timing. It’s true what they say. Timing is everything. The (admittedly small) body of literature I’ve read on this subject all indicates that feedback is most effective when delivered in a “timely fashion.” Unfortunately, authors who write on the subject seem hell-bent on not defining what “timely” is. Exact definitions aside, research indicates that if you want a student to look at and think about your comments – and not just their grade – you need to get assignments back to them while they are still intellectually engaged with the material. Ideally, I like to turn things around in a week; however, this is dependent upon small class sizes, complete autonomy (ie: not a team-teaching scenario, or one which involves TAs), and the ability to make the time to complete the task. Now that my schedule is more demanding and I tend to work with TAs, I usually return assignments exactly 2 weeks from when they are handed in. This is because TAs have other obligations too: they are writing their thesis, or MRP, or doing course work on top of the work they’re doing for me. They are also learning how to grade, and require more time to go over the papers in the first place and to make any grade adjustments after they’ve got a sense of the pile as a whole.

While 2 weeks might appear long, I try to compensate for the delay by letting students know definitively when their work will be returned. Last semester I even printed the due date and the return date of each assignment on the syllabus –all assignments were also returned by the last day of class. I found that students responded well to the definitiveness of the schedule and were still eager to see not only their grades, but the commentary that went along with them. The highly structured nature of the course therefore helped to hold their attention, and there was a sense that since I cared enough about assignments to commit to a timeline, that they should care enough to take my feedback on board. This is not to say that all of them did so, but the results were still very encouraging. Just remember, that if you want to be able to live up to your commitments regarding when work will be handed back, you are going to need to stagger the due dates of assignments in your various courses.

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[I’ve never done this, but I would be lying if I were to say I have never considered it when  pressed for time and faced with a huge stack of grading]

Step 3: Substantive Commentary. I know we’re all hellishly busy, and have no choice but to limit the time we spend grading, but it’s important to cut in the right places so as not to reduce the evaluation process to meaninglessness. Personally, I do this by not worrying about correctly categorizing every grammatical error. My students don’t know what these terms mean anyway (another confession: I didn’t know what a split infinitive was until the 4th year of my undergraduate degree), and I don’t need to spend time agonizing over whether or not I’ve used the right term. Instead, I simply underline the offending passage and write “awkward” for problems with syntax, and “unclear” for passages where the grammar is so bad that I actually don’t know what the person is trying to say.

By simplifying my grammatical commentary, I open time up for providing more substantive commentary about argumentation and methods. At the end of the essay I write short points highlighting the need to avoid value-laden terminology because it is counter-productive and hinders one’s ability to meet the past on its own terms, or the importance of providing concrete evidence to support each sub-argument. Here, I might actually discuss style in more detail too. I sometimes remind students to use more paragraphs – because paragraphs signal coherent thoughts to their reader – or to cluster ideas into sections instead of scattering related evidence throughout the paper. Finally, I also try to provide at least some pointers towards other analytic avenues that the student might have pursued to better develop their argument. For example, if a student is gesturing at the concept of agency but isn’t quite there, I let them know that this is the theoretically area within which they’re working and encourage them to do some reading on their own time or as part of other courses.

Providing feedback takes time, and in a perfect universe, you’d have time to leave a whole page of notes after essay proposals, book reviews, etc.. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, so we have to be more realistic about how much feedback we provide. Normally, what I tell my TAs, and the rule which I try to follow myself, is to leave 3 substantive comments at the end of every assignment, trying to highlight key areas in which the student can improve. I know what most of you are thinking right now: students don’t look at the comments no matter how important they are or how quickly you return assignments, so why bother? To this, I can only say that’s you’re right… about some of them. In fact, some will never even bother to pick their assignments up, or will throw them out right in front of you. But the question is: do you focus on the small percentage of students who won’t care no matter what, or do to teach to the small percentage that desperately want any and all feedback you are willing to give them – not to mention that huge middle group who can be swayed one way or the other based on how we approach our role as teachers?

Personally, I choose to waste some of my own time in the hopes of reaching those who are potentially receptive. Oftentimes, I have several students each term who come to thank me for giving them feedback, which seems to be an increasingly coveted commodity. Admittedly, there are going to be times when this level of planning and detailed feedback aren’t possible – one’s first year in a new post as tenure-track faculty springs to mind. But when it is at all possible, I think it’s worth making the effort.