Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Rubber stamp: PEDESTRIAN

Last week, we had a discussion in my writing instruction class about how to give good comments on student papers. The instructor asked everyone to write down the best and worst comments (we interpreted it as helpful and least helpful lest the exercise devolve into boasting and masochism) they ever received on their writing. She explained one of the all-time weirdest: a student several years ago reported receiving a graded paper with the word PEDESTRIAN rubber-stamped on it. That can't be true, can it?

Least helpful and strangest comments I've received:

*"Witty, well-written, thoughtful. It's better than I thought it would be."

*"Your work is a black diamond
and rare"
(one of my professors used to write comments in free verse)

*(upon hearing I got annoyed and couldn't make it through Roland Barthes' Fragments of a Lovers' Discourse): "You just need to be slapped around ... [too, too long pause] by structuralism."

One of the most helpful comments I received in college was from a professor who drew up a diagram of what close-reading paragraphs tend to look like. My big ideas ended up at the ends of my paragraphs because I was developing them as I wrote--a fine generative process for first drafts--but I needed to make my arguments at the beginnings of paragraphs and use the close reading as evidence rather than build-up. I kept that diagram on my desk for years. The bigger-picture version of that tendency is the student who gets to the point in the final paragraphs of an essay (or column, when I was editing those).

I was thinking about the difference between "function" comments and "essence" comments--that is, the difference between noting, "this sentence works well here because..." and "good job"--when I read Ben Yagoda's Slate article about Michiko Kakutani's limited critical perspective in her book reviews. Yagoda cites C.S. Lewis's comments on Kenneth Tynan's work:
As a student at Oxford, the future drama critic Kenneth Tynan got back a paper with this comment: "Keep a strict eye on eulogistic & dyslogistic adjectives—They shd diagnose (not merely blame) & distinguish (not merely praise.)"

Not only is this useful advice for a critic, it's also valuable for teachers to remember in writing comments. Of course, no teacher tries to rack up style points in an essay comment the way a book critic does in a review, but I try to focus most of my comments on that work of distinguishing and diagnosing.
Blogger Anna on Thu Apr 13, 12:46:00 AM:
I don't know about the rubber stamp, but my ma got a "Pedestrian: Take the Final" on a paper from Robert Belknap c. 1970.

My father-in-law on the other hand, when he was a TA, kept a rubber stamp in the shape of a trash can overflowing with garbage, for use on really poor student exams.