My grading lexicon

Over the years, I’ve developed a kind of personal jargon for grading papers. They are little metaphors or turns of phrase that I use in an attempt to get at common failings of student writing in an economical and somewhat humorous way — not to make fun of them, but hopefully to get their attention more effectively. Here are three of the main ones:

  • Paper in search of a thesis — this describes a paper that starts with a vague or tautologous thesis (e.g., “the authors are similar in some ways, but there are also important differences”) and only comes to a more concrete position in the conclusion, after working through the material. While an inductive approach has its virtues, it seems to me that this type of paper is a second-to-last draft handed in as a final draft — once they’ve found their thesis, they need to put it at the beginning and then focus their exposition on it.
  • The silo effect — this is a typical feature of a “paper in search of a thesis.” It describes a tendency in comparison-contrast papers for students to summarize one topic, then summarize the other, without any immediately apparent connection between the two (e.g., each exposition has a parallel structure, each refers to the other).
  • The “and another thing!” style of organization — papers suffering from this affliction have no real flow or overall organizational scheme, abruptly moving from one topic to the next. Often the word “another” will literally be present in most or all of their transitions. While it can’t always be avoided, a transition that can do no better than “another” in order to make a connection is basically an open seam.

How about you, dear readers? Do you have any similar shorthand phrases for common pitfalls?

11 thoughts on “My grading lexicon

  1. “dropping bombs”: refers to quotes that are improperly, awkwardly, or not at all contextualized or integrated into the body of the essay (marginal note might read: “you’re dropping bombs here…”)

    “the backseat driver”: the essay writer who relies so heavily on another thinker’s ideas (or another set of thinkers) that he or she effectively becomes the backseat driver of the essay, failing to set their own agenda, etc…

    “the accidental argument”: this refers to the phenomenon wherein the essay writer stumbles upon an effective argument in the last paragraph, as he or she is concluding the essay.

  2. Beatrice, I feel like your “accidental argument” and my “paper in search of a thesis” describe much the same phenomenon. I like “dropping bombs” — integrating quotes elegantly seems like a tough skill to learn.

  3. “Dropping bombs” is great. I ask students to make their quotes do “work.” Quotes don’t “work” on their own. They need to be explained, contextualized, fit with the rest of the essay.

    I tell students not to create “word salads,” which I take from critiques of conservative media. Statements such as “Obama is a Muslim Fascist Commie Leftiest Socialist Nazi” are word salads. Clearly, the writer either does not know or does not care what the words mean. She DOES know that these things a “bad” and that her audience will “understand” what she means when she uses them. Similarly, students will use terms such as “postmodernism” without any understanding of what it is. So they write, “This text is postmodern because the character does not know what is going on” or “this text is postmodern because language is problematic” (or much less sensical things). Even better is when students just finish the lit theory class and their essays look like the output of one of those pomo essay generators that were all the rage back in the days of webrings and dancing Jesus gifs.

  4. I had a professor in college (for an advanced writing class) that had some great personal terms for writing issues. My personal favorite was the “No Shit, Sherlock” argument. I have “the Hillary Clinton argument” (do it for the children) and “the Hitler argument” (a Red Herring involving anything from 1930-1945 in Germany or Poland).

  5. I am grading a “pontifical inflation” at the moment. It occurs when an essay takes the voice of absolute authority on a subject, yet the writer clearly knows little about it, and is in fact stringing together cultural assumptions and motifs. It’s not properly done unless the author is a gifted, intelligent writer who just cannot be bothered to be constrained by anything not off the top of one’s head, fact or no.

  6. Jason’s phenomenon is real, though not as common as I would have thought going in. I basically tell them all to stop doing the high school-style free-associative introduction from day one, so that cuts off most of the temptation.

  7. The “dear diary.” A pet peeve of mine. When the student offers a piece of personal information or reflection (often quite emotive) that has nothing to do with the argument of their paper (e.g. in an essay on the theology of marriage a student begins writing about how growing up she used to want to be a princess and wished to marry prince charming and live happily ever after).

  8. “Public speaking”–I use this to refer to introductory paragraphs that begin with either a sweeping statement (“Since the dawn of mankind…”) or a failed attempt at a snappy anecdote (“When I was little, I liked to eat fudge and I got it all over my face and people called me Fudge-Face, this reminds me of the contemporary penal system in China…”). Either way, I tell them they should leave this stylistic device back in grade six.

    “Mysticism”–when they say things like, “Power is not one” (more common in upper years). It’s counterpart is “Trying to sound academic,” when entails things like “a unimodal account of power relations emphasizes the interiority of lived experience in a cosmo-political world.” This is also more common in upper years, but also lower years who have found the built-in thesaurus.

  9. Adam et al,

    This might be a useful teaching tidbit about my prior post. I most often see “pontifical inflation” when a promising student does very well on a first essay assignment and then decides that “this is easy.” Given that I teach lower-division courses, being a good writer (for that level) is sufficient to do well. However, some students conflate their writing skills with the ability to think through the content, and begin to disregard caution and assignment instructions on later essay assignments. Regardless of the directions, the free-associative opinion fest IS ON! In an attempt to combat this, I often put a note on outstanding essays that tells them that I’ve seen too many good students get over-confident. I also remind the student of this when the error has been committed, since a good student too often takes a terrible grade as a personal rebuke, and does not always realize that being brilliant does not exempt one from being sloppy, especially when it comes to ignoring directions entirely. Sadly, I just wrote another one of these notes today…..

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