Several students in my literacy course in our MAT program chose to read Donna Alvermann’s Effective Literacy Instruction for Adolescents. While the initial discussion around Alvermann’s essay focused on those students struggling with the density of her academic writing, they emphasized the importance and power of her addressing student self efficacy in the fostering of student literacy development:

Adolescents’ perceptions of how competent they are as readers and writers, generally speaking, will affect how motivated they are to learn in their subject area classes (e.g., the sciences, social studies, mathematics, and literature). Thus, if academic literacy instruction is to be effective, it must address issues of self-efficacy and engagement.

Effective Literacy Instruction for Adolescents

That discussion led to some very insightful comments about the importance of providing students feedback, as opposed to grades, on their writing as part of the drafting and workshop process (anchored in their reading Graham and Perin’s 2007 Writing Next analysis of research on teaching writing).

As a long-time advocate of feedback and someone who practices de-grading the classroom as well as delaying grades (assigning grades for courses but not on assignments), I strongly supported this discussion, and was impressed with the thoughtfulness of the students.

That discussion had a subtext also—a concern raised by several students about the need for teachers to provide students positive feedback (so students know what they are doing well), and not just negative feedback. (Some of that subtext, I am sure, was an unexpressed directly feeling among some of these graduate students that they received mostly or exclusively “negative” feedback from me on their first submitted essays.)

After several students worked through this argument for positive feedback, I asked them to step back even further to consider, or -re-consider, what counts as “positive” or “negative” feedback.

In the sort of way Alanis Morrissette perceives irony, I found on social media Your Essay Shows Promise But Suffers from Demonic Possession posted at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency—a brilliant portrayal of the tensions created by teachers giving students feedback on their essays, which begins:

I appreciate the hard work that went into this essay. It has many merits, but it also has something profoundly and disturbingly wrong with it. In fact, I’m writing this feedback on my phone, cowering in the bathtub with my wife, after your essay terrorized and nearly destroyed us….

The essay was formatted correctly, and each sentence was more or less intelligible in itself. But altogether, the effect was—disorientation. Worse, actually. Pure senselessness. The Void.

Your Essay Shows Promise But Suffers from Demonic Possession

This satirical piece does exactly what my MAT students requested, blending positive (“many merits”) with negative (“something profoundly and disturbingly wrong with it”) feedback; and I think, herein is the problem with the dichotomy itself.

Once dramatically while I was teaching high school and often since I have been teaching at my current selective liberal arts university, I have encountered students who perceive all feedback as negative and reject having to revise their writing.

My argument to my MAT students was that actionable feedback on student writing is not inherently “negative” even though it does suggest something is “wrong” and needs “correcting” (perceptions grounded in students’ experiences in traditional classrooms that focus on the error hunt and punish students with grades).

However, I am well aware over almost four decades that part of my challenge as a writing teacher is how to help students to see and respond to feedback as supportive and not an attack on their work or them as people (we had a great discussion about whether or not students can or should see their writing as inextricable from them as people).

In other words, affect matters.

Throughout the past 20 years teaching in higher education, I have been struggling against the perception by students than my written feedback is “mean,” “harsh,” “negative,” etc., while they simultaneously find my face-to-face feedback supportive and “good.”

I continue to seek ways to make feedback on student writing more effective as a key aspect of helping students grow as writers and thinkers as well as fostering their independence as writers and thinkers (learning to revise and edit their work on their own).

Students persist, however, in finding the feedback “negative,” and occasionally shutting down.

If there is a path to moving past the dichotomy of negative/positive feedback to student writing, I think it lies in the following concepts and practices:

  • Having explicit discussions with students about the inherent need for all writers to revise writing, ideally in the context of feedback from an expert and/or supportive writer/teacher. I often share with students samples of my own work submitted for publication with track changes and comments from editors.
  • Rejecting high-stakes for low-stakes environments in the writing workshop format. This is grounded in my commitment to de-grading the classroom that honors that writing is a process (see More Thoughts on Feedback, Grades, and Late Work).
  • Adopting strategies and rhetoric that rejects deficit ideology and the error hunt (Connie Weaver). It is important for teachers and students to prefer “revising” and “editing” instead of “error,” “mistake,” and “correcting” as the language surrounding the writing process. The pursuit in writing must be grounded in the recognition that all writing can be better even when it is currently quite good (and especially if is is somewhat or deeply flawed).
  • Clarifying for students that challenging and critical feedback is intended as actionable by students as writers, and thus, inherently positive. One of the recurring tone issues I experience with students viewing my written feedback as negative is misreading questions; students often read questions as sarcastic or accusatory when I am asking in order to elicit a response (for example, when I write “Did you look at the sample?” how I move forward with helping a student depends on that answer). As my MAT students expressed in the context of Alvermann, students absolutely do need to see themselves as writers and do need to trust they will be successful, but they also must embrace the need to revise and the awareness that no one produces “perfect” writing in one (or even several) drafts.

Feedback and the dynamic between teachers and students (including trust) are the lifeblood of the writing process when students are young and developing. As I noted above, affect matters and the teacher/student relationship inevitably impacts how effective the teacher is.

As teachers providing feedback, we must be careful and purposeful in our feedback, focusing on actionable feedback and creating/maintaining a culture of support and encouragement.

To that end, I believe we cannot reduce feedback to a positive/negative dichotomy that serves only to reinforce the cultures and practices we need to reject, deficit ideologies and the error hunt.

In the McSweeney’s parody above, the writing teacher and their wife are ensnared in a demon-possessed student essay, but the more horrifying detail of this piece is the ending—the realization that teachers and students are actually trapped in an even greater hellscape:

“I did it,” she sobbed. “I killed it. I killed it.”

“You did it,” I said, climbing into the bathtub with her, holding my wife close. “It’s over. It’s all over now.”

Silence.

Then she said, “It’s not over.”

“What—”

“You still have to grade it.”

80%

Your Essay Shows Promise But Suffers from Demonic Possession

Yes, let’s work on feedback and the affect created around the writing process, but let’s not ignore that their are larger dynamics (grades and testing) at play that erode the teacher/student relationship as well as the effectiveness of teaching and the possibilities of learning.


See Also

Student Agency and Responsibilities when Learning to Write: More on the Failure of SETs

The Problem of Student Engagement in Writing Workshop

Teaching and Learning as Collaboration, not Antagonism