Sunday, April 30, 2006

Professors Making Their Mark: A Thought Experiment

Professors want to make their mark on the world, their profession, and on their students. They spend years perfecting their talents and often receive far less remuneration than those in more lucrative fields who prepare for careers in far less time (such as lawyers). They often sacrifice money (and security, at least before tenure) for meaning. The vicissitudes and foibles of academia are aptly chronicles in places like "The Chronicle of Higher Education." We read of scholars in the limelight, on the witness stand, in print, out of work, promoted, demoted, outraged, accused, excused, and, of course, always wanting to be taken seriously—to make their mark.

Let us engage in a thought experiment taylored for the humanities, where written papers are necesary for students. What if a professor's imprint was limited to one thing, a thing seldom discussed in "The Chronicle" (or anywhere else, for that matter), but something paramount to all of their students: the professor’s comments on their papers. What if all the copious documentation of personal achievement of the curriculum vitaes were wiped away and all that remained was what these various scholars wrote on their student’s work? What would remain? It is these words, never published or celebrated by the guild, that often strike into their student’s souls, imprinting them for life—for good or ill.

I vividly remember a comment that Professor Arnulf Zweig (a Kant scholar) made on a portion of one of my undergraduate philosopher papers: “This is an assertion, not an argument.” He was exactly right. I had stated an opinion without rational support. It was not philosophy at all. I cannot count the number of times I have written just that line on my student’s papers. It inflicts a wound that can heal the mind. While struggling to come up with a doctoral dissertation chapter that would please my advisor, I was thrilled to find a short vertical line next to a few sentences of my text besides which Professor Robert Herbert had written, “Good patch.” I lived on that for weeks. A bit later, he remarked that an entire chapter was “heartening.” This has become of one my favorite words. (And eventually the dissertation, “To Prove or Not to Prove: Pascal on Natural Theology,” was accepted in 1993.)

I cannot here expand on my philosophy of professorial comments on student efforts (perhaps someday I will), but I simply commend to you the thought experiment. What if every professors written worth was gauged only by comments he or she wrote on student papers?


Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

"...and what if those students to which the comments were made, were the ones to decide whether or not said professor got tenure? "

That makes it even more interesting, Joe!

Jeremy said...

This post could not be more appropriate; I have a week ahead of me, full of grading philosophy papers (for the first time).

Tim said...

Joseph's comment puts some of my own marginal notes in a disturbing light. I've written some interesting things in the heat of the moment, but the one that is salient just now is this: "This sentence should be taken out and shot."

Then there was the student who tried unashamedly to snow me on a midterm essay exam, using high-falutin' vocabulary that he didn't understand in order to sound impressive. As I recall, my reaction was to dissect the whole mess in red, line by line, and then write at the bottom, "This paper is an unmitigated logical and rhetorical disaster." He dropped the course.

Still, reflecting more ...

I remember one occasion when a student who seemed bright enough in person turned in something desperately inadequate. Instead of flunking it, I put a note at the end that said, "I'm convinced that you can do much better than this" and invited her to come to my office hours. She came, got detailed feedback, and wrote something far better. Her work on subsequent assignments was uniformly strong. As I recall, she wound up with a B+ or an A- in the course, not bad for someone whose first effort was not in the passing zone.

A few comments from my own student days stand out in my mind. Hal Baillie broke into one of my paragraphs with the observation that I was shifting from exposition to critique and should mark this fact by starting a new paragraph. It was such a simple and, once made, obviously correct observation that it startled me. I've had many chances to make the same remark on student papers over the past decade and a half.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


A few remarks on my own comments. If I approve of something I student writes, I sometimes just put a "!" in the margin, or perhaps "!!" Some of my students have lived weeks on these, I hear. I sometimes use jazz language, such as "good chop."

I edit the papers to some degree, correcting footnotes (don't get me started; one student made eight mistakes in one footnote--a nearly preternatural predilection for error), noting the misuse of the semicolon (no, it is not a comma; no, it is not a colon; no, you don't throw in it there when you don't know what the blue blazes else do to), crossing out unnecessary words ("One should note that..."), circling word usage problems (using tenant instead of tenet--this is far too common), commenting that one paragraph should not go on for three pages, and much more.

I'm not sure what my most curmudgeonly comment was, but it may be this: After dealing with a terribly sloppy paper, I pronounced that, "Language is sacred, and you have desecrated it"--or something to that effect.

Tim said...


I have written "omit needless words" in more margins than I can count.

Some people are capable of profiting from a rigorous explanation of the shortcomings of their writing; others are not. The trick is to find the right level for the students, holding them to a high enough standard to give them something to aim for but not crushing their spirits. The difficulty arises when you have a class with uneven preparation, so that some people in the class are capable of profiting from this and others are not. My solution to this -- and I am not sure it is optimal -- is to pick a standard that is about right for the "center" of the class, preparation wise, and then meet with the students who are far from that center in either direction, giving extra help to those who are struggling and pointing out higher goals for those who are ready for them.

BJS said...

Here's my favorite Dr. G comment. Next to a large section of prose Dr. G put a large bracket, double-lined it, then wrote in the margin next to it: "GO TORNATO!!" [sic]

I loved it. It fired me up to see him fired up. And the fact that he mispelled tornado only made it that much cooler.

Another good one from Dr. G was when he resorted to just sketching a big scary monster face in a margin. No comments, just a big scary monster face. I got the message.

Here's a good story from a paper comment out here at UCONN. One of my best profs here (and he makes it by the standards you lay out -- he had already written many helpful comments throughout the paper), wrote at the very end of the paper:

"BJ -- I totally sympathize with your central argument. You know I do. I like it. I know you like it. I want it to work. You want it to work. I HOPE it works... but look, you and I both know it has no chance in hell of working... Nice try."

But, hey, I got an A on the paper.

Tim said...

So, B. Jay, now we have to ask ...

What was the argument?

BJS said...

Dr. McGrew, only because it is you that asked... I'll oblige. (But only briefly, as I am in the middle of trying to finish up a beast of a paper for a seminar right now!).

I was essentially trying to argue in the paper that the entire notion of a naturalist/non-naturalist distinction is unfounded across the board (certainly metaphysically, and even epistemologically). That there is, at the end of the day, no real substantive, ontological distinction that can be grounded in any helpful way on the matter. This was all claimed in light of current debates in metaethics. My point being that there really isn't any substantive difference, metaphysically, between those philosophers who claim to be "naturalist" moral realists and those who claim to be "non-naturalist" moral realists. The difference, I claimed, was, at the end of the day, merely a stipulative one that gave us nothing. (I then suggested that we redraw the lines of debate in metaethics along normative v. descriptive lines instead -- a move which would result in some former enemies now becoming strange bedfellows. i.e. Folks like Bloomfeild and Shafer-Landau would now be batting for the same team and folks like Mark Timmons would now defend the "descriptive accomdation project" instead of the "naturalist accomadation project," and other interesting results.)

That's the over-simplified skeleton version of it. There's a long, twisting, complicated road to get there (the paper was about 40 pages).

I have, frankly, become exhausted with the whole topic. I'm sure I'll return to it later. But, (as I'm sure any fellow philosopher can sympathize with), at this point I am actually sick of my own argument to that end... Not that I don't think it works, I'm just (at present) tired of it. (so, please don't ask me to defend it). You were curious as to what it was... there it is.

Now back to my OTHER paper.

Clint said...

I am encouraged by your words here. I have just applied to the MPhil program at your seminary and I hope to get some great feedback from you on my papers.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

I do struggle with spelling Tornado, Tornado! It all goes back to first grade...

BJS said...

Dr. G, I hope you NEVER stop spelling Tornado "Tornato". You used to spell it like that so often that I came to love it. It's those funny little idiosyncracies that I find are some of the things we end up loving the most about folks. I can't explain why that is... but it is.


Jeremy said...

After reading all of your comments, I had to chime in again.

Becky, I still think it is so cool that you made one of your male students cry!

Here's my favorite Groothuis comment (and thank God it was never on one of my papers): A fellow seminary student decided he would write his own quiz question instead of answer the one provided. Groothuis wrote "Welcome to Grad School" next to a frowny face and a big fat F.

Jeremy said...

Becky, I couldn't agree more. My first year of teaching has been good, but there have been some speed bumps as well.

My biggest problem was just getting oriented to the university. I was basically dropped into the system without any further instruction.

To top it off, undergrad students are always going to complain about something being too hard, too much work, yada, yada, yada... It's very hard to know whether the complaints are valid. I know that I was too hard on my OT class last fall, but on the other hand, I've had nothing but compliments from the same students who complained.

As far as my philosophy students go, I have had to explain that their grades are not necessarily commensurate to the amount of red ink on their papers. I try to interact with their papers as much as possible--even being too hard at times--yet the grades might not reflect the hard comments. I only pull out the muscle on down right fallacious arguments. My students, seeing the red all over, needed a bit of encouragement.

I have to say that my experience teaching intro to phil was probably different than yours. At my university it's a requirement that all of the biblical studies majors take. Second, most usually wait to take it until they are juniors or seniors. My class was full of bright upper-classmen that were planning for grad school. I ended with only 7 students too--quite a bit different from the 25-100 member courses at other universities.

BJS said...


You're such a stud. Making students cry and just generally rocking.
I miss you and your 'bedian ways.

Here's a comment I JUST got back:

"BJ: the only real criticism of your paper I can think of is that you need to try to be more charitable in your analysis of Benson [the guy the paper was about]. I think your challenges are dead-on... but it comes across as a bit too harsh -- almost mean. All the same, I have to give you an A."

I just thought it was funny that the only thing my prof cited as a problem with the paper was that I was too mean. That made me laugh.

(But, it's true, it was probably, no definitely, the harshest critique I've ever written. By the end I was almost going ad hominem on the guy and basically mocking his position (well, not quite, but right on the line). Which really isn't good scholarship, I suppose.)

Craig Fletcher said...

I just wanted to share that I am sitting here laughing my head off about Dr. G's "big scary monster face" looming in the margins (mentioned by TornaTo). That made my day...

BJS said...

the "big scary monster" face is a true story. I think I still have the paper somewhere. It is quite a work of art. Dr. G is an excellent sketch artist when he's properly motivated (like by my poor writting apparently).

Andrew said...

I've just caught up with the comments here and my response might need to be deleted, it's up to you Dr. Groothuis.

I wonder if B. Jay and Jeremy read Becky's comments on grading and I think that they are being a bit too cavalier with the intensely personal process of education. It may be that I find the overall tone here a bit cavalier.

The sum of your interactions, on papers and in person, are what establish your relationship with your students. They are the ones ultimately responsible for their learning, and anything that you as teacher do to forward that is most valuable. While well placed and worded comments are evidence of a professors interaction with their students, the offensive and rude comments speak equally about the professor's relationship with their student.

"This sentence should be taken out and shot."

"This paper is an unmitigated logical and rhetorical disaster." He dropped the course.

"I'm convinced that you can do much better than this" and invited her to come to my office hours. She came, got detailed feedback, and wrote something far better. Her work on subsequent assignments was uniformly strong. As I recall, she wound up with a B+ or an A- in the course, not bad for someone whose first effort was not in the passing zone.

I was shifting from exposition to critique and should mark this fact by starting a new paragraph.

Of these four comments from Tim, the last two seem the most valuable. These resulted in further thought and interaction, not shame or despair as I imagine both must have felt in response to your first two comments. I appreciate the heat of the moment, but these comments seem unprofessional.

After dealing with a terribly sloppy paper, I pronounced that, "Language is sacred, and you have desecrated it"

I wonder if this interaction led to an improvement or debasement.

Dhyams wrote: I'm afraid far too many professors would be deemed worthless. Grading student papers is a necessary evil for some in the academy, a burden readily passed onto T.A.'s -- the lackeys of academe. Yet some professors actually relish the opportunity to engage the students as individuals, the fruit of which can be substantial.

An insightful remark, but while providing "heat of the moment" offense, or criticism too harshly worded is an individualized engagment, I can't see how it is proper or respectable.

"BJ: the only real criticism of your paper I can think of is that you need to try to be more charitable in your analysis of Benson [the guy the paper was about]. I think your challenges are dead-on... but it comes across as a bit too harsh -- almost mean. All the same, I have to give you an A."
I don't know your professor or your relationship to him or her, but this is a bit of a reluctant grade. Will you tone down your admittedly ad hominem attacks in the future?

I may be snarky here, but looking over at the pile of grading I've done, and have yet still to do, I must agree that my comments are the most important communication I can have on my student's work. But I also have to consider how I can push them to improve, not denigrate or belittle them. Many posters here share stories of comments that have elicited great success, how about those that have caused you to drop a class or feel a failure?

Tim said...


I think in many of these cases there are interpersonal factors that are very difficult to communicate outside of the mentoring context that frames the message. It's probably not a good idea to try to judge the professionalism of the comments (or the commentators) from outside that context, as there's just too much room for misunderstanding.

As far as the unmitigated logical and rhetorical disaster is concerned, it was perfectly clear that the student was attempting to pull what used to be called a "snow job." It is barely possible that from his failure to bluff his way there (documented in far more detail than that final comment, which merely summarized the other comments) he learned something valuable -- not probable, but possible.

The student to whom I wrote the bit about the sentence being taken out and shot told me later that he treasured it. He was a promising graduate student and he knew that I was doing my best to force his writing to a higher level. (He also agreed that the sentence was a disaster.) I've had numerous other students, both undergraduate and graduate, over the past decade who have thanked me for forcing them to become better writers, and I am quite confident that this has been one factor in their subsequent success.

Andrew said...


Thanks for the clarification. I admit I was taken aback a bit by some the comments I read, and I understand the lack of context. I'll strike that professionalism comment.

As a fledgling teacher myself, I approach all interactions with caution, and would rather err on that side rather than demean my students.

Calling a student's "bluff" or "snow job" is a must, but I have also had a few students for whom what appeared to me to be disingenuous had simply failed completely in their efforts, and needed quite a bit of remediation.

Jeremy said...


B.Jay, Becky, and I have been friends for years, and are all in similar places in our academic careers. I think what you have seen is our honest struggle with dealing with subpar work in a field that we care for passionately in a way that will spur on our students. Unfortunately, everybody snaps eventually--there is just too much bad thought out there.

I agree with Dr. McGrew. Anytime I have received or had to write harsh comments, I have taken the tone with a grain of salt while understanding that the comment is there only for the purpose of making the written work better.

Also, notice what is taking place. Most of the harsh comments are not leveled against the students, but against the work (e.g., "This sentence should be taken out and shot"). However, sometimes what the student needs is a spanking with red ink, and that's all there is to it.

Andrew said...


Unfortunately, "snapping" in response to bad thought doesn't fix the bad thought. While the complexities of interpersonal relations account for many comments that can be construed as mean-spirited, it is quite another thing to treat a student as a child in need of a spanking (even though they may act or write that way), the goal ought to be elevation rather than condemnation. There is always more to it than verbally slapping around a student, and not all students can or do take comments with a grain of salt.

I have written and received plenty of harsh comments. I receive them much as you do. When I "snap" and make them I am always ashamed and considering Dr. Groothuis's thought experiment, hope that the students compensate as well as many of these commentators seem to.

Jeremy said...


I don't think I ever condoned "snapping." It is, unfortunately, part of being human. If it doesn't happend with a student, it will eventually happen for a different reason to different people. We are all growing as instructors, especially those of us who have only been teaching a short time (I think you would be part of this group as well, no?). Do you honestly believe that I would rather be mean than constructive? However, and let's be honest, sometimes constructive comes across as mean. One of the main reasons is that written comments cannot convey any nonverbal communication, e.g., body language. This means that the same comment could be construed BY THE STUDENT in different ways depending on whether or not the comment was given personally in a conference or merely written. Personally, I have read meanness into comments, only to talk to the professor, and only then getting the real jist of the comment. (Granted, it still could have been meanness--I had a prof yell at me during a public, voluntary meeting. Even though I was right, and everyone knew it, I was so embarrassed. I would NEVER intentionally do that to another human being, student or not.

Also, I think we may have a fundamental disagreement on the nature of discipline. Spanking is not condemnation, but discipline. I take it that part of my job as a philosophy professor is to help discipline my students in the art of writing. That said, sometimes they do in fact need a spanking in red ink. As with a real spanking, being truthful with a bad paper, can be hurtful (remember too, that the spanking metaphor is a discipline metaphor, so it is conducted in a spirit of love, not merely out of anger).

Andrew said...

Thanks for clarifying your position, and your metaphor. I don't think we disagree very much at all except in how we have been discussing our students' work.

To return to Dr. Groothuis's original thought experiment. If a professor's written worth were gauged only by their comments, the factors of interpersonal relations (that both Tim and Jeremy have alluded to) would be all but voided, and at most only established through the written word. Jeremy has pointed out the role that a misconstrued comment, and the consequent clarification, plays in improving a student's work. If this is the case, then the professor would have to make comments that are as absolute, clear and helpful as Dr. Groothuis's professor Zweig made "on a portion of one of [his] undergraduate philosopher papers: “This is an assertion, not an argument.”" This comment is impossible to escape, respectful and without any ambiguous moralizing or loving discipline. Perhaps written worth being judged on comments alone would lead to more disciplined comments.