The Problems of Real-Time Feedback in Teaching Writing

Sometimes my students get nervous because I ask them to learn writing by, you know, writing.

For some other subjects, it makes sense to ease students into the work, having them memorize facts to recall for points on multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank quizzes. But writers gotta write. That means taking risks, and occasionally stumbling.

In a journalism course, of course we go over how to attribute quotes with a neutral word like “said” (instead of biased words like “explained” or “claimed”), and how fairness means giving proportional attention to diverse views (instead of inviting two people with two extreme positions to face off and publishing everything they say). And in literature class, of course I teach about the life and times of the author, the conventions of the genre we’re studying, and so forth.

But in a skills-based class, there’s only so much content a student can usefully absorb unless they are out there putting it to use, too. Writing is not a one-size-fits-all skill, so methods designed to train a whole room full of employees pre-selected for various aptitudes won’t work on a required liberal arts core class with no pre-requisites.

My first full-time faculty job was in the U-Wisconsin system. I’ve been horrified to watch over the years how Wisconsin legislators behave as if college professors who spend 10 hours/week in the classroom are only working part-time.

If we imagine a professor spends just one hour prepping before each hour of instruction, and one hour following up marking assignments, that brings us to 30 hours a week.For longer papers, I spend at least an hour giving feedback. A cap of 18 or 25 students, 2 or 3 major papers in a class, at least 2 drafts for each… I have to stagger my due dates across my classes, so that I don’t have multiple major papers all due at once.

Add to that the work we do serving on committees (my schedule last year included the admissions committee, the writing program committee, the English department, the Humanities school, and Faculty Senate; sometimes I just show up once a month, but often we have homework before and after these meetings) and advising students (this means meeting with them individually to help them schedule their classes, helping them through academic and sometimes personal difficulties, supervising internships and independent studies, writing letters of recommendation for graduate school or jobs) and the week fills up.

Oh, yeah, and then there’s the whole thing about publishing original academic research, which is not something you can do in 15-minute chunks when a student doesn’t show up for an office visit.

Having said all that, I have found my university a supportive place, full of people who value the time spent interacting with students on a one-to-one level.  I haven’t encountered the kind of drive for efficiency that forces faculty members to log their working hours.

I have been mildly scolded because the enrollment in the upper-level new media and literature classes I taught on a regular basis meant that overall the number of students I taught was low.Small class sizes are so central to writing instruction, and why so much of my work happens outside the classroom. I can’t really do my job as a writing teacher until I’ve got a student’s draft in front of me, so I can give them personalized feedback on their writing. Of course they get the chance to revise, but that means I have to read their revision, and give them more feedback. That takes time.

Our small program, at our small school, doesn’t have the ability to offer 100-seat bread-and-butter lecture courses to compensate for the smaller courses.

At the time I was called in for my scolding, I was able to demonstrate that my colleagues and I had been carefully watching our numbers, and already had a plan in place to combine, eliminate, or otherwise rejigger the under-enrolled courses. We’re starting our new curriculum in the fall.

I’ll miss some of those courses, but I’m delighted I’ll be teaching a repeatable 100-level “News, Arts and Sports Writing” course every year, instead of a 200-level “News Writing” every other year.

Image of a trunk decorated with Virginia Tech designs and labeled the text "Just Visiting"If a student says they’re having a hard time finding good sources, it makes sense for me to intervene immediately by helping them craft a better search term, or showing them how to limit a search to a more promising universe of sources.

But that particular step in research is a discrete skill where immediate feedback is helpful. When it comes to the much more complicated reading and evaluation of sources, real-time feedback would short-circuit an important part of the writer’s necessary critical thinking. There is no straight line through that part of the process.

To make knowledge, the writer needs to wander through the woods on their own until they find a way out. That’s learning. —Inside Higher Ed