Diagnosing Problems: Ways of Reading Student Papers

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Diagnosing Problems: Ways of Reading Student Papers

Ways of Reading Before you can help students to become better writers, you need to become a better reader of their prose. A good diagnostician of student writing is, first and foremost, a sensitive and attentive reader, capable of reading a text in multiple and complex ways. She reads as what Virginia Woolf called a "common" reader - a person who is curious, responsive, and open to what lies on the page. She also reads empathetically, in order to get to know the writer and her processes. And finally, she reads critically, so that she is able to gather the thoughts that will together form her response.

Reading as a Common Reader When you read as a common reader, you take note of the experience of reading: Are you interested? Bored? Confused? Enraged? Or are you satisfied, even inspired by your reading? It's important when reading an essay to keep in touch with your responses as a common reader; these responses will point you in the direction of a paper's strengths and weaknesses. If you were confused, it's likely that the writing has gone awry; if you were moved, it's likely that the writer has written forcefully. Also, keeping in touch with your "common reader" responses makes you less likely to read exclusively as an evaluator. Instead of weighing every word and turn of phrase, you can allow the language and ideas of the paper to make their impression on you. A common reader is receptive to what he is reading. He suspends his disbelief, waiting until the end of the essay before he reacts critically. Keep close to your responses as a common reader; they will inform the more critical responses that you make later on.

Reading to Get to Know the Writer When you read a paper, you will need to give some of your attention to thinking about who the writer is. After all, you are working with an individual person, not simply with an individual paper. The paper can give you a wealth of information from which you can infer what is going on with the writer. As you read, ask yourself:

  • Is the writer engaged with what he's written?

  • What is the writer's explicit purpose?

  • What hidden assumptions or prejudices are implicit in the paper?

  • What stance does the writer seem to be taking towards his audience?

  • What assumptions (correct or incorrect) does the writer make about the writing process?

  • What does the writer understand (or misunderstand) about academic writing?

These questions can prove very valuable. For example, consider the writer's explicit purpose - that is, the purpose that he declares in his thesis. Then consider whether or not the writer has another agenda - other purposes or assumptions that he never quite declares. Often the writer's hidden assumptions about his topic - or even about the writing process itself - can undermine an essay. In short, as a tutor you need to be sensitive not only to what's on the page, but also to what's been left off.

Reading to Respond As you read an essay, part of your mind will be taking in what the writer is saying while another part is busy scrambling for how you might make a response. Several processes are going on as you formulate this response:

First, you're diagnosing the paper, noting what's strong and what's not. You're struggling to follow the writer's argument, but you're also noting where the argument is going wrong, and you're beginning to hypothesize about why.

Second, you're keeping a running list of what sorts of problems the paper has. Thesis problems? Check. Structural problems? Check. Trouble with paragraphs? Not really: internally they're not bad; they just don't seem to fit together to form an argument. Sentences? Tend to run on a bit. Some comma problems. A nice turn of phrase here and there. This check list will be very useful as you formulate your formal response to the paper.

Finally, you're beginning to think of ways that you might craft your response. What are you going to say? As you read, you look for examples of the issues you hope to talk about. You start to weigh problems, one against the other, so that you can prioritize your remarks. You get a "feel" for the student as a person and a writer, and you consider the tone you'll use to address your concerns. And all of this goes on before you open your mouth or pick up your pen to comment.

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