Promising Moments, Part I

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One of the keys to effective commenting is locating the most promising moments of any student paper, those bits where the student is starting to pull it all together even if it’s not quite there yet.  By identifying those moments for students, I can help them see exactly where they need to focus their work—starting with what they’re already done, thinking about what it needed to be more successful, and then incorporating that insight into their next paper. Take, for example, some of the comments I made on the first set of rough drafts I received last semester, in response to this assignment.  For this first paper, many of my students struggled with argument. That’s not surprising, really, since it’s not something they’re expected manage well until the end of the semester. But given this particular weakness of the class, I sought out promising moments in several student papers. I start by making a marginal comment about the promising moment:
OK. Here you have the start of an interesting idea because you’re thinking about the relationship between immigration, value of rituals, and change. You could develop this into an argument.
I then reinforce the point in my end comment:
I’m not sure I see your argument, so that’s where you really need to focus your revision.  I’ve pointed to a couple of places where you have some interesting ideas.  You could start from these places to form a clear argument but, ultimately, without that clear argument your paper is really at risk.  So work on that argument and then make sure each paragraph supports it.
Here’s another example of how I try to locate promising moments.  First, I comment on the student’s argument:
It sounds like maybe this is the idea you want for your argument, but you’re going have to make sure you state it up front and clearly.
Then I locate those moments in the paper that hold the potential for a stronger argument:
Here’s an interesting idea. The assignment is all about value of rituals and change, so you could use this to help you develop a stronger argument.
And then I reinforce it all in my end comments:
Right now I don’t see any argument. I’ve pointed out a couple of places where you start to move to one. Remember that you want to take a position in relation to the assignment and to the texts. Your bar mitzvah example might give you a way to do that and you start to do that in the conclusion, too. Focus on locating and stating an argument as you revise.
Keeping a focus on what’s promising in a student’s paper provides an opportunity for progress, regardless the actual grade. And it does so directly in the context of student writing. They don’t have to guess what I mean with a comment like “You need a stronger argument” because I show them where they start to make one; they can now recognize their own ideas and how they can function in the paper. In my next post, I'll show how my comments work in the context of a real student paper. Stay tuned!
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.