Thirty years later, I still remember the first time I went through a stack of student essays in preparation for paper conferences the next day. I was a first-year grad student in a writing program and completely responsible for the learning of the 22 first-year students enrolled in my course. An earnest Midwesterner, I took that responsibility very seriously. Gathering up my stack of drafts and a quiver of pens, I stretched out on the couch and went to work, reading, commenting, and then moving on to the next essay.
It was awful. And I’m not referring to the papers; they were fine. It was the reading and commenting that was so terrible: it took forever going through those papers and felt so unrewarding. I was writing the same comments over and over again, wanting to sum up the revisions needed to shift the essay from messy first draft to semi-cogent second draft. I struggled to keep my handwriting legible and to find the heart of the essay, that moment of joy or insight upon which the student could build and grow.
I don’t remember how the conferences themselves went, though I do remember the delight I felt getting to know my students, hearing something about their lives. I liked talking with them. I liked trying to help them. I emphasize the word “trying.” Because when I really looked carefully at my students’ final papers, I’m not sure I saw much improvement. The strong students continued to be strong, and the weaker students continued to languish.
It’s silly, I know, to act as though one-on-one meetings with our students—be they for papers, presentations, or any other kind of assignment—are the lynchpin upon which deconstructing the academic status quo depends. Even this social-science-poor English professor knows the difference between causation and correlation. Nonetheless, given how much time conferences take, given how much energy conferences take, shouldn’t we at least have the sense that they’re worth it?
Eventually, I did what any practical person would do: I cut back. I started asking students to bring the papers with them to the conferences, and I would read them as they sat in my office. Then I started feeling weird having a student sitting in my office doing nothing while I was racing through their drafts, so I gave them some homework. “Take out a notebook and make three lists: first, everything you already know you’re going to change; second, everything you’re thinking about changing but aren’t sure about; third, any questions you have for me.”
And guess what happened? The conferences became less work. The students paid attention. They sat up and took notes. They spoke. They offered ideas. And their papers got better.
I shouldn’t have been so shocked. The focus of these kinds of meetings, after all, is the student’s work, be it a paper, project, or performance. Their work, not ours. But if you’re anything like me, the soul of a teacher whispers otherwise: “I’m necessary. I must help. The students depend upon me. It’s my job and I so want to do it well.”
It’s important to remember that this voice comes from our best professional selves, growing out of an idealism that keeps us going in a profession that underpays and overworks and is facing increasingly negative societal pressures. But finally? It is the student’s work.
Whatever we’re responding to—be it a paper draft or a physics proof or a piano solo—that first run is the product of their effort. And improvement will require them to wallow in the intricacies of their field. In physics, this may mean reexamining the fundamentals of calculus. In music, this may require struggling through alternate fingerings. My writing students may need to add entire paragraphs that they later delete. They need to struggle to find an example that proves their point before realizing that maybe there is no example because their point is no good. They have to give up and then start again. They have to lean back in their chairs, rereading their final sentence, and think to themselves, That’s actually pretty good. They have to have the chance to feel that glow, to know what they did. What they did.
Learning can’t happen any other way.
Finally, there are dozens of ways to create this space for our students. Here’s how I do it, offered less as an algorithm than as a melody off of which teachers can improvise their own tune. Each of us needs to take an approach that matches who—and how—we wish to be as instructors.
I collect all the drafts on the designated day, telling the students: “I’m not going to read your papers ahead of time because when I do that, I talk too much and don’t listen enough. I’ll read it when you come to my office. I want you to be sure to bring a notebook or a laptop, something to write with, because you’re going to need it.” When the students arrive for their meeting, I ask the three questions I listed above. The prompts can vary, depending on the work to be discussed. Sometimes I borrow from the Donald Murray essay on which my title riffs, asking: “What did you learn from writing this draft?” or “What surprised you in this draft?” Sometimes for more technical forms of writing or when the students are working on a comprehensive project, I’ll ask them to jot notes on the toughest parts of the assignment and any ideas they’re considering for overcoming the challenges. I use this approach for drafts of papers, for drafts of oral presentations or student videos, for drafts of scientific posters.
When I’m sure the students understand the questions, I say the single most important thing I’ll say in any session: “Once I’m done reading, we’ll begin with your lists.”
Which we do. And what follows is a wonderful conversation driven by their thoughts, their ideas. I respond, of course: That sounds great. How exactly do you want to approach that? Why do you think you want to do it that way? If I see them going too far off the rails, I nudge them back. If they’re stuck, we brainstorm together, coming up with as many ideas as we can to get them moving—and then they decide which of those paths they wish to pursue.
Sometimes I have ideas that I really want to share—great ideas! Ideas that would change the world! Ideas that would turn this run-of-the-mill first-year essay into a grad-school-worthy publication! Ideas that could land this piece in the New Yorker! But I shut up. I’m there to listen. It’s their job to figure out how to make what they’ve done better. And what a glorious job it can be, if only I allow it.
Paul Hanstedt, PhD, is the founding director of the Harte Center for Teaching and Learning at Washington and Lee University and the author of Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World.