Diagnosing Problems: Ways of Reading Student Papers

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.

Moreover, 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 or writing assistant 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 checklist 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.

Sample Paper

This is a fabricated paper; its flaws are exaggerated for training purposes.

Our fictional student is taking a senior seminar in History. He has been reading about the history and effects of Affirmative Action and was asked to write a short response paper about Affirmative Action and higher education admissions policies.

*** Affirmative Action laws were designed to make up for America's enslavement and centuries of oppression of Black people. They were correcting laws, the aim of which were to eliminate injustice. But in the end, new injustices have been created by these laws. The most harmful of which is the inability of qualified students to pursue their dreams and get into the really important professional schools, like medicine and law. Why is race relevant to who makes a good doctor or lawyer? And how do we even measure merit? Is part of that measurement race? Where do we put it in the mix when we are considering whether you're good enough for graduate school? Is it more important than the standardized exams, professor recommendations and GPA - all of which, in the end, are just as prejudiced? After all, a man isn't measured by tests or by the color of his skin. In the end, all measurements of a person are flawed. But none are more flawed than the measurement of a person by their race.

Nowadays, kids trying to get into professional schools should understand that the GREs and LSATs and MCATs and other standardized tests aren't a good way to test how smart you are or even ability. Minorities themselves complain that these tests are biased against them. What do these tests measure except an ability to take a test? Steven Lobrawski argues that they measure how predictable a thinker will be. Moreover, Susan Worbal notes that lower test scores by minority applicants are accepted over higher scores by majority applicants. If scores can be overlooked for minorities, why can't they be overlooked for majorities? Is the importance of race greater than the importance of test scores? Is your success as a lawyer or doctor predicted by them?

Professor recommendations are also unfair. Why should a professor's opinion get you in or keep you out of the school? Aren't professors as prejudice as anyone? Their subjectivity isn't nearly as objective as standardized scores. So why are they so important anyway? Some students aren't even able to get to know their professors well - usually because the professor is never at his office hours, or because the student has too much integrity to kiss up to the professor. The same is true about GPAs. Should one bad term where a student had a personal crisis or an adjustment problem haunt him forever? Should this kind of mistake be able to keep him from realizing his dream? Affirmative action allows students who have had difficult upbringings to make up for it. Are other students given the chance to make up for his own problems? Is this fair?

Anyhow, affirmative action is like beating a dead horse. And its caused more injustices than its fixed. Its not fair to minorities and women, who feel like they don't really deserve to be where they are, and it's unfair to whites who are rejected from law school and denied their dreams. Schools should find more fair ways to admit students.


When reading as a common reader, what were your responses?

Most likely you felt a variety of things: amused (but not in a good way), slightly offended (but only because the argument was so weak that it was hard to take seriously), and confused (what was the author really trying to argue?). Perhaps you did not trust the writer.

Note how quickly in this paper these responses as a common reader take you into the next way of reading: reading to get to know the writer. The elements that may strike you on a gut level as amusing or offensive or dishonest all have to do with who the writer is and what stance he is taking towards his topic.

For example, the writer begins with a sentence that is insensitive on a number of levels. First, in referring to African-Americans as "Black people" the writer is not only selecting to use non-preferred language, but he is using language that assigns this group to the category of "other." Then, in his phrase "America's enslavement and centuries of oppression of Black people," the writer uses language that is explicitly inflammatory. Why?

This sort of language leads us to believe that we are being rallied to the cause of the disenfranchised, yet reading further we quickly learn that the writer has another purpose in mind. In the middle of the introduction, via his reference to "really important professional schools," the writer allies himself with the values of a certain socio-economic class and discloses his antagonism towards affirmative action policies. This contradiction is probably the seed of our distrust of the writer.

This distrust grows throughout the paper and has various sources. One source is the writer's tone, which seems at odds with the writer's point of view. The writer is, after all, a student; he is talking about GPA's, test scores, professors attending their office hours, and fellow applicants. Yet, his language suggests that he is writing from a detached and somewhat superior position. For example, he refers to professional school applicants as "kids" - as if he is not one himself. In short, the writer is trying to set himself up as an authority, but his efforts seem inauthentic. The matter is further complicated by the manner in which he uses two outside sources without providing context, credentials, or rationale.

The writer's attempts to gain authority are also evident in the exalted prose he uses to pose his rhetorical questions. In particular, the rhetorical questions in paragraph 3 seem to hide the writer and his real issue - that he himself was rejected from law school and is trying, in this essay, to justify that rejection.

So, what are you going to say to this writer? "Gee, I'm sorry you got rejected from law school. It was probably that bad GPA you mentioned and not affirmative action, though."

Even though this remark hits the nail on the head, you'll want to craft a more tactful and effective response. But where to begin? One possibility is with the writer's use of rhetorical questions. These questions reveal many of the essay's problems. Not only do the questions - passionate and unanswered - reveal the writer's personal frustrations with graduate school admission policies, but they also reveal the essay's weaknesses as a piece of writing.

What are the answers to these complicated questions? How do we measure merit? What is the role of race in that measurement? What is the value of test scores, professor recommendations, and so on? Are these various means of measurement fair? The thoughtful writer would attempt to answer these questions.

The absence of answers to these questions reveals the essay's primary weakness: there is no argument, and what hints of an argument do exist are systematically contradicted. For example, the writer seems not to know where he stands on the issue of merit. He seems to believe that "merit" and not race should get one into graduate school, yet he discredits all measurements of merit, such as GPA's, professor recommendations, and so on. Noting this contradiction is another place where you might begin your response.

In the process of diagnosing a student paper, you'll note that each way of reading leads you to the next. Gut-level responses help you to make guesses about the writer, which in turn help you to better understand the paper, which, in turn, assist you in diagnosing a paper's particular weaknesses. You are now ready to consider the different ways of Responding to Problems in student papers.