When to Judge: on Evaluation in Tutorials

I try not to be too evaluative in my tutorials (or even my Written Feedback).  Of course, there’s always a time to reassure the writer that they’re on the right track, or that some turn of phrase is well done and should be retained, even exploited or learned from.  There’s also the awareness, though, that placing a value judgment or (heaven forbid) a letter grade on someone else’s work isn’t my job.  For one thing, what if the professor disagrees with me and I’ve now misled the student into thinking their work is one thing, when it’s really being graded as another?  Far more importantly: did the writer come in for a pat on the head, or for constructive criticism and help?

The tutorial this week wasn’t my first encounter with this dilemma – I’ll never forget the time I overheard a writer demanding to know a tutor’s grades (“I just want to know I’m getting quality help!”).  In my tutorial this week, though, it was the first time that the writer came out and asked me for an evaluation.  We were talking casually when I asked, “What do you want out of this paper?”  I meant, what do you want the paper to do (and probably should’ve said that, now that I think of it).  Naturally, the writer, partly kidding, replied: “Well, an A!”

Yikes.  Not sure what to say, I hesitated for a moment, and the writer asked, “What would this paper get in the classes you are in?”  He was trying to feel me out, clearly, wanting some kind of reassurance or answer from me as to the relative quality of his paper.  Even more embarrassed (and slightly shocked that a first-year writing student was grading his own work at a “C,” as he’d mentioned earlier), I realized that here was a chance to put my interpersonal skills to work.

I told him that, with practice and with each successive writing class, your writing does get better.  As a second-year graduate student, my work is far, far different from what it was in freshman year of undergrad.  Secondly, I told him that professors would have different criteria, and that they would recognize his relative inexperience with college-level writing.  Not everyone is expected to be a superstar writer right off the bat (or why would we be taking writing classes at all?)  There’s no set definition of “good writing,” but there is “good writing based on your capabilities, your voice, your skill level, your relative experience.”  You can look at your own work in comparison to that of others – for inspiration, for examples, to move outside your own comfort zone and challenge yourself – but there’s no need to “measure up” to someone else’s definition of good writing.  And there’s no reason to feel unequal to someone who has been writing for longer than you and in different contexts.

Of course, I didn’t say all of that – but I wish I had.  My comments, paraphrased, were that he shouldn’t have to measure his work against mine, since my writing style had evolved and changed with each paper and opportunity for practice at college-level writing.  The writer and I returned to the tutorial, and he seemed a bit subdued.  Later, thinking about it, I remembered how important grades seemed in those first few years of college.  Every paper seemed crucial and the slightest criticism felt like an indictment of not living up to someone’s expectations.  To top it off, a B- paper seems like a death knell when you’re paying 40k for school.  The pressure translated into a fixation on grades.  But as I wrote more, the criticisms felt more valid, and more useful.  I was able to concentrate on writing the best paper I could in each context, with the time given, and with the material given.  I also recognized that being in college classes meant that I had been accepted into this writerly system, and that the marks on the tops of my returned papers weren’t just a judgment passed on my work, but also the commentary of one participant in that system to another.

In short, evaluative language has its place, like in reassuring an anxious writer that they’re doing something right, that they should just keep at it and make it even better, or to point out something done well in the interest of applying that success to other parts of their writing.  However, young writers get enough evaluation in their classes – they don’t need it from us as well.  The pressure of that first year is intense.  These writers need help and guidance, but if there’s any way to do that without tying their work to a number or a letter, I think we should find it.