Tomorrow in our Practicum, we will be discussing the task of responding to student writing. The TAs will be receiving their first set of rough drafts this evening, so this is our version of just-in-time education I suppose. To commemorate the event, the TAs are reading some rhet/comp golden oldies on the issue.
So here are some thoughts on this issue.
1. How do we trace the assemblage that is "student writing"? The texts that are populating my TAs inbox are exposed to this larger assemblage. I am almost tempted to say that student writing doesn't exist, but I think it does on some level. It's some kind of creature. That said, I think we are deeply misled by our notions of the ontological relationship between "student writing" and the text that sits before us.
2. That said, I really appreciate much of the classic advice which basically says "Stop responding as a teacher. Stop trying to turn the text into what you think it should be (or what you think it needs to be according to your imagination of program requirements, the demands of academic discourse, or whatever). Respond to the text as a reader (which is what you are)."
3. We need to recognize that, like it or not, most writing produced in a composition classroom is purely transactional. Students write because they are required to. They write to meet the requirements of the assignment you have given. They write in order to receive a good grade. It is difficult to get outside this condition. I think we have to begin by accepting the reality of this situation. Most writing in the world (e.g. workplace writing) is transactional. We romanticize the notion of self-sponsored writing. Our students romanticize this notion.
When we respond to our students' writing, it would be unfair to assume that our students have some self-sponsored motivation or purpose behind the texts they have written at our command. That said, if our goal is to help students discover intrinsic motivations for writing, then we have to be prepared to be very flexible in the transactional aspects of the course. If students discover such motivations then they will become more interested in feedback that is responsive to their rhetorical goals.
For TAs the task of responding to student writing can be taxing. There are so many things one might say, and when one is inexperienced it can be stressful to try to figure out what things need to be said and what one's expectations should be of students from draft to draft. One thing I can say for certain. It is possible through instruction and detailed feedback to take students through a compositional death march where upon all the students' essays are virtually identical. I'm not sure what is proven or learned as a result, but I have seen this done many times.
What is more difficult, for many reasons, is to encourage the discursive unfolding of writing away from the original prompt, to give up your goals as the assigner of the assignment, and to discover with your students what can be learned through the writing experience they are having.