5365: Wherein I Commence to Comment on Commenting

Topic: What are the most valuable types or strategies to commentary you’ve seen? What worked or didn’t work on the comments offered by Dr. Rice?

rhino eagle mashup image
The Mighty "Rhigle" (click for larger version)

For me as a writing teacher, commentary is a peculiar animal–a mix of rhinoceros and bald eagle.  Part of me holds up commentary as proudly as a national emblem–as a symbol and exemplar of the best and highest part of my profession.  In this case, one-on-one, deft, careful interaction with students about their writing.  And often in writing, no less!  And the other part of me reacts to it in the same way you’d react to a black rhinocerous wandering the streets.  Big, smelly, and hard to get around–but boy, do you want to!  Commentary can take a great deal of time if you let it, and can quickly overwhelm both teacher and student.  And it’s easy to play the rhino as well; instead of a neat swoop, the rhino-writing teacher blasts forward, pummeling their way through a text.

Apologies for the sketch, by the way.  I’m no artist…

Personally, I had a hard time resisting rhino-ing my way through the essay that I edited. My first run-through was with good old-fashioned pen and ink annotations, which you can see (sorta) in this short video:.


It’s something I struggle with a lot as a teacher, and even more when called to edit.  My ideal commentary is a kind of dialogue–one side of a conversation not only with the text, but with the writer as well.  I look back with the greatest of fondness on commentary sessions from my MA mentor at Tarleton State, Dr. Randall Popken.  Both on the page and off, his comments not only dealt with the surface problems in my texts but also provoked me to greater thought on the topic at hand.  And there was almost always a plethora of comments.  Thoughtful, fully-developed statements and questions, rather than choppy phrases and clauses, were the norm.  (Or worse, literally rubber-stamped single-word comments! I’ve gotten them…)  When my recently be-doctored friend Rochelle asked me to “go all Popken” on a draft of her dissertation, I knew exactly what she meant.  A thorough, thoughtful, multilevel comment session that questioned assumptions as much as it did comma splices.  And a LOT of it.  It’s fun; it’s sometimes the best part of doing what I do.

Of course, being in the trenches myself, I know that that sort of commentary is rare. And for good reason.  The time and effort that a choice to really read a paper involves is a choice to not read a book, watch a television show, have a romantic night with a spouse, or sing the ABCs with a child.  That’s a hard choice to make.  I felt like Dr Rice’s commentary struck a productive balance between dialogue and sanity, in my case highlighting some of the more important areas for revision or reconsideration, pointing out a characteristic problem or two, and leaving the rest to me–the eagle’s incisive question, not the rhino’s overwhelming quibbles.  That is, it’s a commentary that assumes the in-process-ness of the paper and doesn’t get caught too far up in minutae, while sweating enough of the “small stuff” to make that important.  The conversational tone is key, I think, and is one easily struck with in-text commentary in word or other writing software.   I’d like to experiment with recorded commentary, actually; this is something that Popken used (but with cassette tapes, not mp3s), and to pretty good effect, as I remember.  (I’ve seen it elsewhere, too.)

Most of all, the best kind of commentary balances the present task with future acquisition of discourse, balances the commenter’s time with the writer’s needs, and balances the broad range of things commenters are interested in with the fairly narrow range of things that writers can take all at once.

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3 thoughts on “5365: Wherein I Commence to Comment on Commenting

  1. Christopher,
    Your rhino/eagle comparison is delightful. Recently, a relative asked me to edit a piece he wrote for admission to graduate school. Reading through it, I felt the dread, I’m guessing all writing teachers have felt. Where do I start? It’s not as though his paper was a disaster. I think it needed major revision and I didn’t know where to go with it. I finally suggested dropping the first to paragraphs and starting with the thesis of the third paragraph.

    I also think it’s helpful to understand what the writer expects in commentary, or, in the case of instruction, to set up expectations in advance. I doubt my relative expected what I gave him. Did he have time to act on it? Was he offended? I don’t know because I didn’t ask him what he was looking for. Instructors are different though &emdash; students should understand that the instructor isn’t going to “proofread” the paper for them.

    I really appreciate your meta-commentary. When and if I start teaching composition, I’m going to have to work on eagling, not rhinoing.

    1. Students “should” understand that the instructor isn’t going to proof/edit the paper for them. Tragically, they often expect that it’s what I’m going to do…

      Thanks for the comments, Dan.

  2. And, you did give me the best feedback I could’ve asked for. I can’t believe how helpful it was when I started revising. I probably cut 50 pages based on your comments/suggestions. Have I thanked you for your help with that lately?!?

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