Monday, August 19, 2013


The Ballad of the Red Pen

How do you use the red pen?

As a student, especially in K-12, the red pen was the authority indicating error.  There, I learned that you measured the quality of writing by the number of errors it contained.  The upside of that method was that it forced me to learn my grammar.  The downside was that it tended to reward a certain predictability.  (Five paragraphs, topic sentences...)

In college, the red pen came very late, when it came at all.  It tended to be more cryptic than in high school, sometimes to good effect and sometimes not.  But I had grown to fear it less.  In grad school, the red pen was mostly used to indicate ideological objections, as opposed to “errors” in the sense that most people use the term.  (Some actually used the term “ideological errors,” but I tried to avoid those people.)  

I didn’t encounter a thoughtful conversation about the use of the red pen until I had to t.a. some English composition classes.  Rutgers put social science doctoral students through a year or two of English comp t.a.’ing back then -- I don’t know if it still does -- and in that context, that meant being the instructors of record for our own sections.  To its credit, the English department there understood that, say, political scientists have not been taught how to teach writing, so it established a three day boot camp in writing instruction that we had to attend before we were loosed on unsuspecting freshmen.

That boot camp was one of the most valuable professional development experiences I’ve ever had.  And it was all about the red pen.

People who had studied the ways that students learn how to write -- which is not necessarily the same group as “people who study literature” -- had found “patterns of error” that students fell into when they were trying to stretch as writers.  The point of the boot camp was to help us distinguish between errors of laziness or ignorance, and errors of attempted growth.  The goal was to use the red pen in traditional ways on the former, but to be much more thoughtful about the latter.

Among other things, I was told that the number of “surface errors” -- the kind of mistakes that summoned the red pen reliably in high school -- would actually increase as students moved from simple autobiographical writing to more difficult subjects about which they were less sure.  But the attempt to move from simple to complex engagement should be encouraged.  Too aggressive a job of error-catching could actually arrest students in a developmental stage.  

The concept struck me as both liberatory and wise.  It was liberatory in the sense that I could take off the green eyeshade while grading.  And it was wise in that it replaced mere error-catching with an attempt to recognize the student as capable of more.  I can’t say I always got it right in the implementation, but the concept stuck with me.

In administration, I’ve fallen back on the idea of “errors of growth” quite a bit.  When people step outside of their usual routines and try to do more, there’s an initial phase in which they often make some pretty basic mistakes.  There’s a reason that software experts advise never buying a version that ends in point-zero.  But if you never roll out version 1.0, you’ll never get to the subsequent versions.  The key is in distinguishing between the errors you need to jump on, and the ones that are actually positive signs.

Not everybody has figured this out.  Some wield the red pen in the old k-12 style, attacking every mistake with equal relish.  When the two styles coexist in the same organization, the messages can get pretty confusing. The styles each make sense on their own terms, but they don’t mesh well.  When multiple red pens are in the picture, each with its own set of rules, it’s easy for the author of the paper to get flustered.  That’s true on dissertation committees, and it’s true in organizations.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found ways of making things work when people are using different approaches to their red pens?

I love this analogy. I think my previous job was an old-school red pen environment. I'm currently in a place where pushing oneself is encouraged and making mistakes is deemed part of the game plan.

One thing I've done with colleagues who experience two different types of red pens is to point out what's happening. Often those correcting every single mistake are jealous or threatened. And I've tried to ease the ones with the red pen's fear of being threatened. Even when teaching writing, I always felt that those who spilled red ink all over a paper were doing so not to help the student but to demonstrate their authority. The same is true of the metaphoric red pen. If you can recognize that then you can figure out how to manage it. Or, if it's too stifling, you can move on.
The use of red pens could diminish substantially (due to fewer errors of all sorts) if K-12 teachers and curriculum goals were more focused on helping students learn the protocols of comprehensible writing. K-8 writing instruction, in many schools, is so focused on encouraging children to "find their voice," and so convinced that corrective comments squash that voice, that there is no correction at all. I really think that this approach sells students short; of course it is discouraging to have an essay or report returned with red marks all over it, but judicious use of corrective comments tells the student that the teacher is taking her/his writing seriously. And along with this dimension of the issue is that in many school systems there is no systematic teaching of grammar, and not much of spelling. Students are expected to pick these things up on the fly, which works for some who read extensively, but not so much for the average student.
I really wish that all grad students expected to teach were taught how to teach writing because it pops up across the curriculum now and some of use specifically went into science and math to avoid writing as much as possible. Think of what our collective power would be as teachers if we were reinforcing good writing in all the classes at the university! It boggles the mind.

But this really wasn't a post about teaching writing - I think attribution of motive is the area where we err the most in interpreting other people's actions and mistakes. Good administrators learn quickly never to attribute to malice that which might have been done based on ignorance or different (sometimes irrational but honestly held) points of view. Even if someone was acting out of anger or frustration, choosing to ignore that give them the space to see and correct their own error. Reasonable people will be grateful you gave them a pass and will be more inclined to be charitable when you appear to have made a mistake. But that takes a kind of zen like patience and genuine curiosity that can be crushed out of the average person by the recriminations and general bureaucratic wrestling that are part and parcel of administration. It’s a marathon, not a sprint and not for the faint of heart.
Red? I use every color except red when grading.

But seriously, thanks a lot for this post, the other comments, and particularly for Ivory's thoughts about writing avoidance. We know from friends and colleagues out in the real world that writing is highly valued in technical fields, just as we know that students don't believe us when we pass on that info!

I generally focus on the physics content and logical argument in things like a lab report, ignoring the "errors of growth". However, I cannot avoid noting things that start to send a message of borderline illiteracy, since that can cost you a job even if it doesn't cost any points when I am grading.

I've learned from a few bloggers and colleagues who teach composition how to highlight a too-common error (the 3 page paragraph, for example) just once or twice without going crazy with red ink, but I should probably use a different color pen for grammar.
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