The Fine Art of Commenting

Last night at almost 11pm I zipped down to King St. to hand off a load of marked papers for my patient professor. I might have been able to meet him early the next morning, but I couldn’t stand having the thick stack in my room another moment. I wanted my desk– and mind– clear for the next task. I didn’t wish to be reminded of the countless hours I had spent the past week, making comments in margins until my fingers cramped.

For the thousandth time, I reminded myself of how lucky I was to have my tuition subsidized this way. In lieu of paying for my masters’ degree, I was handed forty or so essays to grade a few times per semester, along with the obligatory steady stream of plaintive student emails throughout the term to answer in as placating tone as I could muster. And unlike other jobs I’ve held, TAing and grading is the kind of task in which I feel I can be completely myself. My two most prominent qualities– helpfulness and being opinionated– are assets when giving criticism on undergraduate student work. I can mark wearing yoga pants, or watching hockey, or both, which would not fly in other workplaces that are not my bed.

However, one major drawback of grading papers is how completely it takes over your life, like the shadow of a monolith suddenly lurching over you, or a hostile spacecraft with its lights shining full in your face. For as many hours a day as you can stay awake, for as many days as necessary, you must tackle the pile of marking much like you might clear a forest before winter, or dig a tunnel through a landslide. Everything else gets put on hold– laundry, seeing friends, answering all but the most necessary of emails, Christmas parties, cooking anything except eggs on toast and ramen noodles topped with whatever vegetables haven’t yet wilted in the crisper, like cauliflower. Grading is very cost-effective. There is simply no time to spend money, unless it’s at the pub. In the final days leading up to the hand-off, even this is unfeasible, as you are often sleeping when it’s pub time, or just woken up, and a beer at your equivalent of lunchtime would only send you back to sleep instead of facing the next essay entitled ominously, “The Elements of Time*”.

Another drawback is having to think of comments. I hate to think of becoming one of those snarky, self-satisfied graduate students who complain constantly about undergrads, who post up samples of egregious errors on Facebook,  like the much-haranged TA at York University who apologized after posting on her status that her students made her dumber. Unfortunately, these TAs do exist. All of my peers and myself can’t help sometimes becoming that smug know-it-all for a few minutes now and then. We try to do this amongst ourselves, in the privacy of our sealed-off study rooms. I have too high an opinion of myself to think that my ego needs to be bolstered from belittling others. That’s what my hockey fantasy pool smack talk is for.

And I too remember being an undergrad and being too rushed to proofread, or when my prof circled every diction problem or poor word choice. Because everyone learns to write, people sometimes forget that you need to learn to write. It isn’t something that comes naturally; its highly constructed. Language itself is artificial, it has rules that are sometimes arbitrary and that go out of style. Even ten years ago I never would have used a contraction in a formal essay, now I let it slide, circling it now and then only if the student’s tone overall really is too colloquial for an academic setting: “That Juliet, yo, she wasn’t too fussy and took the first man that came into her life not because she was in love with him but because who could stand that mother!” This is a made up example of course. No student has ever writing “yo” in a paper I have read.

Instead of feeling superior or irritated, my students’ work at times baffles me. Why did they decide to put the comma there, of all places? Do they literally mean that “all of the landscape was responsible for the character’s untimely death”? How might they have misspelled the author of the work they have studied for several weeks, not just once but three or four times, with variations? And then sometimes I start to worry. Reading over a batch of cover letters, again and again is expressed the desire to “make a difference”. What specific kind of difference do you plan to make? I write in the margins. In what field? Then my pen begins to run out and all I can write is, What difference? and I worry that this might sound mean, or disbelieving. When in fact, I wish I might to see them all get through the world, and I wonder ahout their degrees, what courses they’re taking, what their majors are, whether or not they help their younger sisters or brothers at school. Many of them have last names that I cannot pronounce without sounding like I’m gargling, and I wonder if they’re the first in their families to go to university, or at least a Canadian one.

There is a fine art to leaving comments for students. I realize that many of the standard proofreader’s marks look abrupt and incomprehensibly obscure. AWK. RUN-ON. SS. WC. OMIT. DICTION. I write them out instead: word choice, I write; diction. This does not seem much better. Awkwardly phrased, I scrawl. I wonder of the students will think I hate them. Good ideas but I write above it in my black pen (I never use a red one– it’d look too much like I was actually correcting them.) Could be better phrased, I write on the next one, which seems to me to be the perfect balance of neutrality & helpfulness. “Time innoculated the main character,” I read. I circle “innoculate”, trying to figure out what word they looked up in the thesaurus to arrive at their final choice. I can’t help but put the standard indication of TA bafflement, the question mark, equivalent to WTF? without the WTF. There is a lot of “being” in students’ work, which seems like an apt existential metaphor. “The landscape being what it is, it held back its secrets until the character being curious and having insecurities about their sense of belonging attempted to prise it out of nature.” My ink runneth dry.

Typing out my final comments, I try to begin with something positive, even if on the rare occasions the assignment is absolutely subpar or shows little more perfunctorily effort than the average person might smoosh out a text message. Your essay is readable, I write, which is one notch below accessible. Your essay is relatively free of errors. Your paper shows a throughout grasp on the events of the story and what the author sets out to accomplish. There is a good attention to detail in your paper. Trying to think of variations on these comments is at times more difficult that writing a villanelle. I have adopted other standard TA commenting tactics, including writing “your paper” or “your essay” rather than “you”, which may sound accusatory. Your thesis statement is absent from this paper, I type, as though it has gone missing. Unless it’s positive news, You make thoughtful observations about the texts. I like your discussion about landscape and time.

On the whole, I attempt to sound professional, a little bland, not too formal, and utterly absent of the academic jargon that even I’ve come to use as naturally as I might breathe through swimming laps. It’s as though I try not to leave any comments that might not have been made by any other TA. Yet at times, a little of my own quirkiness cannot help by slip through, at the same time as I can picture the second year student whose paper has fallen onto me to crease and spill water on and to grade, out of 20. I can see her BBMing to her friends, going home to watch Hoarders after reading Paradise Lost. Your discussion of time is much too broad although that never stopped Stephen Hawkins. There is no such thing as the “perfect landscape” that you refer to in your essay though I wish there was. What might it look like? Then, with a snap, the TA readjusts and comes into focus again: Please define any terms you use in your paper. Don’t assume that your reader will automatically understand everything you mean.

*all comments and samples of student work are completely made up to protect student privacy and my own reputation, though I wish they weren’t.

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