May 19, 2010
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In A Detail-Oriented Way

In today’s Boston Globe, Kara Miller decries the poor state of student writing and calls for vague reforms and ill-defined rewards for writing teachers. Kara Miller, as it happens, is a writing teacher. She writes:

Which leads to a serious question: why do so many students come to college without a command of fundamentals?

To some degree, it’s a mathematical problem. If it takes me all weekend to correct 40 papers, how can a high school English teacher begin to tackle 120 papers (four sections, 30 students per section) in a detail-oriented way?

Should a teacher tackle those papers in a detail-oriented way? I think we might simply read them in detail.

The problem statement is rhetorical and insubstantial. The response to the stated problem is clear: either the high school English teacher must grade more rapidly that Kara Miller, or the teacher must spend more time grading.

More seriously, is fast or slipshod grading the reason that many students come to college without a command of the fundamentals? One might argue that this is true, but Miller doesn’t actually present an argument. My own experience argues the contrary. I remember that I seldom paid a great deal of attention to detailed edits in high school, and that I skipped straight to the grade and the summary comment.

Snarking about the quality of writing in editorials about the quality of students is altogether too easy, but I keep returning to that telling phrase, “in a detail-oriented way”. I’m reading Anita Shreve’s Testimony right now. She has a wonderful knack for sketching a character’s occupation and attitude in a few lines of interior dialogue, and we both know that “a detail-oriented way” is not a good sign.