(No) Comment

Though it would take time for me to tell all the ways in which I gained from being a student in Kenneth Koch’s course of modern poetry, I want to mention one in particular: what he taught me about making comments on students’ papers through the comments he made on mine. That is by way of saying a few things about comments in general.

The first is that properly prepared students are avid for comments. I heard a contrasting view before my third year of teaching, when I attended the summer workshop of a “project” famous for “developing” the “writing process.” The leaders of this workshop contended that students do not read their teachers’ comments, so there is no point in the teachers’ making them. This claim, supposedly based on “research,” was repugnant and in my experience a demonstrably false bit of Bracknellian[1] nonsense, but I entertained it provisionally at least to try and understand in what circumstances it might be true.

I cast back to the team teachers of my 11th-grade English class, Mr. Z. and Mr. M. Any paper returned by Mr. Z. had comments such as “v. good” or “✔”. Those from Mr. M. had notes on my wordiness, my pompousness, or, occasionally, my concision and clarity. Errors of usage came under the red pencil, as did errors of grammar. The virtues he occasionally noted had specific names and were not subsumed with everything else under v. good.

But mostly I thought about Professor Koch (pronounced Coke), whose every returned paper was a course in writing. As you might guess of the teacher of a class in the modern poets who was himself a poet, much of our work consisted in writing poetry. If we studied Whitman, we would write a Whitman imitation, and Yeats, and Pound, and Lawrence. We also wrote a term paper in prose, a midterm essay, and final exam essays, one of which could be a poem.

Unlike many or even most schoolteachers who examine their students’ poems, Koch would subject our poems to genuine criticism, including particular praises and reproofs. The reproofs were as gentle as he could make them if he thought the writer had made a good attempt, but if something was “unWhitman-like,” it was unWhitman-like. He did not accept the notion that students’ poetic work was exempt from discipline and criticism, and most of his students left his class with a realistic estimation of their talents at poetry. He was clear, however, that he wouldn’t let lack of talent get in the way of a decent grade if the student did well on the paper and the essays and gave the poems a try. I was in the unusual position of having him like my poems more than my prose, so my advantage worked the other way around.

The prized comment was “very exciting,” always combined with particulars. It brings me to another important point about comments. Students value the comments of teachers who take them and their work seriously enough to be excited by it, or absorbed, or at least demonstrably occupied. “V. good” doesn’t cut it. If that is what students face when they get their papers back, then of course they would not value the comments. One 9th-grade student during my student teaching submitted a homework assignment early on that said in the middle of a prose passage, “Mr. V are you reading this?” I wrote in the margin, “Of course. I assigned it.” He came to me the day after I returned the paper and thanked me for paying attention to his work. I had his attention for the rest of the semester.

That brings us to a third point. Professor Barzun said that teachers who offer their students the criticism their writing needs and deserves will “work like dogs.” If that was true of his colloquium in important books with its twenty students, or of Koch’s course in modern poetry with its forty, it is terribly true for a high-school teacher with an unspeakably large number of students. Writing, a skill or talent, requires the teacher to be a coach and editor; coaching and editing must aim at particular people. Teachers with large loads of students are bound to have trouble managing this demand unless they have extraordinary fortitude and stamina. The difficulty lies in the quality and intensity of attention required and in the degree of detail that has to come under the teacher’s active notice. It took me a long time to develop that kind of editorial stamina, and even now I have to pace myself when grading writing, taking breaks to stay fresh and open, not burnt out. New teachers daunted by the job should know that the needed ability will probably come, but they must not suppose that it will be easy. Candidates considering jobs at schools where they will have large loads of students may have to inure themselves to dealing with an insufficiency of time and knowing that even with the best will, their work may be “not altogether satisfactory.” Perhaps teachers working in these conditions end up not offering the kind of comments that students take to, but through no grave fault of their own. How sad, then, if they end up moths in a flame!

The answer to the problem of students’ not taking their teachers’ comments seriously does not lie in abandoning comments. Rather, it lies in establishing conditions in which teachers know what comments are worth making and have the working conditions in which to produce comments worth reading.  On the students’ part it means coming to an assignment prepared and ready to seek and take advice, the way my 9th-grader could do once he had satisfied himself that I really recognized him.

[1] This coinage refers to Lady Bracknell, who says that “statistics are laid down for our guidance.”

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