The Labor of Commenting

Purposeful and time-conscious feedback methods

by Daniel Libertz

Here are three things that can help to save time when commenting, to have a bit more work/life balance:

  1. Reading with Purpose: having one or two things on your mind as you read that relate to what your goals are for the unit you are currently teaching as well as course goals for the course.
  2. Limiting Comments: only commenting once or twice per page (e.g., about 4-6 comments on a 4 page double-spaced paper).
  3. Using the Clock: setting a timer as you read.

Reading with Purpose. You’ll always be reading student work in the context of what you have been teaching that week and in that unit. What have been the driving questions? Are you focused on working with sources? On voice? On sentence level work? On argument? On writing as inquiry? On visual rhetoric? On writing for an imagined audience? Use what you have already done in class to look at how students are practicing writing with those lessons in the background. This does not mean you shouldn’t address items other than what your focus is, only that a restricted focus can help you find some things that would be currently relevant at the moment (doing the double work of making you more efficient and relevant to current lessons), and help prevent you from going off on too many tangents. Rubrics can be helpful here, but you do not need a rubric to read with a purpose in the context of a specific unit or lesson.

Limiting Comments. You don’t have to mark everything. It is bad for the student (who gets overwhelmed) and it is bad for you (because it is more work). Students can only absorb so much, so you don’t want to have too many comments on a student’s writing anyway. There are, of course, exceptions. Some students will happily ingest every bit of feedback you have. But, remember, these are exceptions. Therefore, pedagogically, it is good for students to do less, not more. Many of us simply cannot process that much feedback at once, within the rhythm of a semester long course which will have more work each week. One possible number to try to do is no more than 2 comments per page, with the goal of some pages having no comments and, if necessary, having a page with more than 2 comments—so, a 5 page paper might have 4 comments and an endnote. Sometimes, it is good to go back through and delete comments, if necessary. Sometimes people just do endnotes, where they refer back to moments that illustrate what they are talking about within the endnote (e.g., in paragraph 2 on page 4, what about…).

Using the Clock. Using a timer can be helpful. If you are a new teacher, you need to take the time to figure out the rhythms of reading through a paper, making a comment, and (if necessary) revising your comment to make sure it fits the situation and student. It might be best not to use a timer in the early going if you are a new teacher, as you need to figure out what your methods are for commenting. What you might do, instead, is run a stopwatch to pick up how long you are taking on each student. Once you find yourself in a groove, using a timer can help. The threat of the clock can help you stay on task. For instance, setting a timer of 12 minutes for each paper. That does not mean each paper takes 12 minutes. Some need more time, and that is ok (fewer need less time, but that does happen, too). However, the ticking clock can help stay on task and can help finish sooner than you might otherwise.

As an example: A 12 minute clock for, say, 19 students in one class works out to about 4 hours in one week, assuming some papers don’t exceed 12 minutes and that you don’t take breaks, respond to a quick email, etc.—so let’s call it 5 hours, instead. Another 3ish hours is in-class time, teaching. Another 2-3 hours can be committed to lesson planning. Another hour or two for meeting with students, emailing with students, keeping up with readings for the class, etc. That works out to roughly 10-12 hours of teaching-related activities for one class in one week.

Three more things that might also help, but maybe less important than above:

One, make sure you are putting it on the student to let the comment be a starting point for their revision, not an editing note that fixes something specifically for them to do. Use questions in your comment (e.g., What do you mean by…? How so? What if…?) or follow up comments with questions that make certain they are part of the process (e.g., What do you think?). Not having the answers is both more intellectually honest and it saves labor because you aren’t doing the work for the student.

Two, make sure you look for positive things to say up front. It can become easy to fall in the critic’s trap of only looking at things to fix, but if you are committed to building up your students’ confidence, try to get ahead of that by looking for positive elements first rather than trying to retrofit it in there later. Sometimes forgetting to do that can make you spend more time with a paper because you had to go back through it one more time.

Three (from Janet Zellman, a lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh): Schedule your commenting time. For instance, if you teach MWF, then make sure every Tuesday and Thursday from 10am-11am and 3pm-4pm that you comment on papers. Having four hours scheduled for this work makes it much more likely that it gets done. Makes it a bit harder to procrastinate or linger too long on any one paper.

Dr. Daniel Libertz joined the faculty at Baruch College this fall, where he is also Associate Director of First-Year Writing. He earned his PhD at the University of Pittsburgh in 2020 and has been teaching and tutoring writing for over ten years at a variety of institutions (e.g., small liberal arts college, high school, military college, community college). Believing writing is meant to be read, he privileges the dialogic nature of writing in his classes.​

For step-by-step instructions to setup a class workspace, follow this link to Slack’s landing page: “Set up a Slack workspace for your college or university course.”

Now that we’re rounding the bend on one full year of online teaching, it’s safe to say that many of us have found that email, Blackboard, and Zoom have come to comprise the trinity of our classroom structure. I myself use all three of these platforms, and our students are likely familiar with these programs now as well. However, I’ve found that, bar none, the most effective platform for fostering classroom culture and communication is the Slack messaging service. You may have caught wind of Slack in recent months but decided that adding yet another platform to your online presence could overcomplicate your course. However, despite the fact that yes, this is an additional platform, I’d like to explain how and why I’ve implemented and benefited from using Slack in the last year.

At the beginning of the semester I’ve asked students to sign up for what Slack calls our class’s “workspace” using a custom link. Students use their email address to join the workspace. A workspace can be accessed on Slack’s website or using the Slack app. The workspace contains one main channel where everyone who joins can communicate class-wide with one another via chat. This is a useful space for sending (or duplicating from email) important messages for the entire class. I’ve noticed that students oftentimes use our primary workspace to ask questions that they feel an answer to would benefit the entire class. As the moderator, you also have individual channels through which you can communicate directly with each student. Once they join, I send students an individual “Hello, welcome to our Slack workspace! Let me know if you have questions” message as a way to get the conversation started. I find that beginning this sort of private conversation with my students on Slack personalizes their experience with me—something I find really important in the online setting, particularly for First-Year Writing. 

I’m a proponent of writing and conversation groups, both in First-Year Writing and Great Works. On Slack, you can organize students into groups and assign them their own private conversation workspace separate from the individual and class-wide workspaces. As the moderator, you can communicate with each of these groups individually, similar to how on Zoom we can split participants into group spaces that we’re able to access and move between. In Great Works, every other week I give students a list of five questions concerning the reading for that week to use as a scaffold to their group conversation. I make these group conversations worth 1% of their final grade each (pretty low stakes), but I find that these conversations help bolster class participation during that week’s in-person Zoom meeting.

As opposed to Zoom, I use Slack as a setting for virtual office hours. For example, I used Slack check-ins in First-Year Writing as a solution to the problem of how to promote classroom participation. At the beginning of each week, I would give students a prompt to respond to in a private message to me on Slack. Here are two examples of prompts I’ve used:

  • What about the reading for this week inspires you as you draft your creative nonfiction piece?
  • Locate three peer-reviewed articles on Baruch Library’s research database and send them to me as the beginning of your check-in. We’ll talk about how you will use (or even if you should use!) each of these in your research assignment.

This gave me the opportunity to regularly check in on their progress in the course, and I found that students engaged a great deal more with drafting and revisions of their papers as a result. 

For me, the key to generating classroom culture in an online setting has been finding a balance between casualness and professionalism. Zoom can be staid and awkward (especially if our students aren’t communicating with us or turning on their videos). While Slack doesn’t solve the Zoom doldrums, I do find that it builds an extra dimension onto the class that is less formal, more engaged, and more conversational. I’ve noticed that students message me more now to ask about their college experience more generally. I appreciate how quickly I’m able to respond to students without the formalities of composing an email, or even multiple emails. This setting aside of communication formalities also adds to the classroom culture. I noticed that students would talk to each other about other classes they were both simultaneously taking, or about funny memes or videos that they had come across. 

Finally, I understand that this comes across as a lot of work on top of preparing for classes, teaching, and grading. But, if you’re up for putting in the additional effort, I believe that using Slack as a complementary feature to your course helps with fostering focused, personalized experiences with our students.

When I first started using Slack, I had some questions concerning how to set up my own workspace. I found this video helpful, as well as Slack’s own explanation.

Chris Campbell is a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Fellow and Adjunct Instructor in the English Department at Baruch College, where he also teaches First-Year Writing and Great Works of World Literature. He is a PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature at The Graduate Center, CUNY. His dissertation, entitled “Cleaning out the Closet: AIDS, Trauma, and the Literary Nonplace,” combines his degree studies in Architecture with French and American queer literature of the last 40 years. He can be contacted at