A student sits in front of me, draft in hand, adrift in the process of revision. "I get what you're saying," he says, "But how do I fix it?"
It's a question I'm hearing a lot these days as I'm requiring all of my first-year writing students to meet with me outside of class to talk about their drafts. I've moved away from requiring conferences in the past few years, primarily because I can provide much more detailed feedback on papers by inserting comments electronically. However, I can't guarantee that students read those comments, and neither can I be certain that they understand them.
So for this first major paper of the semester, I sent them comments and then set up required conferences, but I warned them first: "Don't come and see me without looking at my comments and those of your classmates. This is your chance to ask me questions, and it's my chance to ask you what progress you're making on revision."
So far, it's working. Every student has brought in specific questions, some of them easy to answer (what do you mean by "hanging indent"?) and others more challenging. The most common problem on this assignment is a tendency to grab quotes from the readings and drop them into the essay and then move on without providing any context or commentary, and I've had several students tell me, "I don't know how to do that." But that awareness gives us a good place to start, and by the time we're through, maybe the student has a better idea of how to proceed.
But here's the thing: no one asks those questions in class. Further, students rarely ask this kind of question via e-mail--perhaps because they postpone looking at my revision suggestions until just before the deadline for submitting the revised essay, and they know better than to frantically e-mail me at 3 a.m. the day the paper is due. (Well, most of them know better.)
So while they're learning a lesson about how to add depth to their writing, I'm learning a lesson about the value of one-on-one instruction. I will still send them comments electronically (because no one can read my handwriting!), but after this week, maybe they'll see the value in seeking assistance--and maybe I'll keep making conferences a part of our writing process.