on grades

bookshelf, via Public Domain

bookshelf, via Public Domain

You’re no fool. You know that part of my job as a professor is to grade. It can also be the least fun part.

That isn’t because of how time-consuming it is, or how tedious it is to do things like this.


Sample student essay.

It’s also not because of things like this. (Proofread, guys. Come on.)


Disclaimer: this was a reading course.

Simply, it’s my fear that a lot of students just want the A.

Don’t get me wrong. I wanted the A, too. I also took it the wrong way, sometimes, when professors corrected my work. That was until I had one professor who completely changed my life.

Ironically, she was a history professor. I took the course as an elective during my senior year. “I can tell you’re an English major. You’re an excellent and talented writer,” she wrote in pencil on top of my 40-page research draft (complete with over one hundred citations). “You could go far. But this needs some work.”

And then she broke down every single mistake on all forty pages.

When I saw the amount of pencil marks, my eyes bugged out of my head. I am very lucky that schoolwork has always come reasonably easily to me, and I had never seen the kind of feedback with which she’d gifted me. Not even from my favorite creative writing professor.

My mistakes? I was over-citing. I didn’t properly define who my sources were. (Instead of writing “UCLA psychology professor J. Jones demonstrates…” for example, I was just writing “J. Jones demonstrates,” which does not explain why a source is an expert.) I needed to double my thesis statement up and then break it down more appropriately. In a 40-page space, I wasn’t used to doing that.  I also touched on several points without really thinking about my audience, and what might need more explanation.

I still got an A for for the draft. And then I absorbed the feedback as much as possible so that I would never see those kinds of mistakes again. I wound up working with said professor and publishing my paper at Oxford University. (I’m not doing this to shamelessly plug – I’m doing it to prove how working for your education can reap a million rewards. Patience, grasshoppers.)

For several years, I taught an English Composition course. One essay that we focused on surrounded the pressures that college students faced in the 1970s. In the essay, entitled “College Pressures,” author William Zinsser writes about his fears surrounding learning. He explains:

“There will be plenty of time to change jobs, change careers, change whole attitudes and approaches. They [students] don’t want to hear such liberating news. They want a map — right now — that they can follow unswervingly to career security, financial security, social security…”

This part of the essay makes me cringe, because I don’t want it to be true. I want my students to learn that there is no such map. Education might be the path to these wonderful things, but there’s a little thing called life that can get in the way.

Don’t get me wrong. I completely agree that grades have their place. They’re particularly important for:

  • those trying to head to upper-level programs, high schoolers heading college for the first time, medical fields, etc.
  • self-worth
  • a concrete justification of learning (and/or value)
  • reinforcement for children to do well in school
  • a lesson in following directions


The main thing that I want my students to do is walk away with more knowledge than they had before. They are there to edify themselves; they are there to get a degree, which will hopefully land them in a better place for their careers. (I do not know the stats on GPA and job interviews, but I do know that job interview questions are swerving away from GPA and toward how people react to certain questions. That and their Facebook photos, of course.)

Recently, I asked a group of students how grade-focused they are. (I have written about how impressed I am by this innovative university in general.) I was pleasantly surprised by how many of them mentioned feedback. Feedback is the key in learning. Having a degree in hand is an overwhelming feeling of success, but having a deeper understanding of the world around you — or of humankind, or how computers work, or whatever it may be — can and should be easily more rewarding.

As a side note for creative writing: in my experience, a lot of those grades will focused on following directions, objectives, whether or not students stuck to word count, and presence or absence of proofreading errors. Judging others’ work is so subjective. Writing is an art form, as we know. I can’t grade Sally’s painting of a Honeycrisp apple better than Lisa’s painting of a Red Delicious apple because I like Honeycrisps better. (Replace Honeycrisp with literary fiction and Red Delicious with romance, and you’ll get the gist.) I can point out where Lisa needs to address her comma splices and where Sally’s work doesn’t flow, though. And if Joe just painted a plate of apple slices, that style is okay, too – as long as he understands that they came from one whole apple in the first place. (Lost? Slices are sentence fragments. Stylistic and effective if you’re Cormac McCarthy – but the rules must be understood to be broken.)

I wish that I had learned the lesson a long time ago — before I left college might have been nice — that an educational enrichment is the point of a degree, rather than the stress, nail biting, and liquid imbibing that can come along with grade stress. But I’ll let Zinsser sum it all up for you:

“What I wish for all students is some release from the clammy grip of the future. I wish them a chance to savor each segment of their education as an experience in itself and not as a grim preparation for the next step. I wish them the right to experiment, to trip and fall, to learn that defeat is as instructive as victory and is not the end of the world.” ( Full text here .)

mother, mother: a friday writing prompt

Happy Friday!

Today’s post is dedicated to all you mothers out there.


First dance recital, age 2

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 12.41.05 PM

Belles of the ball

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new baby brother, age 3

There are plenty of literary journals out there, and there are even ones that focus exclusively on motherhood. Literary Mama , for one, seeks fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and profiles based on the experiences of motherhood.

Writing Prompt:

If you’re a writer: break away from whatever work you’re doing today. Start by freewriting on a blank piece of paper. Begin with the words “My mother.” That’s the only rule. You can go any direction you want with it — just as long as those are the first two words. (Some of the best ones might be nothing about your mother. That’s okay, too.)

If you’re not a writer, do it anyway. And then frame it. Check that mother’s day gift off your list.

Cheers to all my favorite mamas this weekend!

on misfits, loners, and outsiders

I’m dying to get my hands on a copy of James W. Hall’s Hit Lit , but I keep forgetting to grab one. The book analyzes the elements that make bestsellers take off and become successful. According to Hall, there’s a couple of really key factors at play. One of which is that the main character is often a misfit, outsider, or loner.

IRL, these people are typically on the strange side of things. They’re the weirdos trolling internet forums about, say, soil pH levels at three in the morning.  But in fiction, they’re the characters that attract readers. Think about Holden Caulfield, por ejemplo. Book reviewer Dave Shiflett writes that “protagonists with mass-market appeal tend to be mavericks, misfits or loners and that they often come from fractured families and communities.” Makes sense, right?

Speaking of misfits – one of my all-time favorite outsiders is actually named The Misfit. He appears in Flannery O’Connor’s 1953 short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” (That book also has the distinct honor of having one of my all-time favorite least likable characters: the ultra-judgy and hypocritical grandmother whose moral superiority prevents her from begging The Misfit to spare her family as he murders them in cold blood. She is delicious.)

Image by haagenjerrys, via Flickr

Image by haagenjerrys, via Flickr

The Misfit is very complex. This escaped convict brings up religion, guilt, Jesus, and family trauma in the space of just a few lines. He’s in prison for allegedly killing his father, but he says his father died of the flu; then he sends the family off to their deaths out in the woods. My favorite quote of his:

“‘I call myself ‘The Misfit,’ he said, “because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.’” (129).

Perhaps he wasn’t originally guilty, got punished anyway, and is making up for lost time?

In the spirit of all things misfit, I’ve come up with a writing prompt for today.

Compose a draft of a creative work where the main character is some kind of misfit, loner, or outsider. Why are they? How did they get there? What are their motivations, and what happens?

Enjoy! Feel free to share it with other readers in the comments.

5 things friday: unfortunate art

Art can inspire; it can wake up a room or invigorate aesthetic satisfaction in any viewer. But it can also colossally fail.

I remember going to a museum with my father. (This happened completely by accident. My mother and brother were at a birthday party, my father and I dropped them off at it, and the museum was somehow attached to it.) In said museum was an enormous white canvas with a single green square on it. That’s it. I’ll never forget the dismay on my father’s face. “This is famous?” he said. “Anyone could do this.” I wasn’t sure if he said it to me or to himself, but I replied: “You should’ve thought of it first.”

Ah, youth.

In the spirit of “you should have thought of it first,” here are 5 extraordinarily surprising pieces of… art. Or garbage. You decide.

5. According to news.arilook.com , South Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa created this 10-story building by recycling 1,000 doors.

Image via news.archilook.com

Image via news.archilook.com

4. Nestled in the English countryside of Devon is a sculpture made of approximately 2,500 tan cans. It protests the amount of carbon monoxide created with the disposal of one tin can. Go figure.

Chris Downer [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Chris Downer [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

3. Patrick Bateman would j’adore this one. London sculptor Jill Berelowitz (whose name I had to triple-spellcheck, by the way — I need more sleep) created this spinelike sculpture for the Westminster City Festival by layering 24 female torsos made from resin. I can only imagine the amount of symbolism this piece has garnered.

Image by mira66 via Flickr

Image by mira66 via Flickr

2. The Gaga and I have two things in common: our love for Vogue magazine and a hip labral tear. (Disclaimer: I have no idea if Gaga actually loves Vogue , but I do. Fashion central.) Where we differ most strongly is in the fact that a meat dress makes me cringe in the deepest parts of my soul.


1. Because I’m full of contradictions, I’m including one that I like. My friend Jackie sent it to me. This is located at Museum Meermanno in the Hague, which is devoted to books. It catalogs manuscripts and all that accompanies them: manufacture, restoration, research, oh my. They’ve got stuff as old as 1501 but make sure to stay in the now by collecting books up through present day. Artist Alicia Martin designed her “Biografias” sculpture, which is displayed here (and, I’m guessing, won’t be moved). Must be a play on “word vomit.”

Image by Inhabitat via Flickr

Image by Inhabitat via Flickr

Like any of these? Hate ‘em all? Let me know in the comments!

penman review blog post

Hi Everyone!

It’s been quite the week. I woke up extremely early this morning to get some work done, and then I actually just got back from a series of doctors’ appointments with the unfortunate news that I’ve got a labral tear in my right hip. They had Wifi so I was lucky enough not to fall behind in between all the no-fun news.

My sports medicine doctor, Dr. Lyle Micheli, is — for lack of a better phrase — the absolute best human on earth. .

Back to work for this busy bee, but in the meantime, I’m published over at today. Check it out for all the do-and-dont’s you might need for a literary submission.

1937 journal central.

1937 journal central.

closing time

Giant news! Today’s a big day in the Smith household.

In BOTH of them! That’s because today we became homeowners.

We’re psyched, obviously, but one of the reasons I’m especially excited is because now I can document a whole bunch of renovations that we’ll be embarking on in the coming months. This writer is about to revise a house.

More to come! I’ll be back in regular business tomorrow – so check in then!

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5 things friday: athletes who overcome the odds

There are thousands of stories swirling around the Internet as Boston becomes a post-Marathon world. One of them is detailed in this article about Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a dance teacher at local Arthur Murray Studios, who lost part of her left leg in the aftermath and has a positive attitude going forward .

Perspective, people.

I’m guilty, as we all are, of sometimes having a fuzzy perspective. Anyone who knows me on a personal level knows that I’ve spent a solid 20 months of my life on crutches due to three pretty major sports medicine surgeries. From fifth to sixth grade, I was on crutches for 9 months in a row. I’ve shattered bones, snapped ligaments in half, and had my own ankle bone betray me by spontaneously disintegrating when I was 10. It was tough, and I spent some time pretty angry as a teenager.

I consider myself to be very lucky because I’m still able to train through (years, now) of pain, physical therapy, and setbacks. And that puts new meaning into the phrase “pales in comparison” with what Haslet-Davis must be feeling. I can only imagine a fraction of the frustration and anger she’s feeling, but I find her determination and drive so inspiring.

Athletes everywhere will connect with what Haslet-Davis told CNN. She says that dancing “is the one thing that I do, that when I do it I don’t feel like I should be doing anything else.” She’s also planning on running the Boston Marathon in the future.

Todays Five Things Friday is pure admiration. Athletes with prosthetics. It’s dedicated from one dancer to another. We’re in your corner, Haslet-Davis.

5. Dancer Miranda Cochran (age 12 at the time of this video) was born without a left foot. This a 15-second clip of her tapping is so brilliant and well-executed.

4. Pictured here is Marine veteran Cpl. Sebastion Gallegos at the 2013 Marine Corps Trials. He lost his right arm while on deployment to Afghanistan in 2010.

Image by USMC Wounded Warrior Regiment, via Flickr

Image by USMC Wounded Warrior Regiment, via Flickr

3. Australian Olympian Don Elgin, who, according to Wikipedia , “was born without a left leg and a left thumb, with small toes, and webbed fingers on both hands; his malformed left foot was amputated shortly after he was born and he had open heart surgery at the age of three.” Check him out from the 2000 Sydney Paralympics.

Image by Australian Paralympic Committee, via Wikimedia Commons

Image by Australian Paralympic Committee, via Wikimedia Commons

2. It’s unclear who this is, but it’s a pretty amazing shot.

Image by s_mestdagh, via Wikimedia Commons

Image by s_mestdagh, via Wikimedia Commons

1. Last, and certainly not least, is this ridiculously inspiring ballet, “Hand in Hand,” performed by Ma Li and Zhai Xiaowei: a man with one leg and a woman with one arm.

For more on Adrianne Haslet-Davis, read: here .


first impressions

In addition to the writer/dancer hats I wear, I’m a proud and happy online professor for what I consider to be quite the innovative university. We’ve got a new term start on Monday, which means that it’s key time for first impressions.

In person, every first impression requires an innate interpretation of body language. When I meet new people IRL, I smile, do a self-check on my posture, and adjust handshake to try to match the other person’s strength. So many things go through my mind that outside of the every single time I meet someone new, something terrible happens.

I can never remember his or her name.

By InverseHypercube (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By InverseHypercube (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Facts facts about first impressions:

  • NYU researchers found that eleven major decisions about one another occur in the first seven seconds of meeting.
  • According to the Missouri University of Science and Technology, it takes around two-tenths of a second for a first-time online visitor to a website to form an initial opinion of a company brand.
  • A staggering 80% of a woman’s first impression of a man has to do with the way that he carries himself.
  • Tufts professor of social psychology Nalini Ambady found that students could predict how “good” a professor was based on viewing brief (I’m talking very few seconds, here) silent clips of each teacher and rating them on different variables, which she then compared with the professors’ end-of-term ratings.

On Teaching and First Impressions:

Teaching college classes in person required much less thought process when it came to first impressions.  Inevitably, I dressed as professional as you’d expect for a professor to dress on the first day of school. I’d arrive with my syllabi printed out and ready to distribute, explain my expectations, crack a few terrible jokes and gently remind students how much I hate late papers. Then, the rest of the class time was spent with direct one-on-one discussion between me and each student so that the class could relax and start to get into a good atmosphere (which, I’ve found, produces much better learning).

Online, though, is a different story. How might a student judge a professor’s teaching style, effectiveness, and general feeling of whether a student feels, when odds are that they’ll never meet that person?

I’ve found that it’s extremely important to humanize myself. Pre-interaction, students have already got an idea of a professor based one what they’ve posted. Upon the first discussion, it’s vital to be social. I’m interested, and I have to convey that. I’m married; they might be. I’m from the Boston area; they might be. (If not, inevitably, there’s a weather discussion!) I’m approachable. I get back to students immediately. I’m all kinds of things.

What about you? What do you think conveys a first impression in an online setting?

wowchallenge contest winners

Today’s blog post announces the contest winners!

Sometimes it pays off to wait until the end… as evidenced by last night’s Hail Mary entry, “Rooted,” by Melinda T. Falgoust! Read Melinda’s story in the first wowchallenge comments section . Congratulations, Melinda. Please e-mail me a good mailing address for you, because you’ve won:

Prize 1: A copy of Q & A A Day: 365 Questions, 5 Years, 1,825 Answers . This book was published by the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House. It’s been a lifesaver for me in terms of writing, teaching, deep questions, and truly just thinking.

For those of you who were curious: the two pictures from the first Week of Writing prompt were taken in New York City and in Barcelona!

As for Prize 2, congratulations to e-mail entry contestant Bob M. from Santa Fe. Bob M. wins a FULL edit of up to 10 pages of his writing, double-spaced. (My credentials include two stints as a editorial board member, 18 months as a copywriter for LivingSocial, a Creative Writing M.F.A., a number of published works, two novels in the running, and five years as a professor.) Contact me for details, Bob M.!

Congratulations to both winners. This contest was a lot of fun. Stay tuned for the next one come fall. Until then – keep writing and living well, everyone.

#wowchallenge recap – last chance, romance

It’s not a beautiful day here in Boston, even though tomorrow is supposed to be 70 degrees. Coincidentally, that means it’s a great day to sharpen your writing skills (no matter where you are!) and enter the #wowchallenge before tomorrow (the last day to enter). Unplug yourself for a little while and use this to clear your mind and get something accomplished today.

Below is a full rundown of the 5 writing prompts that you can use. Enter by posting in the comments section, or by emailing me at [email protected] if you’re too shy to post.

For a full rundown of each prompt – including prize details – click on the numbered #wowchallenge link. Remember that you can use these prompts for any kind of writing: nonfiction, fiction, poems, short stories, screenplays, essays, expository… whatever strikes your mood.

Until then: happy writing.

#wowchallenge 1 : Opening & Closing Lines
First, come up with an alluring opening line based on this picture.

Hint: this brunch photograph was taken on a late September morning in a major U.S. metropolitan city.

Then, come up with your closing line. You can choose to either: 1. Come up with a line based solely off of the first picture/what might happen there, or 2. Invent an entirely new line based off of the picture below, and use your creative magic to get from A to B.

Rooftop Pool

#wowchallenge 2 :  Extra, extra – Read All About It
Skim through your local newspaper, favorite online news source, or a stray magazine. Don’t read the stories, though – just look at the headlines. Pick a headline at random (or, really, whichever strikes you). Then, write a brief poem or flash fiction based on the direction that the headline sends you.

#wowchallenge 3 : Dream On
Ask a couple of people about a dream that they’ve had recently, or their most distinct/weirdest dream ever. Choose any or all of the following options.

  1. Use one as inspiration to write a poem, microfiction, or short story.
  2. Use one to write a fake book blurb.
  3. Think about – and develop a character who would be in one, and fill out the 25 questions.

#wowchallenge 4 : Bite Sized
Write a poem, flash fiction, or short story only using words that have 5 letters or less.

#wowchallenge 5 : Art as Inspiration
Craft a creative piece that is inspired by a work of art. Writers find inspiration everywhere: coffee shops, within their personal relationships, the frenetic energy of a city, the calm tranquility of the countryside. This time, you’ll compose something based off of an image. You can choose one of your own (if you do, please post the link!) or use Robert Longo’s “ ” as inspiration.

This is our print of Gretchen. She hangs out in the entryway to our home.

This is our print of Gretchen. She hangs out in the entryway to our home.

A close-up of Robert Longo's "Gretchen"

A close-up of Robert Longo’s “Gretchen”

Contact me with any questions that you might have. Enjoy!