Monthly Archives: May 2013

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

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 12.41.21 PM

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 , South Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa created this 10-story building by recycling 1,000 doors.

Image via

Image via

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 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Chris Downer [CC-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.