The sound of hundreds of frantically flipping pages is often heard in a classroom just after a paper or midterm is returned, as students search for that single letter that can make or break their grade. But as the pages fly, the comments that the professor (or, more often, the Teaching Fellow) has written so lovingly in the margins are, shall we say, marginalized.
There are some comments that deserve to be overlooked--they are just plain mean. Nicholas K. Davis '99, who is a Crimson editor, recalls his Expos preceptor commenting: "I don't think we're reading the same stories...Let's see if we're sharing some of the same reality." Also on an Expos paper, Sarah A. Knight '00 discovered that her grader "liked this paper in spite of itself." "That's a terrible thing to say," Knight says. "It's not constructive criticism."
Aaron S. Mathes '98 found out just how bad "constructive" criticism can be. At the end of the semester, he received an e-mail that listed his grades, followed by "a brief moral booster send-off." However, upon scrolling down the page, Mathes found the list of grades for all his T.F.'s students--the T.F. had clearly forgotten to delete it from the e-mail. The list included not only grades for all students, but also "the T.F.'s honest personal perceptions of each student," Mathes says. When he looked at the T.F.'s comments about him, he found himself described as "a poor test-taker who was frequently absent and was unable to turn in papers on time." Mathes says he was shocked by the characterization and especially by the fact that it was circulating in administrative circles. "I didn't appreciate my T.F. spreading my scandalous confidences, and I liked it even less when I found out that everyone in my section had received the same list in its entirety."
Some students, however, might want even this kind of criticism: there are those who receive comments that don't have much to do with the quality of the paper, or even with the paper at all. One of Davis's papers was returned decorated with streaks of blood and the comment, "Sorry...paper cut."
Similarly, an anonymous undergraduate T.F. recalls a co-worker who spilled Chinese food on a student's exam and followed it up with the comment, "Mmmm, Chinese food." Christian R. Goldsmith '98 received the single comment "This is completely WRONG!" on a final. He received an A- on the exam; the graders must be saving the A's for people who were only partially wrong.
On one of Zachary L. Shrier's '99 15-page papers, the professor wrote "Nice paper--but so what?" Shrier comments, "So what? I don't know! You're the professor; you tell me so what!" Davis has also experienced the "So What" Phenomenon. His Expos preceptor would write the inexplicable words "the so what factor" next to various random lines in the paper. "It's easy to interpret that as 'I don't care about your paper' rather than as 'Why is this important to your paper?'" Davis notes. "On one of my papers, she wrote, 'Good title' next to my title," he adds. "Then on the next line she wrote, 'Consider another title.' It didn't make much sense."
How much should graders be required to have their comments make sense? "I believe in free speech," Knight says. "Teachers are allowed to write whatever they want, but professionally there is a line." Shrier has experienced that line. On his first paper written at Harvard, he wrote an overzealous introduction, declaiming about 'mankind.' He didn't get any comment about his bad introduction, or anything else, he remembers. Instead, the T.F. just circled the word 'mankind' and wrote a "weird cryptic comment that said, 'Use humanity. Though it seems like P.C. mumbo jumbo, they tell me I have to say that.'" Upon checking the handbook for teaching fellows, Shrier discovered that the T.F. was indeed supposed to correct gender-biased language. Having the correction being the only comment on the entire paper, however, might be taking things a little too far.
Sometimes, though, comments on papers can get a little bit too personal, crossing a different sort of line. One such case arose from anonymous student ("Dick") was writing a cover letter for a paper. "While I was writing it, my girlfriend was bothering me. I wrote her a message in the cover letter about how some people had work to do and that she should leave me alone. And then I forgot to take it out." Most Faculty reading this might have been surprised, but probably would have ignored the matter. However, Dick's teacher chose to take it personally. "Kill the bitch," she responded in a comment on the margin of the returned paper. "Your first loyalty is to me."
Dick's girlfriend, "Jane," read the paper and came across the comment. She responded by writing back to the teacher: "I am 'the bitch' you referred to on [Dick's] paper. I'll have you know, his first loyalty is to me, thank you very much." The Faculty member replied that ladies must stick together in the face of unavoidable, tiresome men and commented at length on Dick's hairstyle. Perhaps this is not what students generally expect when responding to the comments written on their papers.
Sometimes not responding to comments turns out worse than responding would have. Shrier recounts what happens if one does not talk to a prof about comments: "A friend of mine got comments on a paper and couldn't read a single one. Then the professor passed away. The moral of the story is that if you don't get it, ask! Now he'll never know what the professor thought of his paper."
Not all situations are so drastic, though. Shrier, Knight and Davis, despite the various strange things they've had written on their papers, agree that comments on papers are useful and are often a good way to get to know professors. "The teacher's personality shines through in the comments," Shrier says. "For example, [Dorot] Professor [of the Archeology of Israel] Lawrence Stager writes large, rambling, loving mini-essays at the end of each student essay because he's a large, rambling, loving kind of guy."FM