Feedback and Revision are the Problem

Responding to student writing can be the toughest part of teaching First Year Writing / College Composition. This semester I spent a lot of time writing comments on paper-based texts. I got most of the students to hang on to my comments so they could turn them in with revisions. I do what I can to ask questions and give the students the sort of feedback that leaves them in charge of the draft. However, sometimes something is just wrong. For example, students sometimes italicize quotes. I feel pretty irritated when I give feedback along the lines of don’t italicize the quotes and then I get the revision and all the quotes are still formatted incorrectly. Yes, there are more important issues related to the students’ work, but I’m just giving you one example of how I spend a lot of time writing feedback that gets ignored.  There’s a lot more that I could write here, but what I want is a way to track drafts. The problems I’m writing about today are related to giving feedback to student texts and following the revisions that students do.

There is so much paperwork involved in saving drafts with my handwritten comments, and I think those comments aren’t doing as much good as they could. AND, I will still be faced with reading final DIGITAL portfolios with no access to previous drafts.

I could take you through all that I have tried and thought about that doesn’t work very well, but why would you want to read about that?

My online students do most of their writing on a blog. It’s a pain to either keep track of my thoughts until the end of their post or scroll down to the comments section every time I have a thought. A former professor of mine named Sam Watson used to type his students a letter after reading their work. There’s a lot pedagogically sound about this I think, but many students need examples such as how to write a transition or handle a quote.

I see quite a few possibilities for how I might navigate these problems but none of these solutions has everything I want.

The website Book Country has a way to give feedback that I like:

Book Country, feedback, College Composition, English, Language Arts


From what I understand, Book Country is a Penguin community where those who read and write genre fiction can come together and respond to each other’s work. I cut off the name of the writer’s work I copied here. I hope if you’re from Penguin and come across this, you’re glad I’m sharing your community with readers. If not, I’m happy to take this screen shot down.

What I really like about the Book Country set up are the boxes on the right. I can read the text and just write comments off to the side. I think there is also the potential for the writer (or possibly the teacher) to customize what kind of feedback they are asking for. This could put the writer more in control of the text, or if you prefer, you could think about those boxes in terms of a rubric or objectives.

Here’s two ideas I’m considering:

  • We use Digication ePortfolios at St. John’s.  I could have students upload a file to their portfolio. I could download the file to my computer and give feedback via the Word commenting feature. When I give feedback that way, I’m careful to save feedback as a pdf file so the student doesn’t just leave some of what I’ve written in the draft.  The student would upload revisions and we’d both have access to all the drafts. I’m not crazy-excited about all that uploading and saving or all the drafts I might have open on my computer screen at the end of the semester as I try to track what the student has done in the way of revision.
  • There’s Google Drive, used to be Google Docs.  I could access the student’s writing via a link. I type in comments/feedback, but then what happens? Can the students comment there too? Do we have to do our commenting off to the side? Will we be able to track drafts? How complicated is that?

I want to navigate the cycle of write, comment, revise, and collect to be managed digitally next semester. Can you give me some feedback on my ideas? Do you have a great system I need to learn about?



Writing About Apple and Their Competitors

Horace Dediu has an MBA from Harvard Business, an MS Engineering Degree from Tufts, and he studies business problems through an intense analysis of Apple and their competitors.  Horace joined me for my most recent iTunes “Digital Book Club” podcast to talk about the craft of writing.  I first became of aware of Horace when he was a guest on one of my favorite podcasts:  Mac Power Users with Katie Floyd and David Sparks.

Lately, I’ve been running with the notion that every story has a story with the idea that I’ll get writers to tell the story of a text they’ve written, in this case Horace’s “Discerning Apple’s international product positioning through the big Mac index.” A writer’s process often varies from text to text depending on the unique context for each act of writing.  This is even more true as one studies the writing process as it varies from writer to writer.  Oftentimes, I find that writers assume others work much like they do when in fact there are lots of ways to get writing projects finished.

The texts Horace creates are unlike just about anything I usually read in that they are focused on business and often begin with a graph that is supposed to help address some business problem or question.   Given the idea that every story (or blog post or podcast) has a story, I asked Horace to tell me the story of his Big Mac Index post.  He jumped right in (future tip: start recording as soon as the Skype call goes through if you’re going to talk to Horace) saying that his analytic side wants to know just how the writing process works but his creative side wants the writing to come from somewhere else, a spark of some kind, someplace magical.

Horace’s “Big Mac” post was connected to the recent launch of the iPad in Brazil, and the idea for the post came from an email from someone who’d read his blog and wanted Horace to take note that in Brazil the price of the iPad seemed exorbitantly high.   Horace did a blog post with a graph and asked his audience for their opinion and asked them if they could explain why the price would be so high.  Horace says that businesses usually don’t share information “with anyone unless it’s trivial and already public.”

Horace’s post took another turn when someone Tweeted the suggestion that he put his table up on Google Docs and allow people to contribute their own data.  I’m familiar with the idea of Google Docs but have never used it.  I wonder how we’d do next semester in class if I had a committee of students charged with investigating the software and coming up with projects for our class.  Horace’s Asymco audience provide a powerful example of what happens when a writer collaborates with audience or when writers collaborate on the writing of a text, in this case a table.

By accident, Horace left his Google Doc open, and immediately people from over twenty countries began to add the data about the cost of Apple products in the place where they lived.

On the subject of information and whether or not a business shares information, Horace noted that business people often believe, “Information is money.  Information must be protected.  Thus, businesses don’t learn very much.”

As for Horace and his transparent working process on the blog, “People will give me positive or negative feedback and I’ll learn from that feedback.  You cannot do analysis, in an open domain–which is what I do–without letting go of the past.”  By that, Horace means that he has to let go of that old idea that information is money and that information must be protected.

Horace tries to post everyday, five days a week, and also complete one podcast.  He desires to grow his audience and I asked him about the large audiences of someone such as Kim Kardashian.  Horace said, “Yes, I understand celebrities have enormous audiences, but they’re very shallow. … I won’t trade quality for audience.  If I were to reduce quality, I could probably increase the audience dramatically.  That’s what most blogs do.  This is why most blogs descend into irrelevance.  And they get bought out and they end up trashy because they actually chase audiences.”

William Torgerson Horace Dediu ASYMCO Love on the Big Screen

Horace Studies Apple on Asymco

Some Other Golden Lines from Horace Below:

  “I want  to be educated by my audience.  Therefore, I want 100,000 good teachers.”

“My objective with the site is to learn.”

“Listening is the right way to do things.”

“Apple brought computer to mobile phones.”  Horace wonders what will happen when Apple brings computing to television.

On Justin Halpern of “Shit My Dad Says” fame: “Why is it that he (Justin Halpern) becomes an employee in a huge machine whereas somebody sits in an office here in Finland and creates a company called Rovio that does angry birds and becomes a billionaire?”

Find the podcast here. 

On iTunes type “Digital Book Club” and you’ll see my picture where you can link up to the podcast.

Horace’s Asymco site is here.