Postmortems in the Composition Classroom

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt

I recently ran across an article on grading writing that began by quoting a tweet from a fellow Composition teacher that equated grading a final piece of writing with performing an autopsy on a dead body. I have desperately tried to find the article, but to no avail (if you know the article I’m thinking of or recognize the tweet being referenced, please let me know so that I may give the authors credit).  What puzzled me was that this analogy was meant to have a negative connotation (at least that’s how I read it). I by no means support a summative assessment-only form of grading. I, too, emphasize the process of writing and provide formative assessments that seek to help students to internalize the importance of thoughtful revision and careful proofreading before submitting a “final” version of a piece of writing. And, at one point, I too viewed that final version as a relic to be archived with all of the other finished pieces the student accumulated during the term. But several things have changed for me during the past few semesters: 1) I’ve switched to having students blog instead of submitting traditional word-processed essays; 2) I’ve switched to a portfolio system that allows students to select which pieces they wish to be formally graded, allowing them to revise and edit those pieces before adding them to their portfolio; and 3) I read Lauren Griffin’s “An Open Letter to Writing Instructors from a Motived Student,” which included the following eye-opening (for me) observation:

In many courses, I felt like an overworked employee at an essay factory, producing ten to twelve mediocre and forgettable papers — ones that teachers accepted as final drafts that were, in actuality, first drafts. . . . I wish that all of my instructors had challenged me to produce portfolios with five or six mind-blowing papers instead of valuing quantity over quality.

Griffen, in effect, sums up the kind of traditional method for organizing the First-Year Composition course that I had been told to use as an adjunct and everything wrong with that method: a focus on quantity over quality.

These three things have altered the way I view both the student’s writing process and their writing products, in that I now value both as equally important. For one thing, blogging allows students to view their writing as something alive; they see their readers respond to it and, often, realize that their own views of it change as a result.  Since their blog posts are living things, they can be revised and edited after they’ve been published; much like a garden, a blog needs regular maintenance, from pruning dead links to “growing” or expanding upon a previous post. Secondly, as Griffin argues, the portfolio system encourages writing students to make conscientious changes to pieces. As students read through their work in order to select which pieces to include, they often recognize weaknesses in earlier pieces because they see them in juxtaposition with later pieces. Hence, they begin to recognize their own growth and learning.

I have tried various methods for providing both formative and summative assessments of student writing, including utilizing both anonymous peer review for rough drafts and anonymous peer evaluation of finished products. This past semester, I had great success with having students submit a rough draft to me for feedback and then allowing them to evaluate each others’ finished product (these evaluations were not grade-based and had no impact on the student’s grade). The reason why I made this change was because I have realized that, especially for first-semester composition students, peer review is not as effective as I would like it to be. Even in anonymous, guided peer review, students have difficulty providing constructive criticism on someone else’s draft. Emotions are often involved, either on the reviewer’s end (“I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings”) or on the reviewee’s end (“One person said this and another said that, and I’m not sure whose advice to take”). While I think college students need to develop the ability to take criticism, writing is already emotionally fraught for them and the added emotions of peer review seem to make the writing process more, not less, difficult for many students. So, I decided to forego peer review and have students submit their drafts to me for review. While this did require quite a bit of time on my part, I think it paid off in dividends in the students’ final posts. I was able to direct their energies much more effectively than their peers could. I stuck with the minimal marking method and focused on asking questions about the students’ ideas and suggesting areas that needed further development or that seemed off-track. Students responded very enthusiastically to this method and, for the first time ever, I saw students really focusing on revising their writing (rather than the kind of minimalist adding on and editing that often passes for revision with most first-year composition students).

Unlike peer review, students seem particularly adept at evaluating final pieces. I am often amazed at how accurately their evaluations reflect the very things I would have pointed out in my own summative evaluation. I am not sure why this is the case and why they cannot do the same with peer review of rough drafts, but I decided to capitalize on it; since I was investing so much extra time and energy into reading and providing feedback on rough drafts, I completely handed summative assessments over to the students. I did perform a quick read-through of final posts in order to see how much effort the student had put into revising and editing the original draft and I did read through the summative feedback to ensure that student evaluations were accurate. Again, this system was very effective, as it removed the burden of summative assessment off of my shoulders (so that I could focus on helping with the writing process), it gave students multiple assessments of their final product, students were much more honest with each other about weaknesses in their writing, and they genuinely valued their peers’ evaluations and integrated them into their revisions and edits for their portfolio.

Next semester, I would like to add a few more layers of feedback to each piece of writing. I am considering, for example, adding a peer review session back into the process, after my own review of their drafts, to encourage a multiple-draft process. I am hoping that I can model effective feedback methods and encourage students to apply them to their own reviews. I would also like to focus more on the finished product and to integrate a postmortem of that product. I already have students write a reflection on each piece that takes their peers’ summative evaluations into consideration and establishes goals for the next piece of writing. But I would like to encourage students to autopsy their products in a much more explicit way after their emotional attachment to the piece has cooled a bit. While some may view the idea of an autopsy negatively, I see value in the process for FYC students.

Let us consider what, exactly, an autopsy is. It is, foremost, a thorough examination that seeks to determine the cause of death. But an autopsy often reveals much more than the cause of death, including diseases or injuries, both past and recent, that are not directly related to the death but that tell us more about the subject’s life and their relative health. But pathologists are not the only ones who perform autopsies. Game developers also perform postmortems. These postmortems seek to identify strengths and weaknesses in the game and to brainstorm how to improve it in future iterations. I think that having students work in groups to perform postmortems on the pieces they select for their portfolios would be an ideal way to encourage them to both value their final products and consider what they could do to add more life to each to make it an even stronger piece of writing. More than a pathologist, I’d like to encourage my students to become like Victor Frankenstein, seeking to collect the best pieces they can find in order to create something greater than the sum of its parts and imbuing it with life. But, rather than being afraid of and rejecting their creature like Frankenstein, I want them to thoroughly examine it and come to love it, both for its strengths and its faults.



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