How to Read My Comments on Your Paper Drafts:

Every once in a while I read about some educational practice that makes such perfect sense I can can’t help but wonder why everyone isn’t doing it. Steve Greenlaw periodically directs posts in his blog specifically to his students. In a recent post he addresses the purpose of the writing students are doing in his freshman seminar.

“Writing is the tool most scholars use to think about ideas. You don’t write when you have your ideas figured out; rather, you write to figure out what you think. Writing, revising and rewriting is what scholars do. Completing the first draft of a paper is the beginning of your thinking; it shouldn’t be the end.”

When I read drafts, I try to read them as I would a colleague’s paper who is asking for help in improving their work. What that means is I’m not pointing out what’s “wrong” with the paper. Rather, I’m making suggestions about what isn’t clear to the reader, or what I think might make the paper stronger.

I had to contrast Steve’s message to his students with the one we’re sending to our graduate students. We’re in the midst of the comps season, and my colleagues and I are dutifully preparing questions for the two days of exams that will determine whether the students that we’ve spent the last couple of years (or more) working and learning with should be allowed to begin their dissertations. As I look at the fascinating questions my colleagues have prepared, two thoughts immediately pop into my mind.

First, I thank the design of the universe that I’m not being expected to answer them. The thought of having to enter a room with a computer and no notes and synthesize two years of thinking, reading and writing about leadership or planning or policy–much less all of them together–would be terrifying. (It might be interesting if we had a qualifying exam for those who are reading the comps–just a half-day in which we are expected to synthesize all the research in our fields since we took our last closed-book comprehensive exam. It might make it even harder to find readers than it is now.)

The second thought is to try to find some rational reason for subjecting students to this experience. Once they’ve jumped through this hoop, is there any professional situation where they would be expected to do this again? Comps were the most worthless step in my own doctorate–largely because the key research in the field suggested that the only thing timed exams measured was the the ability to take timed examinations.

As I understand Steve’s message to his students, he’s telling them that it’s worth learning the conversation that shapes professional writing because it will be at the core of their education. I can’t help but wonder what message our graduate students are getting from us through the comps requirement.