Reading between the lines

With the end of the semester approaching, your professors will soon be returning your essays and term papers—graded, with copious comments. Because we know it can be really difficult to translate your instructors’ oft-cryptic, hastily scribbled gibberish into plain ol’ English, we’d like to provide some helpful translations of their comments:

Comment: “First of all… “ Translation: “First” implies second, third, fourteenth, etc., which means you’re in for a loooong haul of a comment here. So you might want to settle in with a glass of warm milk, your favorite stuffed animal, and/or whatever else might comfort you in this time of need, as I rattle off a dozen or so problems with your essay, crushing your intellectual spirit. But only after I come up with something—anything—positive to say first…

Comment: “It looks like you might have some good ideas here.” Translation: OK, I tried to say something positive, and this is what I came up with. It’s going to have to do. Yes, “you might have some good ideas,” if I could wade through all of the B.S., or if you had coined this particular cliché in the first place… or, I don’t know, if you got smarter or something?

Comment: “It looks like you put a lot of work into this.” Translation: I felt like I should come up with some other nice things to say. But, in this case, what I mean is that this essay is very long but not very good.

Comment: “I really like your topic.” Translation: I wrote the topic. You didn’t treat it well or do much with it, but the topic itself? Full of potential. Yay for my topic!

Comment: “In general, your ideas are fairly clear.” Translation: Basically, “fairly” means that your ideas are really not all that clear. What the hell does “fairly clear” mean, anyway? Beats me (which is kind of ironic, no?). When you think about it, there’s pretty much clear OR unclear. So, yeah—I basically just said your essay is unclear.

Comment: “Your essay is very ambitious.” Translation: It makes absolutely no sense. Seriously, none whatsoever.

Comment: “This is relatively solid, overall.” Translation: Umm, actually, no it’s not.

Comment: “This is a bit difficult to comment on.” Translation: Although I’ve read this twice now, it’s so utterly mediocre—nothing to praise, nothing concrete to critique—that I can’t even imagine what I could say about it. I’m at a loss. Completely.

Comment: “Your essay demonstrates a good understanding of the story’s main events.” Translation: Plot summary. I could’ve just re-read the story, which would’ve been more enjoyable.

Comment: “Your essay makes some compelling claims, and you take some interesting steps to try to support them.” Translation: When I say “compelling,” I really mean “weird.” In other words, your main argument—i.e., the whole point of your essay, basically—is just weird. And by that, I mean you’re weird. Which, when I think about it, is kind of cool in theory, but in this case not so much. And the “interesting steps” you take to support your weird claims? Well, that means your supporting evidence has no actual connection to your main point, which also means that you’re not weird in a smart, creative way—more like in a not-such-a-good-writer kinda way. I’m just saying.

Comment: “It’s clear that you’ve acquainted yourself with most of the available criticism on the topic.” Translation: This is plagiarized. (Wait, why am I even trying to be nice here?)

Comment: “You make some interesting points about this difficult, complex, and compelling story.” Translation: I can’t really dig up anything positive to say about your writing, so I’ll praise the text you were analyzing.

Comment: “See me. We really need to discuss this.” Translation: Sometimes, I hate my life.

    14 responses to “Reading between the lines”

    1. ks says:

      Yay, another semester’s end post about grading. Always amusing; often painful.

    2. The Other James says:

      Well, as a recent Graduate School graduate, it’s fairly clear that, first of all, some instructors have neither the intellect nor the patience to even try to understand many topics, especially if given topic lies outside said instructor’s special area of expertise or ideology. “You make some interesting points here.” Translation: I could really care waaaay less about anything you have to say. Instructing Master’s candidates in art history is relevantly similar to simultaneously popping quaaludes and watching paint dry.

      Second. To instructors out there: a check mark or “Yes!” or a vertical line next to a section of my essay provides no relevant or helpful information. So you agree with me? That’s cool. Now tell me something that will help me improve this drivel I wrote at the last minute.

      Third. A story: after 23 pages of vertical lines, smiley faces, “Yes!”‘s and “interesting point”‘s, a certain well known professor and critic of Art History wrote “See Me. We really need to discuss this” on an essay I wrote about the connections between Nazi aesthetics and postmodern theory. My heart and stomach traded places. After class, I went to his office. Several PhD candidates were already there. The professor arrived after 25 minutes or so, during which we all tried to figure out what we’d done wrong. He said something to the effect of “You all did a fantastic job, and I want to publish your essays in the upcoming issue of . . .” Thanks, I’m honored, and please excuse the dripping sweat and glazed expression on my face, I’ve spent the last hour in tortured agony.

      Great post, thanks.

    3. swells says:

      Wow, that is good feedback, actually; I use the checkmark/ “Good!”/ “Yes” m.o. all the time, mostly to reassure them throughout and mitigate or balance whatever critical comments I’m writing so they can see where the good parts are–I thought it was supportive, but now will have to rethink making that more concrete . . . but as for how to improve the “drivel”? I wouldn’t be using those comments/checkmarks if that part needed improvement (though I do sometimes say “Good, but what about . . . “)

    4. Scotty says:

      L and L, I know you both quite well, and I know that there are some real joys that both of your experience through teaching (sorry to be so hokey). But watching you both as the semester draws to a close is like watching two beautiful flowers start to wilt. I can’t tell you how much it pains me to watch the process every semester:

      End of vacation: happy to return to work.
      First day of class: excited about some interesting new students.
      Week two: first department meetings and annoyance at chair or other department heads.
      Week four: by now there have been the inevitable homophobic or racist comments blurted out by a student or two.
      Week six: you’ve busted the first in a string of plagiarists — this disappoints you more than anything.
      Week eight: you can’t believe that the semester is only half over.
      Week ten: you’ve spent so little time with your closest friends and/or spouses that they all seem like strangers.
      Week twelve: you begin panic mode as your family starts to propose holiday plans, and you can’t imagine lifting your head out of a giant stack of papers long enough to answer them, let alone consider or plan any travels.
      Week fourteen: When will you find time to do anything other than grade.
      Week fifteen: you realize that your favorite student was plagiarizing for the entire semester.
      Week sixteen: you grade for three full days straight to get your grades in on time.
      Vacation: decompress, have some fun, and repeat in a few weeks.

      I love you both so darn much, and I know that you’re great teachers.

    5. Cynthia says:

      This is a really great post. very funny.

    6. brooke says:

      This was hilarious, thanks guys. Now I’ll can go back and review those cryptic comments in my grad school papers using this Rosetta stone. Where’s my teddy bear?

    7. brooke says:

      I’ll s/b I, duh.

    8. LT says:

      scotty, you explain so well why i haven’t seen l or l (and, by association, you) in weeeeks! particularly since my week-by-week saga mirrors theirs.

      this post brought some seriously craved levity to my (grading, grading) schedule today. sadly (i guess), i have a much harder time with crypic comments. last night, for example, i wrote this before i decided it was time to take a break: “this paper needs to maintain a better focus throughout in terms of sustaining your thesis. i am wondering, also, if these are all originally your words. see me, please.”

    9. LT says:

      that’s cryptic.

    10. Marleyfan says:

      First of all, this was kind of an interesting post. It’s evident that you have put some effort into this topic. Your statements are somewhat compelling also…

    11. Literemy says:

      I need to say that all of the really mean things written here came from me (all tongue in cheek, of course–and completely exaggerated, certainly); all of the less-mean things came from Literanie, who is much nicer than I am… For the record.

      Still, perhaps I should’ve included, as our very last comment/translation here:

      Comment: “Having said all of that, I really enjoyed reading this.”
      Translation: When everything is said and done, I still love my job and my students (well, 98% of them) and couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life…

      (Btw, Scotty, your comment is spot-on, as you well know…)

    12. Literemy says:

      And touché, Marleyfan!

    13. Mark says:

      It would’ve saved me lots of time had I not had to write those damn essays anyway. Maybe I could’ve just put down something along the lines of, “I paid attention to most your lectures, and could probably explain it well enough for a B-”.

      Then the professor could’ve said, “This is relatively solid” and just given me that B-.

    14. J-man says:

      OMG! My entire college career just flashed before my eyes. You mean, all those papers….. And we thought we were so damn smart. Heh.