Nutshelves and escape goats: The art of appreciating student writing

As a community-college English instructor, I spend a great deal of time commenting on student essays. If you’ve ever graded a stack of 25 or so freshman composition papers—or better yet, spent a weekend grading, say, 75 or 80 papers—then you understand just how much monotony (and mediocre writing) that can entail. But, then again, that’s what I do, and I’ve gotten used to it.

When I was first interviewed for a full-time teaching gig, I remember the search committee asking me to “Imagine being faced with a weekend in which you have 90 student essays to grade… What do you do? How do you handle the workload and maintain your sanity?” At the time, I thought the question was unusual for two reasons: first, because despite poring over every conceivable question in my interview preparation, this question never came up; and second, because it was so easy to answer. “Imagine” something that I had been doing, most likely, just days ago? No problem. But I also understood why they had asked—for anyone who hasn’t done it before, it’s impossible to imagine the difficulty of constructing detailed, helpful responses to that many essays. Moreover, the question sends a message to candidates: This is what you’ll be doing… semester after semester after semester. For teachers fresh out of Ph.D. programs (many accustomed to having teaching assistants), or part-timers who’ve only taught a class or two on the side, this can be a shock.

Frankly, I had been doing this kind of grunt work for years, teaching up to six classes per semester, so I answered automatically:

  1. Place all essays into manageable stacks of five.
  2. Ensure that each stack begins and ends with a strong writer.
  3. Drive to the coffee shop and order the largest cup of dark roast they have.
  4. Cue up the iPod, something to drown out peripheral noise.
  5. Try to finish each stack within 90 minutes.
  6. Take a short 10-minute break after completing every fifth essay.

The committee seemed to enjoy my somewhat anal response, I suspect, because in that moment we all recognized our own unique ways of coping with this shared misery…

Anyway, my purpose here is not just to gripe about the one thing in my job truly worth griping about (aside from plagiarism, a topic I’ll surely revisit in a future post). My point is that, while my official answer to the committee’s question was and is true enough, the fact is, I’ve also managed to embrace the unintentional beauty and humor in student writing. And whereas I may have completely forgotten most of the good (and even great) student essays I’ve read over the last decade or so, for better or worse, I can still remember exact lines from some of the less-than-great ones.

One all-time favorite was written by a student who believed that the phrase “in a nutshell” was really “in a nutshelf,” and who repeated that phrase three or four times throughout her essay. At the time, I didn’t think, “How ignorant!” On the contrary, I remember thinking (and still do), “How fucking adorable.” (And why aren’t there nutshelves, anyway?) I also thought it was a shame that my job was to “fix” this error by pointing it out to the student (though, of course, I did). I read stuff like this all the time, and it never gets old.

Most people, of course, are exasperated by such “mistakes.” Peter Ho Davies’ embittered narrator in the short story “What You Know” reminds me of most of my colleagues, especially those who’ve been around a bit too long. This narrator cites example after example of his poor student writers—like the student who described someone being “frozen like a dear in the headlights,” or, better yet, the student who was convinced that the term “escape goat” just made more sense. There’s a certain beauty and logic to these little accidents that the narrator fails to acknowledge, much less appreciate.

In a similar vein, recently a colleague forwarded me an email. The subject heading said, “’The Horror!’: Examples of BAD Writing,” and so I opened it with curiosity. What I discovered was a collection of sentences that were funny, unusual, thought provoking, and even poignant, including these:

  • It hurt the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall.
  • The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.
  • It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.
  • [And my favorite:] John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

OK, some of these are pretty bad. But at the same time, each juvenile analogy also feels satisfyingly true. More important, each attempt slows down the reading process, making me re-examine the usual clichés and preconceptions about pain and hunger and tradition and, well, hummingbirds. Plus, although I can’t quite explain why, there’s something beautifully melancholy about that last hummingbird metaphor. What does it mean? I have some ideas, but I’m not exactly sure. Is it bad writing? Probably, but I’m not exactly sure of that either.

Sometimes, phrases or titles or entire essays bring so much pleasure that they become endlessly replicating inside jokes among my colleagues and me. Take, for instance, an enthusiastically bad title like “Abortion: ‘Some Say It’s OK, But I Say No Way,’” a title that eventually became our universal tagline for anything distasteful. Go ahead and try it… hangovers, Jessica Simpson, SUVs, Dick Cheney, pineapple on pizzas, whatever—“Some Say It’s/She’s/He’s OK, But I Say No Way!” Whatever you might think about that title (or its right-wing sentiment), it definitely gets the point across—and it even rhymes.

Still, these statements can cross into uncomfortable territory, like this gem written in an essay for my friend Stephanie’s class: “Even if an African-American is dressed like a bum, there’s still the chance he can be a pretty good person.” It’s sort of funny, but only because it’s so sad, this attempted critique of racial profiling (or would this be fashion profiling?).

Similarly, in my early teaching years, I once asked a group of students to write an essay examining a stereotype about a group of their choice (a rather generic assignment, I now realize). One 17-year-old kid, a recent immigrant from Russia, wrote his rough draft on “Why women are bitches.” I questioned him on it, and in an effort to please, he immediately said he’d rethink his topic. He was really a very sweet kid, and I was understandably relieved. A week later, I received the final draft. The topic had evolved into “Why women are filled with so many fluids” and examined the stereotype that girls are always going to the restroom. More benign, yes. But way more unusual, too—you have to admit.

I don’t know. Maybe there’s just something wrong with me.

My fixation on “bad” writing has led me to other sources—to errors in restaurant menus and foreign-product packaging and handmade signs of all sorts. (There’s even a website for people like me, with a politically incorrect web address, A good friend and I still make the occasional reference to a sign we both saw in a restaurant bathroom a few years ago, a handwritten note taped to a paper-towel dispenser that said, “Pleased to be tearing paper towel to the sideway.” Though I would’ve forgotten it instantly had it been written “correctly,” I’ll always remember that line, and I’ll always be “pleased” whenever I use a paper-towel dispenser in a public restroom.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling in a particularly guilty mood, I wonder what this “bad-writing” fixation reveals about me. Am I crassly reveling in others’ poor writing to make myself feel like a better writer than I really am? Am I simply justifying my existence, my career as a writing teacher, since the presence of this “bad writing” gives me a sense of purpose? Or is it all just some willful state of denial, a dubious coping mechanism for someone who has taken in (and produced) so much written mediocrity?

Personally, I’d like to think the real reason is much simpler than all that. I’d like to think that, basically, I just want to be surprised by what I read. Isn’t that what all good writing should do?

29 responses to “Nutshelves and escape goats: The art of appreciating student writing”

  1. Riptide says:

    I relate. As my job often requires me to speak through an interpreter, I often come across similar translation “mistakes”. In a recent meeting with a Chinese trade official, he explained, through an interpreter, that China was seeking an increase in textile quotas to establish a “level playground” in international trade. Nice to think about, isn’t it?

  2. I spent two semesters teaching writing composition in community college. Yowza! My favorite, “surprise” was encountering the word “firstable,” an alternative to the words “first of all.”


  3. Damn, I knew that would happen. A type-o from the former composition teacher. Shit, shit, shit!

  4. Jeremy Zitter says:

    That’s a good one, Lane. I like “firstable.” Please keep them coming, everyone… I’ve had several people tell me their favorites lately. One colleague said he read a literary analysis essay in which the writer’s spell-check program had changed all references to “allegory” into “alligator.” My office mate said she recently read an essay that stated, “The poem ‘Death Be Not Proud,’ is telling death not to be proud.” And my friend Tim told me about a sign in an indian restaurant window which said, “only mondays lunch is close.” He added that the sign made him wish lunch were close every day.

  5. Jeremy Zitter says:

    oh, sorry–that was adriana, not lane.

  6. Rachel says:

    My favorite from this year’s batch of sudents: “As a wise man once said, what doesn’t kill you makes you stranger.’

  7. Rachel says:

    I swear the ‘t’ was in ‘students’ when I hit ‘send.’ You’re not alone, Adriana.
    What doesn’t kill you…

  8. Lisa Parrish says:

    Perhaps Riptide has some insight into this, but I heard an apocryphal story that the Chinese translation for Grapes of Wrath is “Angry Grapes”.

  9. Dave says:

    Back when I was a TA/instructor, every semester at least one student paper would contain “for all intensive purposes.”

  10. Riptide says:

    How about student names in our multicultural environment? I want to be respectful and pronounce foreign names correctly. So learned that Urin Kaan is “urine can”. He insisted. My favorite was Ei Ting Cathy Chew. One would think just “Cathy” would be fine, but she insisted on being addressed as “eating Cathy”

  11. Matt C says:

    I had a roommate in college who wrote an essay entitled, “My Dream House.” I wish I’d kept a copy because it was hilarious for many different reasons but my favorite detail in his “Two-door” style home was the “worldpool” in the bathroom.

    Nice work, Jeremy.

  12. Shar says:

    My A-level history teachers had a couple of favorites. Inevitably, in English history there are many revolting peasants, but I hadn’t fully understood the distraction of Mary Queen of Scots hoovering in the background while Elizabeth I was trying to concentrate on affairs of state.

    As a teacher of English as a foreign language in France, my class of restaurateurs were cooking up the big favorite “pig’s feet” for their English tourists, alongside the rather healthy “plate of crudeness.” Always a favorite with those saucy English.

    Although the joke was on me when I was discussing the popularity of French girls’ names in the teacher’s common room. An old fashioned English name had much more popularity in England, as I observed to my colleagues, I had two Fannys in my summer class.

  13. Antoinette says:

    I came across this website on accident and explored a bit…you make some interesting points on student essays Jeremy. I can’t relate as of yet but in the future I may be thinking of you when grading papers.

  14. Stephanie Wells says:

    The most confusing thing to me about this post–and I say this as someone who is probably more intimately familiar with the nuances of your grading rituals than anyone alive–is how you can be sure to find “a strong writer” to begin AND end every stack of five. Two out of every five essays is strong? I wish I worked at your school. Oh, wait, I do. Pass me some of those students–that’s a pretty good ratio!

  15. Jeremy Zitter says:

    I guess my classes just attract a higher caliber of writer, Steph…

  16. Jeremy Zitter says:

    another recent student gem:

    “You might see a dog humping everything in sight but, generally, people don’t do it the same way.”

  17. Stephanie Wells says:

    This gem from my recent lit. midterms isn’t about misunderstanding language like “nut shelf,” but it certainly misunderstanding SOMETHING:

    “[The character] is portrayed as a pushover and shy, not to mention Jewish.”

  18. Lisa Parrish says:

    In the spirit of Jeremy’s current posting (part of a recent, unfortunate GW trend toward bathroom ruminations), I offer the following: Recently, In a professionally transcribed interview, the transcription service I use twice rendered the word “peon” as “pee-on,” thereby beautifully distilling the essence (as it were) of the term.

  19. Jeremy Zitter says:

    Tim and Farrell are the pee posters, not me!

  20. Lisa Parrish says:

    Whoops — sorry, Jeremy! I had a wee mental lapse there, ar ar.

  21. Tim Wager says:

    And I, for one, am not ashamed to be a so-called “pee poster”. In the second century BC, Terence wrote, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” “I am human; nothing human is alien to me.” This too is human.

  22. Becky says:

    Oh, I have my list of gems, as well. One of my favorites: “Liberals believe it’s the government’s responsibility to end poverty and homliness.” Just a typo? Maybe. I had students a couple semesters back respond to an opinion piece about the opening of a gay, bisexual, transgendered high school in New York. Jackpot! One student wrote: “It’s important that the gays learn in a safe environment.” I share these with friends and I’ll admit I don’t think my reasons are entirely pure. I’m venting. I get frustrated, and frankly, scared for my students. But I do enjoy them, to the point that I despair if after grading a stack of papers I haven’t extracted one good line to share with anyone.
    Oh, and my mom a couple years back received an urgent letter from a Japanese company asking that she (a secretary for Leisure World) send them information about their services “windily.” That word has ever since been a useful addition to my vocabulary.

  23. Newbie says:

    Just wanted to share a part of this post on a Poli Sci 100 discussion board:

    …On the other hand there is only about 100 members in the Senate which means there is less amounts of ideas that are floating around. and with only this many amounts of members it is always easier to persway the decision to go in one direction. If I am not mistaken the decision on gay was not passed due to the senates veto.

  24. Stephanie Wells says:

    Winning TWO awards, one for being the original source of such a popular and widely held belief, and one for turning a three-word phrase into a whopping 23:

    “Well, I have had the thought for some time now that there is a certain amount of bliss to be had in ignorance.”


  25. Jeremy says:

    I read a paper today that referred to menstruation as “a woman’s minstrel period” (fyi, the essay was actually written by a woman).

  26. bryan says:

    don’t all young ladies go through a period in which they play the lute and sing old folk ballads?

  27. Tim Wager says:

    or put on black face and pluck the banjer?

  28. Stephanie Wells says:

    Allz I know is, I’m always worried about wearing white pants on a day I might break out into song unexpectedly. It is like SOOOOO embarrassing to get blackface on your white pants.

  29. Lisa Tremain says:

    About once a month I am incredibly moody until I break out in “Camptown Races.”