Evaluating Form and Content in Student Papers
By Joseph DiLuzio, May 9, 2011 in Uncategorized

With the end of the semester comes the grading of student papers, an onerous process that takes much of our time and energy.  I’m not talking about exams here: I mean term papers, many of them, several pages in length.  At some point in the process, I inevitably find myself asking why I bother to write comments and, in particular, why I bother to correct students’ grammar.  This post offers a justification of sorts.  In it, I wish to defend my belief in giving equal weight to form and content in the evaluation of student papers.  This entails scrutinizing a student’s ideas as well as his or her command of the English language.    

In the contemporary academy, there is little tension between philosophy and rhetoric.  Philosophy reigns.  As academics, we concern ourselves primarily with thought – the content of an argument – rather than the quality of its presentation.  As evidence, most academic writing and most conferences fail to attract a wider audience, and it is not just because our work requires a certain level of expertise to be understood.  How often do we attend a public lecture and find ourselves riveted by the speaker?  How often do we find ourselves nodding off?  This, I would argue, is a product of modern “philosophy,” by which I mean a focus on content to the exclusion of eloquence.  This problem is not new: Cicero traced its origin to fifth-century Athens, to the teachings of Socrates as presented in the works of his student, Plato.  In his dialogue On the Ideal Orator (de Oratore), Cicero – through the character of Crassus – accuses the Athenian philosopher of separating “wisdom” into its constituent parts – knowledge and expression.  In Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus, rhetoric (the art of persuasion) comes in for sustained criticism, and at the same time, Socrates argues that rhetoric cannot function normatively in the absence of philosophy. The Phaedrus, in particular, suggests that orations and the written word are ultimately less effective at persuasion than (philosophical) dialectic. 

Four centuries later, Cicero composed his response in two moves.  First, he splits the difference between philosophy and rhetoric – thought and expression – by saying that knowledge of both is essential for the ideal orator to practice “eloquence.”  Second, he posits that philosophy entails speaking about virtue, morality as well as the laws of nature and the state.  Crassus concludes, “the real power of eloquence is so enormous that its scope includes the origin, essence, and transformations of everything.”  Philosophy requires language and persuasion to be effective, just as rhetoric requires the true knowledge of philosophy.  In theory, both pursuits are of equal value, but as Crassus notes, philosophers tend to shun politics in order pursue their studies in peace.  Having no use for it, they scorn the practice of speaking, thereby exchanging the true wisdom of old for knowledge alone.    

A similar phenomenon plagues the modern academy.  Ironically, one of the justifications routinely offered for a humanities education is that, unlike the sciences, it promises to teach students to think critically and write well.  In other words, we claim to teach wisdom, but what we actually value is thought.  How can we claim to teach students to write well and fail to address poor punctuation, incorrect spelling, and improper usage?  A major contribution of twentieth-century thought was the realization that the meaning of a word is relative rather than essential.  Successful communication requires writer and reader to share a common system of signs and a context that includes the same physical, psychological, and social environment.  In other words, the sharing of ideas requires a common grammar, and apart from this grammar, ideas have no significance.  When evaluating student papers, our written comments should be intended to enhance the significance of their ideas by addressing (in as much as they can be distinguished) issues of form and content. 

In addition, the language an author uses says something about his “character.”  By “character” (ethos in Greek), I mean the image he conveys of himself to his audience.  The Greek theorists maintained that ethos was essential because of the correlation between the perceived credibility of the speaker and the receptiveness of the audience.  So it is with the written word: poor punctuation may be viewed as evidence of carelessness and imprecision; muddled syntax may be construed as muddled thought, and improper usage, ignorance.  Moreover, how we evaluate student papers says something about us as teachers.  It signals to the student what our standards are, whether attention to detail is important to us, and whether we ourselves take the assignment or our class seriously.  As such, how we evaluate a paper is as important as the final grade.

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David M. Pollio on May 12, 2011 at 8:06 am

Well done, Joe. You have succinctly identified a huge problem in our educational system at all levels for which their is no simple solution, especially since the lack of interest in proper English usage is the norm in contemporary American culture. Many of my students take English for granted and seem to be content if they can simply convey their ideas, no matter how poorly expressed - even though, as you point out, such poor expression is bad for one's "ethos" (in the Greek sense of the word). Over the years, I have gotten some traction with students by distinguishing formal vs. informal patterns of speech (both spoken and written): i.e., the language they use when texting or emailing a friend would be inappropriate for, say, a job application. Such a distinction seems to resonate with them.

To understand the root causes of this apathy towards the English language in American culture, I would recommend David Mulroy's "The War Against Grammar" (2003). Mulroy identifies several influential studies from the 1950s and 1960s that attempt to demonstrate that formal grammar instruction is actually deleterious to a student's growth as a writer. For example, here is the conclusion of Richard Braddock's oft-cited 1963 study, "Research in Written Composition":

"in view of the widespread agreement of research studies based upon many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms: the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing" (37-38).

Over the years, Braddock's conclusions have been re-affirmed by numerous educational groups, including The National Council of Teachers of English, whose 1991 "Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts" included an essay by Hillocks and Smith ("Grammar and Usage") that concluded:

"school boards, administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice which should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing" (596).

In other words: just write and the grammar will take care of itself. Sadly, through no fault of their own, many of our students are the products of exactly this type of system.

You are undoubtedly correct in stating, "the sharing of ideas requires a common grammar, and apart from this grammar, ideas have no significance," and yet, as university professors, we should keep in mind that many of our students have never been introduced to that common grammar. Therefore, Joe, keep pointing out those comma splices, dangling participles, uses of "who" as an object, etc... oh, and welcome to the academy!

Lee Trepanier on May 13, 2011 at 2:44 am

I agree the authors that grammar and style aren't taken seriously in most writing-intensive courses. One of the strangest things is that the required Composition class doesn't even address these issues. The instructors teach rhetoric without touching on grammar, syntax, or style in their class.

Matthew Wright on Nov 28, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Hi, Joe,

Just discovered this--great post. I'm very sympathetic to your argument, and I agree that form is often essentially related to content. Muddled syntax is indeed often a disguise for muddled thought. At the same time, it seems to me that giving equal weight to form and content is problematic. It seems to me that a course should evaluate students primarily on the content of that particular course. Obviously someone is to blame for a college student's lack of writing ability, and no doubt they are themselves in large part guilty. At the same time, the problem is a systemic one, and it's probably also the case that poor writers have not had the benefit of good instruction. To penalize them too heavily for bad writing focuses on pre-existing deficits at the expense of rewarding present learning. If it is clear that a student has learned and digested the course material, I'd be inclined to correct their grammar, etc., but not to penalize them too heavily for it.

about the author

Joseph DiLuzio
Joseph DiLuzio


Joseph DiLuzio is A.B.D. in Classical Studies at Boston University and currently teaches in the Classics Department at Baylor University.  He earned his B.A. in History from The College of New Jersey and then completed an M.A. in Classical Archaeology at Tufts University.  At Boston University, his research has focused on the law and politics of the fifth-century Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic.  His dissertation on Cicero’s rhetoric of the People looks at how the orator characterizes the Roman People, the nature of its power, and its role in Republican politics in a variety of his early speeches.  Joe has a wide range of interests, including the impact of the Classics on the American Revolutionary generation.  He and his wife, Meghan, live in Texas with their dog – Toby.