Discover more from Anna Meier
on draft culture
or, why "workload" isn't the reason you don't read drafts
A few months ago, I was working on a tip sheet for faculty teaching students with anxiety, and I asked some of my best co-conspirators to look it over. One of the tips I’d included was “scaffold assessments where you can.” My friend was not pleased. “Scaffold assessments always,” they said. “Not doing so is bad pedagogy.”
I agree with them 100%--and yet, because I work at a UK university, my wording was intentional. If I want to require students to submit an essay outline—in other words, make doing so part of the assignment design, rather than simply an option for students who are on the ball—I have to set a word count for it, make sure that word count (and the subsequent weighting of the assignment, which is linked to the word count) matches department rules for word counts, and submit that request as part of my original course design at least a year, and sometimes 18 months, before I’ll actually teach the course. If I want to have students submit a draft essay, get feedback, and then submit the final product later on, I have to deal with endless cries of “self-plagiarism!” (to be clear: not a thing) and a final answer, most likely, of “no.” If I give students the option of submitting a draft for informal feedback, I am not only fostering inequities in support across students, but inequities in workload expectations across faculty.
I mention all of this because, in response to a colleague’s offhand comment that they thought giving feedback on drafts was “bad academic practice” (which I am choosing to believe is a minority position here), I went on the internet and bemoaned the lack of a draft culture in UK higher ed. I’ll be honest that I expected minimal engagement—I whine a lot—and for what engagement I got to be in agreement. So you can imagine my surprise when folks descended on the defensive. “We so give feedback on drafts,” some people said, explaining they looked at essay plans. (These are not drafts.) “I’d love to give feedback on drafts, but, y’know, workload,” said others, betraying how deeply they’d adopted the neoliberal university’s ordering of priorities. There did seem to be some disciplinary variation, with draft feedback being anecdotally more common in the natural sciences (surprising to me!), but I couldn’t help the feeling that I and the majority of responders were talking past each other.
I felt a little vindicated by some more senior faculty and some former undergraduate students. I was going to come here and deny this, one said, but then I remembered how little feedback I got on my essays at uni. Others took the replies as evidence of how profoundly UK higher ed incentivizes poor pedagogy. The person who best captured what I was originally going for, saying it better than I ever could, was Dr. Christienna Fryar. “I am not wholly comfortable just blaming workload,” she said, “is that every time this conversation happens, I never get the sense that there is a shared understanding of what a drafts practice is and why it matters.”
When I was a PhD student, I served as a TA for a class where the assignments were a research paper proposal, a draft of the paper, and then a final paper (and also an exam, but let’s set that aside for now). If the goal of a class is to teach students how to write a research paper, I don’t think there’s a much better system than this one. It was a rare opportunity for students to get feedback and then actually have the chance to apply it to the same piece of work. Along with lessons in discussion sections on how to structure a paper and how to reference, it actually provided built-in time for students to work on this skill we all just assume they have.
And this isn’t something I can do here. That’s a problem.
Some people pointed out that students can use their feedback on future essays for different classes, but this assumes every essay is functionally the same, subject matter aside, and then all university amounts to is writing a bunch of essays (which is both ableist and inauthentic). Others mentioned that first-year grades at university don’t count in the UK, and so students do have an opportunity to practice and mess up without consequences, but this replicates the “ESSAYS ONLY ALL THE TIME” problem and also assumes no changes in expectations from first year to second year to third (which is bizarre). I digress.
The bottom line, for me, is that we can yell about workload all we want, and that’s not entirely wrong, but it misses the forest for one tree. What we should be asking is: why is our workload structured such that there is no time built in for giving students proper constructive feedback, but there’s plenty of time devoted for moderation and exam boards (read: cop shit)? Why is our workload structured to make teaching a list of tasks in 15–minute increments while we are supposed to buy ourselves more and more time for research? Why do we scare students shitless about the possibility of plagiarizing themselves (again: not a thing) instead of presenting writing as an innately iterative process? And why are we trained, in response to a pedagogical suggestion, to respond “there’s no time for that” rather than “why don’t I have time for teaching in my teaching job?”
Republican political leaders in the US continue to loudly and shamelessly endorse trans genocide. There are lots of things you can do to support trans people if that’s where you’re at in your allyship, from talking to your transphobic relatives or donating to local organizations and mutual aid networks that help trans folks. If you’re ready and able to be more militant, I like this thread from Margaret Killjoy for ideas.
In a similar vein, the Tory government continues its trend of being Absolutely Detestable and has gone after asylum-seekers as its latest racist, imperialist campaign. Comedian Nish Kumar sums up the layers of irony and cruelty quite nicely. I crowdsourced some suggestions for mutual aid and grassroots organizations supporting asylum-seekers and refugees in the UK; that’s here.
The International Studies Association conference is this week! If you’re a first-time grad student attendee, I wrote you a list of tips here. If shameless self-promotion’s okay with you, here’s a list of places I’ll be.
Last thing: I refuse to read the New Yorker article on the philosophy professor who slept with her grad student because this is so goddamn common and such an abuse of power every single time. Louder for people in the back: it is so easy not to date, or assault, your students.
Grad students! Please, please, please apply to the Bridging the Gap New Era workshop (NEW). I went to a bunch of “trainings” in grad school while trying to find my people, and this is the only one that both a) continues to be helpful, and b) I enjoyed. Even if you’re skeptical of working with policymakers on research, it’s worth going to meet an incredible network of people, some of whom are also skeptical, and push your thinking in new directions. Students at non-US institutions are also welcome to apply! The application is short and due April 30.
Subscribe—I get angry often.