Graded Essays Are Like Chopped Wood


One doesn’t have to teach for long to learn a valuable lesson about end-of-the-semester comments: few students read them.

Early in my career I learned this lesson the hard way. I had left a stack of carefully marked essays outside my door—this was decades ago when professors still did this—and returned in January to discover that no more than three or four of them had been picked up. I remember toting up in my head all the fruitless hours I had spent.

Robert Frost goes through similar calculations in “The Woodpile.” Walking through the woods on a snowy afternoon, he comes across a carefully cut and stacked pile of wood. It’s a neat “four by four by eight” and the farmer Clematis “had wound string round and round it like a bundle.” Unfortunately, he then forgot about it, and the wood is now rotten and no longer suitable for burning:

It was a cord of maple, cut and split 
And piled—and measured, four by four by eight. 
And not another like it could I see. 
No runner tracks in this year’s snow looped near it. 
And it was older sure than this year’s cutting, 
Or even last year’s or the year’s before. 
The wood was gray and the bark warping off it 
And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis 
Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle. 
What held it though on one side was a tree 
Still growing, and on one a stake and prop, 
These latter about to fall. I thought that only 
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks 
Could so forget his handiwork on which 
He spent himself, the labor of his ax, 
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace 
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could 
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.

Now I put all my energy into earlier drafts since these comments contribute to intellectual fire. I generally provide comments on the final draft only to students who ask for them.

So if are a young teacher just confronting this issue, imagine all your comments warming a frozen swamp with the slow smokeless burning of decay. Then go off and do something else.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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