Skip to content

Spotlight on First-Year Composition: Melinda Backer

Melinda Backer, the winner of this year’s Experienced GTA John C. Hodges Excellence in Teaching Award, speaks about her successful teaching practices.Melinda Backer

Melinda Backer is pursuing a Ph.D. in English, specializing in postcolonial studies and contemporary literature. Her current research explores ecocritical perspectives on realism and humanism in contemporary ecofiction.

The Composition Office recently interviewed her to find out more about the commentary she provides on her students’ papers and how she guides them toward successful revisions.


Our interview follows:


Could you tell us a bit about your revision policy in your composition classes? What paper(s) do you allow your students to revise and how do you regrade these papers? Do you find that many of your students take advantage of this option?

Although they have the option to revise every paper, they can only choose one essay for which the revised grade completely replaces the original grade. For all other revisions, the average between the original and revised versions is the grade assigned to the paper.

After they are given feedback and a grade, they are given two weeks to revise. If they choose to revise, which around 25% choose to do on average, they have to write a brief reflection on the changes they have made. I grade revisions by requiring them to turn in their graded draft. I look at the comments that I made and see if they followed any of the suggestions that I offered, then I look for evidence of revision that goes beyond simply proofreading.


How do you approach student drafts to better encourage them to revise? What issues do you prioritize and what kind of feedback do you include in the margins vs. at the end of the paper?

I write all of my comments as conversational. Over the course of the semester, students will be meeting with me one-on-one to discuss their writing in various stages, and I feel that it is more effective for them to see that I comment the same way I discuss their drafting or revision options when I am talking to them. This, I believe, shows students that I care about their individual progress as writers. In the margins, I comment on lower-order concerns—awkward phrasing, grammar, spelling, word choice, tense shifting, dangling modifiers, etc. If there is a grammatical issue that becomes a trend, I will add a star and comment on the bottom of the page the best way to follow the grammatical rule. At the end of the paper, I talk about those high-order concerns, mentioning the best ways to revise in order to address those concerns, and offer praise about something that a student did particularly well.


How do you keep your comments honest yet encouraging, even on the papers that may not have scored so well? How do you point out errors while also encouraging your students to do better in the future? 

I keep in mind that my students don’t have the same experience that I have in writing, reading, and literature. I try to remember that for many students, their time in my classroom is a requirement, not something that they sought out. I treat whatever they’ve turned in, even if it is clearly not their best effort, as a starting point for improvement. I look for what they did right: did they follow the assignment sheet? If not, did they remember and correctly use a concept discussed in class? If not, do they know how to write coherent sentences? There is always something that a student did well. Start with a point of encouragement, then move on to those areas where they can improve. Don’t be afraid to point out that a student could have benefited from prioritizing their essay over other activities, or being more attentive to concepts discussed in class.


Writing commentary on papers can be time-consuming, so what kind of advice would you have for teachers who are just starting out and are learning how to handle the workload of grading papers? Any time-saving tips?

Time yourself grading your first batch of essays. Ideally, you want to spend no more than fifteen minutes on an essay around five pages long. Get a sense for how long it takes you to grade your essays, and if you are taking up a whole day grading twenty-four, figure out your choices. I grade best writing my comments by hand; this method has one major downside, I cannot recycle comments that suggest revision for a rambling paragraph that I’ve seen happen in seven different papers. If I graded online instead, I could create a bank of such comments that I could quickly adapt and edit to individual students, and save myself some time. If grading electronically will save you time overall, then give it a try and see if you are comfortable interacting with student work digitally.


Do you model your commentary style after that of any of your previous mentors/teachers? 

I model my commenting style on that of two former undergraduate professors, Jim Schuttemeyer and Sherry Stanforth. Sherry’s method was to provide a rubric that listed the general criteria for each letter grade. She would let those criteria explain the general overview of why a student earned a grade then write individual end comments tailored to the higher order concerns of the essay.  Jim’s method was to keep all of his comments in the margins with a brief comment about the overall grade at the end of the essay. I’ve adapted their styles by creating a rubric with students in the class, and then using that rubric to grade their essays.

The flagship campus of the University of Tennessee System and partner in the Tennessee Transfer Pathway.