Once upon a time, when I was a bright and shiny new graduate student teacher at the University of Tennessee, I was assigned an office with two veteran instructors. Both women had been there for decades; both were best described as “old school” in their outlooks about essay writing (they insisted upon the five-paragraph theme formula) and about grammar (they would mark every “error” and have the students fix them all before the grade was final). They were perfectly amiable with me, but we never really talked about teaching until the day one of them asked me a question about a student essay she was grading. “David,” she sighed, “this is a strong essay, but I take 10 points off for each comma splice, and this essay has twelve of them. Would you give this essay a 0? Or would you give it a -20?”
I kept my poker face pretty well, I thought, though it gave me pause that anyone could consider giving a blank sheet of paper a better grade than an otherwise strong essay with twelve comma splices.
After I caught my breath, I suggested that, given the otherwise strong nature of the essay, it might be wise to delay giving a final grade, point out the pattern of error to the student, and let them re-submit to see if they could fix the issue. My colleague looked relieved by my suggestion and decided to take my advice.
A few days later she triumphantly shared the repaired essay with me. I noticed the grade of 100 at the end, but, when I started reading, I noticed an unfortunate trend. The student had simply replaced all the offending commas with periods, the worst possible fix, turning his complex sentence patterns into choppy, Dick-and-Jane style prose. In other words, the writing was now worse than before the “corrections.” But my colleague was happy (no errors!), and the student was no doubt happy with his grade. So who was I to complain?