I usually recommend that students meet with me after receiving a provisionally-graded draft of their paper. Whether students take up my invitation to meet is entirely up to them; some do and some don’t. For those who do accept my invitation we discuss the philosophical shortcomings of their paper, after which we talk about whether or not the student should seek further assistance with the organizational and mechanical aspects of their writing. These sessions typically take 10-30 minutes.
Sometimes students rewrite their papers based on these discussions and are disappointed when their grades on their latest drafts are not greatly improved. They come back to my office to ask what went wrong. These are difficult meetings, and oftentimes frustrating for both me and the students. I try to explain that while I can give my best advice on how to improve a paper, there is no way for me to tell for sure that a student is listening attentively to my advice and internalizing it in a coherent way so they can actually do the work necessary to make the paper significantly better. Students who take notes during these meetings are more likely to do well, but even this is not a guarantee. At the end of a paper conference a student will often ask me, “So, my next grade should be better?” My response is always, “Yes, so long as you execute!” To use an analogy: I could be the best football coach in the world but unless my players execute on the field they’re going to lose the game.
Another good analogy from medicine: Doctors tell patients to come see them, to exercise regularly, to take their pills as prescribed, to go see various specialists, etc. Assuming the doctor is a competent medical professional who is giving good advice, patients who follow this advice should see their health improve. Patients who ignore this advice aren’t going to get better. And patients who know they are sick but wait until their health gets really bad before they bother to go see the doctor are obviously the hardest to heal. I imagine these are the most exasperating patients for doctors, because if they had been more proactive about their health they could’ve benefited from timely medical advice, at least in most cases.
It’s the same way with trying to help a student with a “sick” paper. Unless they come to me early with their paper problems, listen carefully to and faithfully follow my advice, come in for follow-ups, and budget enough time to properly “cure” their paper, they’re bound to be disappointed with their grade. Like the medical doctor I feel helpless in the face of such “patients,” because in most cases I could’ve been of much more help to them if they had come to me earlier.
So, don’t wait until your paper is terminally ill—come see me early.
© D. R. Koukal