Pretty Vague Comments on Writing?

This semester, I’m teaching a mid-level academic writing course and I started out with a definition piece asking students to make an argument about a word. Common stuff, but a fun way to start a class. One student wrote about the historical moment where pretty started to be used as a diminutive kind of intensifier (“You’re pretty smart” isn’t exactly a real compliment, as she pointed out). It was a good paper.

But when writing feedback, I realized how often I use pretty and other words to slightly measure the force of the comments I put on student papers. Looking over a small batch of old drafts, I found pretty, fairly, quite, solid(ly), a little, incredibly, and somewhat. (I hope) I’m at least a little bit more substantial in my comments than this list might suggest, but I started thinking about students’ experiences of this broad class of modifiers. Looking over my comments, I can definitely see the connection between my use of This point is fairly well supported when you say . . . and the critique of holes in the analysis that follows. But if I were to point to just that sentence, would a student really know where on the continuum of writerly success I was plonking them?

I’m thinking that I need to look at some of the corpora of writing feedback that I know are out there, then I need to try to imagine a way to learn about how students read lines like these.

I mean . . . I need to write a dissertation and finish the article I’m working on and get a job and stuff like that. But I want to do this too.

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