Every week, I spend the better part of one afternoon grading papers of my college writing students. I use red pens for this, a choice that probably makes my nitpicky teaching approach all too evident when I hand back the papers. So what if that means their papers look like I smudged strawberry jelly all over them? I believe if the students take the time to write the paper, I owe them the time it takes to point out mistakes – as well as the good parts.
But in the few years I’ve been grading college papers, I’ve noticed a trend – one that takes me back to second or third grade.
These students are neglecting to put their names on their papers.
Seriously. Every week a paper or two crosses my desk anonymously. I will be working my way through two or three pages of copy, often thinking “Wow, this is pretty good!” and when I glance at the top of the first page to see the author, there will be nothing.
Huh? What 20-year-old person doesn’t put his or her name at the top of the page?
It’s especially puzzling on good papers. Doesn’t human nature make us want to take credit for our best work? Conversely, there are some pretty stinky papers that come by, and the only thing that’s right is the big, old name at the very top.
Remember second grade? There was a line at the top of every paper where the name went. The first thing the teacher said was, “Put your name at the top.”
Now I, a university professor standing in front of a classroom of adults who are paying for an expensive education, find myself saying the same thing.
And still, a paper will slip through without a name.
I blame the Internet. Without paper and ink, students don’t have that obvious space at the top of a page. And every person with an e-mail address or Facebook page has an account that automatically carries his name. Why sign your name when it’s already on the e-mail address?
And so, I am now a writer and a teacher and a sleuth. Sometimes, I can find the phantom student by process of elimination. (This is easier for me because my largest class has only 13 students. My friend teaches psychology at the same university, and she has classrooms of dozens and dozens. It would take algebraic equations for her to decipher the nameless papers.)
Other times, the writing is sharp enough to announce its author; sadly, the reverse is occasionally true. By the end of 16 weeks, I get to know my students – and their talents – pretty well.
Even some of our greatest and most famous authors have disowned things they’ve written, including Mark Twain, Ian Fleming and Franz Kafka, who is said to have destroyed 90 percent of everything he wrote. OK, so maybe my students aren’t famous yet – and we certainly aren’t writing spy novels – but I can’t help thinking there’s something psychological at work here.
College is hard. Maybe these students are having identity crises. Maybe it is the Internet that’s causing the name lapse.
Or maybe it’s my fault. The students do the work, and they want to learn.
But they’d rather remain anonymous than to face all my red ink.
Beth Dolinar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.