In praise of ‘Paper Space’



In the old school, a professor graded a student’s paper or essay test in what I call paper-space. That is, the student wrote and printed out an embodied object containing his work, complete (the professor hoped) with page numbers, staple, and a title page on which the student should have, at minimum, spelled the professor’s name correctly—something I cannot assume.

This is how many of us were initiated into the fine art of grading: Thoughts were inscribed in paper-space, and we responded in paper-space as well. Today, this is becoming rarer because many assignments do not receive handwritten comments or may even be machine graded.

Rather than writing another jeremiad on the limits and liabilities of digitizing student work, consider the worth of the professor’s words when offered on the hard copy, as we now call it, given its relative rarity. There is a certain skill and sensibility in writing comments on papers and essay tests. While those in higher education tend rightly to fuss more about what words will see the light of print in peer-reviewed journals and books, the professor’s paper-space comments and corrections on papers are part of the literary record as well. More importantly, these marginalia may leave a mark on the learners in our charge.

Why bother with the archaic burden of inscription at all? Digital comments are faster and may be transferable in the data-sphere. Yet, paper-space comments disclose something of the personality of the professor. If teaching is more than information hunting, gathering, and sharing, then the individuality of the professor is of significance in the student’s learning. Our unique traits radiate from our writing—for good or ill. In order to own my comments and ground them in the students’ minds, I try to sign and date my students’ papers on the last page, just as I sign a letter.

Also, what we write is our commentary, meant only for one paper. In this, it is like a paper-space letter, sent to one address—unlike, say, a public post on Facebook. While teaching today is usually one-to-many, written comments are one-to-one. Notes may be crafted to respond not only to the ideas of the paper, but to the paper’s author. If I know that a student is a neophyte to philosophy, I can refer her to a classic in the field. These personal comments add another mode of teaching. If I do not mention a particular author in a lecture, I still have the freedom to do so in a comment. I may look over a paper addressing epistemology and remember that Blaise Pascal brilliantly addressed an epistemological issue in fragment #110 of Pensées. On a jocular note, if a student is a jazz aficionado, I might write “nice chop” or “you swing.”

I conclude these reflections with a thought experiment. Imagine the horror of a tenured and well-published professor who finds that by some perverse supernatural act, all of her academic publications have ceased to exist. They remain on her curriculum vitae but nowhere else—not in a database, library, or file. Years of effort have been wiped off the record. But accompanying this mysterious subtraction is a preternatural addition.

After a few days of lament and vexation, a thin book materializes on her office desk. Every page is filled with her comments on her students’ work, written in her own hand, along with the context and date of the notations. This now stands as her only extant work. What was published is now unpublished; what was unpublished is now published. She is filled with wonder as she remembers most of the comments and considers what mark she may have made on her students. Perhaps we should attempt this thought experiment and consider where it takes us. It may take us back to paper-space and how we ought occupy it.

Author Bio: Douglas Groothuis is a professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary.