by Jessica Lahey
I can be very, very stubborn. I am sure my parents, husband, sister, sons, friends, in-laws…pretty much anyone who knows me well can attest to this. When something or someone I love is criticized, my first instinct is to suit up for battle, stare the enemy down until he or she bends to my will while I bash them into submission with my keyboard.
So when my beloved red ink, the ink of choice for teachers everywhere, was implicated as a weapon of teacher cruelty and cause of students’ suffering, I dug in my heels.
So much so that when one of my former students was given her first full-time post as a teacher this year, I searched and searched for the perfect fountain pen, and then, to complete the gift, provided a couple of bottles of lovely red ink.
She sent a lovely thank you note – in red ink, of course – because she has to use all of that ink somewhere. It won’t, she reported, be used at school, because teachers at her new school are not allowed to correct student work in red ink.
I had no idea. Despite my love of researching and reading all things educational, I’d somehow managed to miss this entire controversy.
I looked around, and asked some teacher tweeps and Facebook friends about the situation, and yes, it’s a thing. Apparently, the red ink controversy rears its head every decade or so. My first reaction was to mock the entire “controversy.” I know, I know -hello haters, I see your ire rising – but many of the early comments I got back from teachers and psychologists egged me on.
From a middle school teacher: “Gosh, heaven forbid we express any sort of disapproval!!”
From an adolescent psychologist: “That is nuts. How much should we coddle kids?”
From a writer and teacher: “Why…. because it hurts kids’ feeeeeelings? Pardon me while I barf.”
From an education writer: “Oh. God. No. I remember sitting through a PD about this and how dispiriting it supposedly was for students to get papers back marked up with red ink. We read a piece about a group of teachers receiving training in this, which concluded with the newly enlightened and chastened teachers dropping their red pens in the trash as they marched out the door. Gag me.”
From a professor: “… boy can I tell which students have never seen red ink before. They also happen to be the same ones who have a nervous breakdown or have their parents call me when they get anything less than an A. One of them actually told me, ‘I don’t like it that you give edits in red ink. It makes me feel like I’m not perfect.’
And again, from that same professor: Two years ago, one of my students told me he preferred red-ink edits. He said it made him pay attention, and it made him see those edits as corrections and learning moments rather than just notes that he might’ve perceived as optional or not important.
As you can see, the overwhelming reaction to the complaints about red ink was a strangled, gagging sound.
But then, a teaching miracle occurred. One of my former students offered up evidence. Actual, real, live evidence. This is sheer heaven for for me, particularly because this former student has become a teacher himself. It turns out that NPR, among other news outfits, covered the red ink controversy a while back. Guy Raz interviewed Abraham Rutchcick on All Things Considered about an article Rutchick published on the subject in the European Journal of Social Psychology.
I listened to the NPR piece, then located the original article. According to Rutchick’s article, “The Pen is Mightier Than the Word: Object Priming of Evaluative Standards:”
Because red pens are closely associated with error-marking and poor performance, the use of red pens when correcting student work can activate these concepts. People using red pens to complete a word-stem task completed more words related to errors and poor performance than did people using black pens (Study 1), suggesting relatively greater accessibility of these concepts. Moreover, people using red pens to correct essays marked more errors (Study 2) and awarded lower grades (Study 3) than people using blue pens. Thus, despite teachers’ efforts to free themselves from extraneous influences when grading, the very act of picking up a red pen can bias their evaluations.
I was torn. I love my red ink. I have a large bottle of it at school, all sorts of red pens in felt-tip, rollerball, ball-point, and some fancy artists’ felt tips I bought for a small fortune in an art supply store in Paris a couple of years ago. I save those for extra-special editing.
I can’t imagine parting with my lovely collection just because a few students might be a little irked by the color. Besides, I have this lovely letter from a former student, decorated with comments I’d written on her papers over the year I taught her, and it just makes me so happy when I look at it. She saved those papers, valued those comments, and used them to become a better writer. How bad could red ink really be?
To seal the deal, I offer up the concluding questions from the NPR interview:
RAZ: Professor Rutchick, you are a psychology professor at Cal State Northridge, right?
Prof. RUTCHICK: I am.
RAZ: And when you grade papers, what color pen do you use?
Prof. RUTCHICK: I use a red pen, actually. It’s – I have to override somehow my urge to be nice and kind.
See! Even the author of the study that reveals the catastrophic psychic harm red ink can do to students is keeping his red pens!
Just when I was determined to hold on to that red pen until someone pried it out of my cold, dead, fingers, a discussion heated up on my Facebook page:
From an editor at a major publishing house: As an editor I was always taught to use pencil, not pen, because authors might balk at the permanence of pen (as if the edits were a mandate and not a suggestion). Now I use Track Changes! I do know of one editor who objected to using red (pen or pencil) for its even more dictatorial connotations–he didn’t want an author flashing back to some horrible childhood experience. Also, I remember a teacher once writing “awkward” in the margin of a junior high writing assignment, and it took me years to get over!
And from my always-logical mother-in-law, Kate, a writer and former law professor: I had no trouble requesting “accommodations” from my students, but only when it made sense. Pissing people off over the color of ink I used just didn’t seem worth it, either personally or pedagogically. [...] The red-ink phobia wasn’t my imagination; I regularly heard students complain about teachers who “bled all over their papers.” I’d rather have a student focus on the content of my comments than on the color of my ink.
There it was: “I’d rather have a student focus on the content of my comments than on the color of my ink.”
I may be stubborn, but I am also a sucker for a reasoned, evidence-based argument. And, as I have been engaged in my own “Classroom Happiness Project” thanks to Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project and Happiness at Home, I had to recognize the possibility that I might be making my own students uncomfortable rather than sacrifice my precious red ink. Gretchen writes about how important it is to “acknowledge the reality of people’s feelings” in her book The Happiness Project, so I am.
This year, I will be correcting my students’ papers in…drumroll…forest green. It’s my favorite color, and if there’s any possibility that my comments will be more readily heard in green rather than red, I’m willing to retire the red ink.
So if anyone out there needs to dye some clothes or whip up a batch of fake blood for Halloween, I happen to know where you can get about a half-gallon of quality red ink, cheap.
Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education, Coming of Age in the Middle, where this piece also appears, can be found at http://jessicalahey.com.