Wednesday, September 01, 2004


'Scuse me, while I kiss the sky

This weekend on NPR, I heard about this story: "Harshness of Red Marks Has Students Seeing Purple." The article suggests that teachers increasingly avoid using red ink to correct student assignments. Purple is becoming a popular alternative.

My wife and I were interested to find the story since she almost always uses purple pens to grade her students' papers, and I usually use blue ink or pencil when writing marginalia on the things that I read. Apparently we are not the only enemies of "red." Increasingly, according to this report, "red" is seen as too aggressive, too angry, too critical. "Purple" is a "friendlier" color.
"I do not use red," said Robin Slipakoff, who teaches second and third grades at Mirror Lake Elementary School in Plantation, Fla. "Red has a negative connotation, and we want to promote self-confidence. I like purple. I use purple a lot."
There may or may not be solid psychological reasons for such intuitions. But culture must play as large a role as nature in determining how we interpret color. If purple seems associated with self-confidence, surely this has much to do with its cultural connotations of royalty and wealth. Surely culture is largely responsible for the fact that "red" can simultaneously suggest of both life and death, anger and love? (Or maybe there are physiological explanations for this complex reaction to red. Perhaps I have hit on something more profound than I intended ... ) And it may be that a student's fear of "red" is a learned response; over time, would a widespread shift to "purple" create the same feelings of nausea and dread in the pit of a student's stomach that "red" presently does?

I digress. I didn't start this post to raise the hackneyed debate between nature and nurture. I did want to say that the purple-pen phenomenon addresses an important pedagogical issue. What pen to use raises the question of how teachers can strike the right balance between correcting and encouraging students.

In the article, for instance, defenders of "purple" come across as purveyors of confidence. The defenders of "red" think students should not be coddled.

California high-school teacher Carol Jago, who has been working with students for more than 30 years, said she has no plans to stop using red. She said her students do not seem psychologically scarred by how she wields her pen. And if her students are mixing up "their," "there," and "they're," she wants to shock them into fixing the mistake.

Perhaps the stark difference posed between "red" and "purple" ink creates a false dichotomy between a "shock-and-awe" approach to student evaluation and a campaign to change hearts and minds by careful prodding. (The dichotomy is false in other contexts as well.) Colors are more helpful pedagogical metaphors when we remember that they exist along a spectrum on which red and purple are close together.

Perhaps the choices between boosting confidence and instilling fear are too polar. A more spectral approach to student evaluation is needed. Ultimately, good grading requires a subtle sense of when particular students are better served by confrontation or consolation, an acquired skill that is much more complex than a simple choice between "red" and "purple." Nonetheless ... in the course I'm teaching this semester, I plan to stay away from "red" when marking papers.

Collective Improvisation:
Of course, in Qing China, you wouldn't have had the ability to use red, because vermillion ink was reserved for the emperor alone.

Purple, in the Chinese color scheme, is one of the lowest of the colors, apparently. These wacky social constructions never cease....

Posted by Blogger P.M., Teaching Assistant on 9/02/2004 09:48:00 AM : Permalink  

As a new TA at Harvard in the early 90s, we were told not to use red for marking as it was too harsh. I've always had a fondness for green markers, myself, so I've used that for my entire career.

I've also toyed with pencil, which has the distinct advantage of being both low-key and eraseable if you write something illegible or ill-advised.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 9/02/2004 06:44:00 PM : Permalink  

These wacky social constructions never cease....Indeed, and they can be very particularized constructions as well. For me, "purple" immediately makes me think of one of my neighbors in the apartment complex where I lived as an undergrad, whose (given?) name was "Purple," and whose attachment to the color seemed to be of the "haze" variety.

I've also toyed with pencil ... Me too. It's interesting that when I write in my books, I always use pencil, which seems to symbolize my reticence to make absolute and final comments on an author's points. Pencil represents an openness to change one's mind, which also makes it representative of real engagement with the text. I wonder whether using pencil to grade can subtly communicate that openness to students. Pencil says that even in our roles as "teachers," we are seeking to engage our "students" in conversation, rather than holding up our conclusions about their thinking as permanent and beyond dispute.

Of course, at some point you have to convey that a grade is final, that it is written "in ink" (literally and/or figuratively), or else some students will dispute their grades until blue (or purple) in the face.

Posted by Blogger Caleb on 9/03/2004 03:57:00 PM : Permalink  

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