Friday, February 8, 2013

Out of the Red

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 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.

P.S. My students asked me to return to red. Or at least some of them did. I switch it up - I have orange, green, turquoise - the new Sharpie pens are lovely - but my sentimental favorite is still red.  


  1. While I always have and always will use red, I also always have and always will use other colors, including green (my actual favorite thanks to my 9th grade English teacher) and purple. The most significant thing, and perhaps the topic for another post (yes? yes?) is that you gave your student a fountain pen and feature a bottle of Pelikan ink at the top of your post. My wife gave me my first fountain pen when we were seniors in college. It is a Sheaffer Targa. A few years later when I started teaching at a new school with a rough student body, I decided that I was the one responsible for keeping some elegance in my life, so I brought out the Sheaffer and fell in love with it. For nearly twenty years I have collected fountain pens, both new and vintage. I give them as gifts to top students and have received several as cherished gifts from students as well. Cheers to you for promoting a bit of elegance amid the hurly-burly of the modern age.

  2. Happy to please, Magister. I use a fountain pen because I like the way it feels, and because I can buy ink in all sorts of colors. Lavender, olive green, and sepia are some of my favorites. My in-laws gave me my favorite pen last year for Christmas.

    1. I do like sepia as well, now that you mention it. If I may ask, what make and model pen did you receive?

    2. Classic black Waterman with silver. I'm not a fan of gold. I'm also not really a fan of fancy.

  3. Hello:
    I teach in a 1:1 school. Like the editor at a major publishing house suggested, I use only digital formats to correct papers: track changes on Word, comments on Google docs, annotating on Edmodo. These formats allow me to give thoughtful feedback that students can read, rather than try and decipher my handwriting. I can also link a comment to sites that explain grammar errors.
    This year, I may try giving audio comments through Scannr or Jing screencasting.
    When I digitally correct, I use purple!

  4. Were there to be a mandate from the Federal government requiring all teachers to grade in green, purple, or some other color(at the risk of losing funding) we would have the same discussion a decade or two from now about the evils of using that color. It is all part of political correctness run amok. *Note-as a left-handed writer I have not used an ink pen since elementary school.

  5. I usually use green ink for 7th grade, blue ink for 6th grade, and pink ink for 8th grade. It helps me to keep papers organized. However, for marking mid-term and final exams, I always use red ink. I think it gives the grades more gravity.

  6. Mama C, that's brilliant. I teach 6, 7, and 8. However, I can just picture how flummoxed I would be by my best intentions as I search for the right pen in order to grade a particular paper. I WISH I could be that organized.

  7. i would give up my thumbs before i gave up red ink pens--of course, i'd have to figure out a new way to hold them.

  8. As one of those students who got a fair share of corrections, comments and grades (both good and not so much so) inked in red and somehow managed to survive with my positive self-image intact, I contend that it is not so much the color of the ink that matters, but the quality of the feedback given to the student. I've marked papers in red, green, purple, and brown without thought (just grabbing whatever pen was most convenient) but I've always taken the time to write a few encouraging words to go along with all the corrections and question marks.

    I also always loved my father's fountain pens (with which he used black ink to comment on my work) but, alas, I, too, am left-handed and I cannot use those pens unless I move to Israel or some other nation with the language is written right to left.

  9. As a copyeditor, I do think about red ink. I only do manual markup for proofreading, in which case it has already been edited and I'm really just catching egregious errors. Then I choose something that will show up depending on the book design (I often work on four-color books). The author usually won't see my edits. (Side note: at my last job we called a page that was pretty marked up by the proofreader "bloody.")

    As a writing tutor, I use pencil because my marks tend to be more suggestions than actual edits. I would never use pencil on a professional edit because it is too hard to see and some of the meaning might get lost.

    My husband is an English professor and he usually uses green felt-tip or sometimes purple. It stand out, but doesn't have any emotional overtones.

  10. Setting aside the color issue, school of course needs to be a place where it is safe for kids to fail.

    As the Danish physicist Niels Bohr famously observed " An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field."

    And doing that requires a lot of red ink.

  11. Wonderful! I love this. Personally, I use purple for correcting my own work and making suggestions on others.

  12. I love using purple, but usually, I'm just scrounging around in my desk drawer to find anything that actually has ink in it!

  13. As a parent of elementary schoolers, my biggest peeve with corrections is when they don't stand out, so red, green and purple all suffice.

    However, I think there's something to be said about the idea of teachers catering their ink color to their student's sensitivities. Is tip-toeing around students mistakes the best way to prepare them for adulthood? Will these student's future bosses cater similarly when correcting them on their job? Personally I'd rather my children embrace those corrections as learning opportunities, and realities of the world.


  15. My advisor used green pen, never understood his choice, I think I do now... thanks for sharing!

  16. JL-- I think you're forgetting why red is identified with punitive comments. The reaction against red in my field-- composition-- has been pretty consistent for about forty years because it really was the color of choice for comments that tended to be exhaustive and fell somewhere between copy editing and proofreading. An essay submitted in this culture of instruction was typically the end of the line. Since you're writing as a teacher in mid-life, (me, too) the generation of teachers who taught you writing in college, or taught you teaching in graduate school, were a generation fully immersed in process theory, the theory that put red ink on the hot seat. In the abstract, it's just a color. What matters most is making targeted, specific comments that offer a path to revision and resonate with the body of classroom instruction, which includes the teacher's attitude toward writing and the way students write in and for class. But, unfortunately, the teachers whose red ink is merely a color doesn't comprise the great majority of writing instruction that takes place. For a great many teachers, red is the color of choice because red is color of correction, not revision.