On Teaching Writing
In the course of a debate on NCTE-Talk, I was
asked for an explanation of my views of certain questions. Because I consider
the questions very relevant and important, and because my answers are,
of necessity, long, I have reproduced the questions and my responses here
-- both for anyone who cares to read them, and for my "cut-and-paste" use
in the future. (This debate will continue for a long time.)
Dr. Ed Vavra
Jan. 9, 2000
Question: "You noted that you think
people opposed to standardized testing 'do not want to teach grammar, do
not want to teach outlining, do not want to teach spelling, and do not
want any standardized tests that might hold them and their students responsible.'
I was wondering how a teacher's ability to teach writing is represented
in student writing? Do good teachers produce good writers?"
This is a very important question,
not just in theory, but also in the context of how teachers are evaluated.
The question is further complicated because we need to consider what we
mean by "good writing." To some people, "good writing" is writing that
is grammatically and mechanically "correct." To others, grammar and mechanics
are insignificant -- they look for "creativity" or "thoughtfulness," etc.
Personally, although I enjoy creativity in my students' writing, I do not
believe that judging it is our business as teachers of composition. History
provides numerous examples of creative genius that was totally or largely
unappreciated in its own time. As soon as I try to imagine myself evaluating
students' writing in terms of creativity, I see myself as a pygmy judging
giants. That is not a position I want to be in.
We can, however, phrase
the question differently. Instead of "good writers," we can speak of "competent
writers." What I have in mind here, in addition to mechanics and grammar,
are such things as the ability to use some basic forms of organization
and the ability to see that a general statement can and should be supported
with specific examples. I'll have more to say about this is my response
to one of the questions below, but I have stated the general idea here
as background for my response to the question about a teacher's ability
to teach writing.
Is a teacher's ability to teach
writing represented in student writing? My answer to that question is "No,
and Yes." Sometimes I think that it would be really nice if teaching were
a one-way street -- I teach and the students automatically learn. But it
doesn't happen that way. The students have to do the learning part -- and
not all of them are willing and/or prepared to do so. There are, I know,
a number of reasons for students' unwillingness. Some of them have family,
medical, social problems, etc. But the one reason that really frustrates
me is that most students have come to know that even if they do not try,
they will still pass. These students are being cruelly cheated, for when
they get to college, or to a job, their expectations of social promotion
At the college level, previous
social promotion is probably the main reason for students who are simply
not prepared -- either psychologically, or in terms of basic skills. Most
of the college Freshmen who fail my course do so because they do not do
the work -- and by "work" I mean primarily five two-to-three page papers.
Many students are also not psychologically prepared for rejection or revision.
Twenty-some years ago, as a TA at Cornell, I had a student who wrote better
than I can. After class one day, I asked her if she could explain where
or how she learned to write so well. Her response, which I will never forget,
is that one of her high school teachers made her revise a paper seven,
yes SEVEN, times. She said that, by the sixth revision, she began to get
the idea. In most cases, I am lucky if I am able to tease/coerce three
revisions even from my best students.
Students' lack of basic
skills -- which should have been mastered in previous grades -- affects
the teaching ability of high school as well as college teachers. Although
many members of NCTE deride the teaching of grammar, spelling, etc., I
am convinced by the research and psychological theory that claims that
higher order thinking depends on making basic skills automatic. As much
and as often as I tell my students NOT to think about grammar and spelling
as they draft a paper, they still do. And when they do, questions
of spelling, grammar, etc. clog their "working memory," thereby causing
them to lose track of the global questions -- what they are trying to say.
The result is a weaker essay. Can the high school teacher be blamed for
that? ("Yes," to the extent that high school teachers don't scream for
a clearer curriculum and standards, but "no" in the context of the specific
As another example, at the college
level, I am not the only instructor who has stated that I would much prefer
to have students who have been taught the five-paragraph essay1.
Students who have been so taught have a basic sense of paragraphing, topic
sentences, and support sentences -- and they generally can build on that
knowledge to easily master the more complex concepts that I, for one, introduce.
Many members of NCTE deride the five-paragraph theme, claiming instead
to teach creativity, "flow" etc. And, unless their students are lucky enough
to get another teacher (a better teacher?), they get clobbered when they
get to college. And, when I say "clobbered," I don't mean primarily by
English teachers like me. Rather, they get clobbered when they have to
write papers for sociology, biology, plastics, math, etc.
Although I have
been explaining why a teacher's ability is not necessarily represented
in students' writing, implicit in my explanation is that it is. Clearly
that teacher (Bless her heart!) who made her student revise a paper seven
times had a tremendous visible affect on the student's writing. And the
only thing that keeps me in this profession is the fact that some students
regularly come back to me and say something like "I know you're demanding,
but don't change. When I had to write a paper for psych [or plastics, or
human services], the other students had real trouble organizing it, but,
because of what you made us do, I found it easy and got a good grade."
Teachers, including myself, cannot get through to all of our students,
but what we do certainly can be important.
Does that mean that good teachers
produce good writers? Good teachers help produce competent writers. My
best writing instructor was Bruce Chaddock, a fellow graduate student.
Even in graduate school, I still generally got B's and C's on papers. When
I mentioned it to him, he asked to see some of my papers. Having looked
through a few, he said that I never stated a thesis. I asked him what a
"thesis" is. (No one had ever taught me what a thesis is.) He sent me to
Sheridan Baker's book. I swear that, after reading Baker on thesis, I aced
almost every paper I wrote. Was my writing "good"? I doubt it, but it was
certainly much more competent.
If we turn this question around
a little bit and ask, should the effectiveness of a teacher be judged on
the basis of the quality of her or his students' writing, my answer, if
not already implicit, is basically "NO." The teachers' ability should
be evaluated in terms of what the teacher does in the classroom, the justifications
that the teacher can give, and the congruence between those justifications
and the expectations of the general public.
Promoting "creativity," by the
way, is not a justifiable objective. My aversion to this claim (made by
too many teachers) is probably the result of something I read about the
origin of the word. As I understand it, the verb "create" was originally
only predicated of God. ("God created the heavens and the earth.") Apparently,
it was not until the Renaissance that the word began to be used in relation
to the productions of people. Thus humans were raised to the level of God.
Now, we have teachers who think that they can create creativity. And, since
there is no way of measuring creativity, these teachers do not want to
be subject to standards or evaluations.
What justifications are valid
and congruent with the expectations of the general public? That is not
an easy question to answer, but if the NCTE would come down out of the
clouds, it is certainly possible to establish some. Properly taught, the
accordion essay1 should
probably be a standard beginning no later than tenth grade. By "properly
taught," I simply mean that it is ONE (not the only) way to organize an
essay. Why couldn't every student, beginning in tenth grade, be expected
to write at least one essay, organized on the accordion principle each
year? Those essays could become part of the student's portfolio, and students
could also be expected to write at least one such in-class essay each year,
also to become part of the portfolio. Those teachers who object to this
are simply being irresponsible.
Question: "What do you think about
writing assessment in relation to the Bell Curve (the book
as well as bell curves in general)?"
Although I have the book and
am familiar with some of the controversy surrounding it, I have not yet
read it. In browsing through it to answer this question, I did not find
anything specifically related to "writing assessment" in either the table
of contents or the index. I did note that the authors claim that IQ might
partially be genetic. But they also specifically claim that it is partially
cultural. As they, I believe, state, the experts themselves are not in
agreement. Not being an expert, I don't know. I am, however, of the opinion
that the question is not really relevant to the teaching of writing. The
IQ range goes from what -- idiot to genius? I share the opinion of Art
Whimbey -- that IQ can be taught. We cannot, obviously, teach everyone
to be a genius; nor, from what I understand, can we improve the IQ of people
born with certain birth defects. But we probably can, regardless of race
or culture, improve the IQ of most people in the middle and low range.
Aren't many IQ questions matters of recognizing patterns (same/different;
A is to B, as C is to D)? Consciously recognizing patterns, especially
in abstractions, is not a "natural" learning process. (See the next question.)
We can, I would suggest, regardless of race or culture, help students learn
to look for and recognize such patterns.
More specifically related to
writing, it does not take a genius to write an accordion essay, or to understand
a thesis statement or a topic sentence. It does take some instruction --
and some practice. Here again I believe that those teachers who refuse
to teach such things are being irresponsible. Accordion essay, thesis,
topic sentence -- these are basic patterns. They are, in a sense, "abstract
forms." As such, they are not usually learned, or even perceived "naturally,"
i.e., without instruction. One of the epiphanic moments in my life occurred
when I was teaching at Shenandoah University. When two students from the
Conservatory came to see one of my colleagues, I happened to be sitting
in the outer office where I overheard their conversation while they waited
for their instructor. The two were literally luxuriating in this new idea
they were learning in Music Theory -- the idea of musical form2.
I could not, of course, understand the details of their conversation, but
it was quite clear that the concept of musical form had not only deepened
their appreciation of music, but had also opened for them entirely new
perspectives on what music could do. Unfortunately, in the teaching of
English, many of our colleagues look at instruction in "forms" as straight-jacketing
and limiting. If this doesn't imply anything about the abilities of our
colleagues, it certainly implies a lot about our colleagues' opinions of
Having very ineptly stumbled
through comments about the book, I can now turn to the question of the
bell curve in general. Here, I feel much more comfortable. Bell curves
happen. I'm not thrilled about them, but there is not a lot I can do about
it. Here again, however, we need to make some distinctions -- bell curves
reflecting what? Course grades pose a different question than that of grades
on specific assignments. Because they involve some sort of average of individual
grades, because they are longer term, and because they are influenced by
such things as long-term student motivation, prior education, family problems,
etc., course grades tend to fall on a bell curve.3
I have learned to live with that, and with the fact that some students,
no matter how hard I try to encourage them, are happy with a D in the course.
Furthest from course grades
are the grades for short quizzes. Here I strive for, and usually get, not
a bell, but a "U" or a "W" -- with a little leg in the middle. One of the
early assignments in my ENL 111 course, for example, is that students are
to be able to name the two things that Art Whimbey claims distinguish "strong"
from "weak" students. This assignment is entirely on the weekly assignment
sheet either for week one, or for week
two. [I have provided links to both because it moves back and forth
between the weeks, depending on the academic calendar.] Last semester one
student frantically ran in to see me, worried that she couldn't find the
material she was supposed to study. She couldn't believe that that little
bit was all that I wanted her to do. Although a few students manage to
give me only "analyze" or "details" (and thus get a fifty), most students
give neither, or easily give me both.
Another example of the "U" curve
involves the quizzes I give in my Intro to Lit course. The quizzes on poetry,
for example, raise an interesting question. When we get to poetry, I tell
students that I expect them to look up any words that they do not know.
They are, after all, dealing with less than a page of reading, and it is
rather difficult to understand a poem if one does not understand the words.
They may write the meanings in their notes or in their books, and they
can use their notes and books during the quiz. They are forewarned that
vocabulary normally counts for 80% of a quiz grade. There are usually two
other questions -- one for 10% that is rather general, and the other (also
for 10%) that requires some thought. When I started doing this, I was amazed
when half the class (sometimes more) didn't look up the words. They account
for the left leg of the "U." As a general rule, they cannot get the two
ten point questions because they cannot understand the poem because they
did not look up the words. The students who do look up the words usually
get at least the first ten point question, thereby earning an A. To return
to the "interesting question" that I left hanging -- should a college instructor
expect students to look up the words they don't know (in a one-page poem)
or should he expect to have to explain ALL of the words in the poem in
class before having the class discuss what the poem might mean? [Note that
the instructor would have to discuss ALL of the words for the simple reason
that different students do not know different words. (Asking students which
words they do not understand does not work. I've tried.]
The bell curve, however, no
matter how hard I try, reappears in the course quiz averages. Some students
are always prepared; most are usually prepared; too many are never prepared.
The grades, however, do not primarily reflect intelligence (or IQ); rather
they reflect previous education and/or simple effort on the students' part.
Between the course grades and
the quiz grades come the grades on major writing assignments. Here too
I don't like the bell curve but I get it. This brings us, however, to the
question of writing assessment -- the last question. Here I will simply
say that I try to design the assignments such that every student can get
an A. If every student earned those A's for a course A average, I would
have not the slightest hesitation in handing in all A's for course grades.
In other words, I do not believe in the bell curve as the guiding principle
for grading. Unfortunately, the grades I turn in usually have more D's,
F's, and W's than A's. I attribute that not to lack of intelligence in
our students, but rather to their poor previous schooling. Social promotion
and the lack of clear standards have not prepared students for the fact
that, at some point in their lives, they will be held responsible. I realize
that some of my colleagues (especially in NCTE) will not only disagree
but even condemn me. Almost all of my course materials,
all of my major paper assignments, even sets of graded
essays are here on this web site. I invite -- I seek -- specific criticism.
it to me!
Question: "I also found myself
wondering what you mean by ideology. What is ideology and how does it relate
to writing and writing assessment?"
Although I have thought in this
term before, I used it because Hirsch explains it in great detail in the
book I just read, The Schools We Need.
Because Hirsch describes it so well, I will only attempt to summarize,
adding, of course, my own inescapable twist. Hirsch traces the reigning
educational philosophy back to the Romantics and especially to Rousseau.
I disagree with Hirsch about the "guilt" of Rousseau, but he is undoubtedly
right about the effect of Rousseau's ideas. Basically, Rousseau argued
that education should be "natural." Children, he claimed, do not need to
study "books." Book facts are not important. The Classics and ancient civilizations
are not important. If we want students to learn about trees, then we should
take them out into the forests. Hirsch traces, and I think correctly, most
of the current educationist doctrines back to these ideas of Rousseau.
Books are not important. Facts are not important. Children will learn "naturally."
Children are flowers which, if they are not stifled by education in culture,
will naturally blossom.
Hirsch is unfair, however, in
that he fails to adequately consider Rousseau within the context of his
own time. O.K. Rousseau was an extremist. But he was a Romantic, reacting
against a Neo-Classical culture which had probably over-emphasized the
importance of Classical learning. And even more important (if I remember
correctly), Rousseau was writing to an upper middle, and high class audience.
He was not interested in the education of the local farmer. Rather, he
was describing situations in which children, if they did not have an individual,
constant, well-educated tutor, had at minimum a constant, well-educated
family tutor. The teacher/student ratio, in other words, was extremely
high. And a large part of that tutor's job was to lead his students into
the study of books, math, etc.
But if Hirsch is unfair to Rousseau,
current educationist ideology acts as a pimp and makes him a prostitute.
I don't remember Hirsch making a distinction between a philosophy and an
ideology, but I would say that an ideology is a philosophy that has been
torn from its roots10.
The dominant educational ideas all have their roots in Rousseau -- we must
be concerned with the "whole" child. Memorization (and facts) are not important.
Children will learn naturally. But they have been taken to extremes and,
even more importantly, shorn from Rousseau's culture. Has there ever been
a decent teacher who didn't care about the "whole" child? But as Hirsch
repeatedly points out, in a classroom of twenty or more students, individual
attention to one necessarily entails neglect of the others. Teachers, moreover,
are not gods.
The title page of Jacques Barzun's
Here states, "To remove ignorance is the sole duty of the school."
Many of us would argue that the schools, having failed to do that, have
attempted to move into areas of health (mental and physical), family and
religious values, social services, etc., all of which they they use as
excuses for why students don't learn. As one teacher recently said on NCTE-Talk,
how can I expect my students to learn when they have to worry about violence
in schools. But the logic here is baffling. We have a teacher providing
an excuse -- for students in general without any evidence of a specific
problem. Now if this teacher is correct, and we can't even expect the students
to learn, then let's shut the school down, turn it into a daycare center
for students of all ages, and provide more security -- all at less public
expense. [Please note that I am not saying that there are not problems
with security, etc. But I am saying that they should not be the problem
of teachers and that for teachers to use these problems as excuses for
even expecting students to learn is inexcusable. Yet I see this
attitude far too often, and I have to wonder if it is a red herring --
"Don't blame me; blame the problems of the students."]
Current educationist ideology
has shorn Rousseau from his roots in still another, perhaps more important
way. Rousseau did not live in the Information Age. The students with whom
he was concerned probably could have learned much of what they needed to
know naturally. They were not daily bombarded with statistics claiming
to show that this or that product or action will help them live longer.
They did not have to worry about a far-away conflict between, for example,
Pakistan and India, resulting in a nuclear war that could destroy them.
They did not have to worry about whether or not the Social Security Trust
Fund would still exist when they retired. And, because governments, although
powerful, were much less so than today, they did not have to worry about
whether gun control laws, as just one example, were trampling on the rights
of citizens. Because they did not need to worry about these things, they
had no reason to write about them. Everything of importance that affected
their lives was relatively local. But such is not the case today.
Today, a "natural" education
is not enough. Rousseau may have idolized the local farmer, but he really
didn't care about his education -- or his rights. Today, we claim
to care about the rights of everyone. But can all Americans be truthfully
said to have rights if 75% of them do not even know what the Bill
of Rights is? Can they be said to have rights if millions of them
are unable to write even a simple accordion essay in which to explain what
is bothering them and why? Good expository writing is not a "natural" development.
Its forms and structures have been developed by civilizations over many
centuries. (Walter J. Ong, S.J. explains this nicely in his Orality
and Literacy.) The common claim of the educationist ideology that students
will simply learn to write by writing is fallacious.
A full description of that ideology,
however, has to go beyond the fact that it has cut Rousseau from his roots
and used his ideas to sell its own values. A philosophy is nourished by
its roots in its culture. Cut off from those roots, it has no means to
grow, to adapt, or to justifiably defend itself. It therefore turns to
the unjustifiable. As Hirsch notes, it turns to an "us" against "them,"
good guy/bad guy, either/or mentality. It turns to ad hominem
attacks, and to the rhetoric of religion. It was that mentality and that
rhetoric that I was objecting to when I posted the message that evoked
these questions. And that same mentality and rhetoric appeared in some
of the responses.
I objected to what appeared
to me to be an all or nothing (more specifically, nothing) attack on standardized
testing. The suggestion, even if offered as a joke, that NCTE members should
meet at the convention, find the stand of a commercial publisher of such
tests, and collectively barf on it is not only unprofessional, but also
immature. It is possible that I missed it, but I do not remember ANY discussion
of specific problems on specific tests published by that or any other company.
I remember the thread as beginning with the ideas that NCTE has passed
resolutions against standardized testing, that company sells standardized
tests, therefore we want them banned from the convention. (Note the lack
of respect for freedom of speech.) I also objected to the silly claim that
"FairTest.org" is totally against standardized testing. And I pointed to
the "logic" of the person who was absolutely sure that research shows no
connection between grammar exercises and improvement in writing. But he
was begging for the research to support his belief so that he could convince
his local school board. (This is typical of an ideology -- believe first,
then find the proof.) And I objected to the holier-than-thou (religious)
tone of many posts, particularly those which scorned requests for help
in teaching such things as grammar and outlining. Yes, I named names and
referred to specific posts. If I make a claim, I ought to be able to offer
specific evidence to support it.
What have I received thus far
in response? There have certainly been some that are supportive, the one
that posed these questions being the most interesting and challenging.
But I have also been, as I expected to be, subject to personal attack (accused
of "whining"). And I have been accused, because I used specific examples,
of making personal attacks. The inability to distinguish between using
a person's acts as a specific example of a type of behavior and attacking
that person (ad hominem) may be characteristic of the ideological,
"us against them" mentality. I did get an admission that FairTest
is, in fact, FairTest and not "NoTest," but the substance of most
of my objections have been totally ignored (for the simple reason that
they have no substantive response?).
Most interesting and illustrative,
of course, was the response from a prominent member of NCTE who literally
framed the question in religious terms! All standardized testing is an
"abomination." Evidence and details be damned! Credo! That is an ideology.
Question: "And finally, I was wondering
if you think that writing assessment should be a collaborative process?"
Oooh, life is so complex. I've
been writing, more or less straight through, since 7:30 last night, and
it is now 5:30 in the morning. This question will have to wait until after
I get some sleep. [The preceding (I've slept.) was not a complaint about
the questions; rather, it was a complaint about my own inadequacies in
responding to them. As for the questions, I want to thank you sincerely
for asking them. Among others, Charles
Sykes and Parker Palmer
claim that one of the major problems in education is that "professors"4
(like me) are aware of the problems but say and do nothing. Whether I am
right or wrong is for readers to decide, but at least I am beginning to
speak up. I therefore thank you for the specific opportunity.]
Should writing assessment
be a collaborative process? Definitely. But what does that mean? In some
team-taught courses, both instructors read and grade papers, the final
grade being the average of the two. This is collaborative -- and clearly
beneficial to the students because they get two views instead of one. The
subjectivity of most writing assessment is the dirtiest laundry of our
profession. I can't even pull it all out of the hamper here, so I'll have
to limit myself to framing out the subject (setting up the piles?) and
discussing a few specific examples.
Although we usually do not think
of it in this way, explaining the assignment is part of collaboration in
assessment. If we want to know if students can do X, we need to be sure
that students know that they are expected to do X. Far too many assignments
are simple short statements such as "Write a paper about _____." Many instructors
claim that this enables the students to be creative, but what it really
enables is the instructor's subjectivity in grading. Assignments should
be explained in detail, with models provided, if possible. I'm also a firm
proponent of detailed rubrics, which should be explained to students before
they begin work on the assignment.
My belief in detailed rubrics
probably results from my own education. As I stated previously, I generally
earned C's on papers until I was told that I should have a thesis. If someone,
in grading my papers, had used a rubric on which I lost points for thesis,
I would have at least had the opportunity to know what my problem was.
Having used myself as a personal example, I will again be accused of "whining,"
so let me restate the point -- fair assessment cannot possibly occur without
clear understanding between students and assessors about what is expected.
Rubrics that specifically denote the relative point value of each category
also help students see what is most important.
Such rubrics are not easy to
create. In my Freshman Composition course, each of the five papers includes
a six page rubric5. The
page is a summary, with links to separate pages for Audience,
and Style. In addition to an assignment
sheet (which, if I have them, includes links to models), each assignment
also has a checklist which, among
other things6, students
can use to follow the writing process. I am not satisfied with the relative
point values in the rubrics, and one of the reasons I like having them
on the web is that I invite anyone who is interested (including people
like you) to send me suggestions for improving them. This is, in my mind,
another form of collaboration.
My rubrics include style
penalty points and "hostage fifties." The
penalty points are simply one point, marked in the margin next to the sentence
with the error, for such things as comma splices, run-ons, etc. In my ENL
111 course, where we deal with sentence structure, students can earn these
points back by analyzing the relevant sentence and correcting the error.
Hostage fifties can be released by hand writing the appropriate sentences
the indicated number of times. Although we could discuss the details of
both of these, I would like to explore the philosophy behind them. I can
remember, when I described them on the NCTE-Talk a long time ago, being
called a "barbarian."
In the post that evoked these
questions, I briefly described Miles Myers' silly statement that it is
impossible to set objective standards for second graders. As an example
of its silliness, I used as an example a discussion with a colleague (a
professor of psychology). In that discussion, I had used the example of
capitalizing the first word of sentences. My colleague's response was "Of
course it is possible. All we have to do is to tell the students that if
they don't use capital letters properly, they can't go out to play during
My example evoked two things.
First, it evoked the admission that it is possible. Second, it evoked a
tirade about Taylor and turning students into machines. In responding to
that tirade, I referred to Wayne
Booth's "Is There Any Knowledge That a Man Must Have?" It had been
a while since I read it, and I misrepresented it, so I would like to clarify
it here. Booth addresses his question by offering "four notions of man,
three of them metaphorical, only one literal." He explores each as attitudes
that teachers take toward their students. The first metaphor is man as
machine. As Booth explains it, "the educational task for those who think
of man under this metaphor is to program the mechanism so that it will
produce the results that we have foreordained." (295) This fits, of course,
with my objector's references to Taylor. Booth's second metaphor is man
as animal, specifically rat. Here he gets into the questions of stimulus-response
conditioning, which was also thrown in my face by my objector. Booth's
third metaphor is the ant-hill -- training students to perform their specific
roles in society. (I was not accused of this.) In discussing these three
metaphors, Booth demonstrates that man is, in fact each of them -- and
therefore man can be taught in each of the three ways. Obviously unsatisfied,
Booth then turns to his fourth -- literal -- notion, and asks: "Is there
any part of the educational task that is demanded of us by virtue of our
claim to educate this curious entity, this person that cannot be reduced
to mechanism or animality alone?" (303, my emphasis).
Now, if we compare Booth's concept of man
with that of my objector, what we find is that the objector has literally
reduced the concept of man to that of machine and rat! Don't dare use
SR conditioning to teach, or else you will kill the individuality
of the person! That belief, however, is valid only if we define humans
as being ONLY machines or rats. I have discussed this example in such detail
because it is illustrative of the current dominant educational ideology.
Although the adherents of this ideology love to make claims about the importance
of the individual, they actually have a very limited notion of what a human
There is, however, still another
aspect of my objector's ideology that requires serious consideration. Having
given me a lesson in SR conditioning and having berated me for suggesting
using it to teach students to capitalize the first word in a sentence,
he asked who gives a damn. This is a specific example of the entire anti-grammar,
anti-mechanics attitude of much of the NCTE elite. "Who gives a damn?"
Well, I do, for one. I could go into all the details about how errors in
mechanics and grammar affect both the ability to write and the reader's
ability to read what was written. (And those are my actual areas of expertise,
if I have any.) But here I want to address the question in much more practical
terms. I care because the world cares.
We regularly hear that businesses
spend millions of dollars each year for basic training in reading and writing.
Much of that money goes to improving these simple mechanical and grammatical
skills. A student told me that she got her job because of her predecessor's
problems with basic grammatical errors in his writing. If I say that I
can name specific professors in biology, psychology, and social services
who specifically deduct points for grammatical errors, I will be accused
of giving personal, anecdotal evidence. So I'll say, "Ask around." Such
grading is common knowledge -- and that doesn't count all the professors
who, although they don't make specific deductions, take grammar and mechanics
into consideration in their grading. Thus an A becomes a B, or a D, an
F. That the students suffer, we are told, is not the fault of the educational
ideologists and English educators. They really care! The fault is with
all those other professors -- and with the world in general. They all have
to be taught that grammar and mechanics are not important. (Infuriating
isn't it? The arrogance. But it is all part of the ideology.)
Revising the rubrics is interesting
because it forces me to think, very specifically, about what I expect from
students. How much, in a "wholistic" assessment, is an introductory paragraph
worth? Some instructors have told me that they do not like such specific
rubrics because they impede "wholistic" assessment. From my perspective
that is simply an excuse to hide their laziness and/or subjectivity. It's
not fair to students. In relation to the question about whether or not
"the ability to teach writing is represented in student writing," I implied
that it is not fair to judge the teacher by the quality of the students'
writing. But it is certainly fair to judge a teacher by the assignments
given, the rubrics used to grade those assignments, the explanation of
those rubrics, etc.
I can already hear many
members of our profession screaming, but rubrics could also be collaboratively
as part of a "national," "standardized" assessment. Suppose, for example,
that every ninth grade student was required to write a narrative paper
that would count as ten percent of the course grade. Ten percent of the
grade for that paper would be based on the existence (not quality) of one
paragraph (at least five or six sentences) which described the place where
part of the narrative action occurred. Another six points (three each)
would be based on the existence of two instances of quoted speech. The
remaining eighty-four points of the rubric could be left to the discretion
of the teacher (or part of it could be determined by the department within
the specific school). The papers would become part of the students' portfolios,
and teachers could be evaluated in terms of whether or not they used and
fairly evaluated this part of the rubric.
I forehear screams -- "infringement
of teachers' rights in the classroom." And I foresee all kinds of excuses
about why this wouldn't work. But they are all irresponsible. My suggestion
is a minimal requirement, easily applicable to almost any narrative assignment.
And it would assure that every students' attention, at one point in their
education, was focussed on the question of spatial description in narrative
and on "showing" rather than "telling." It surprised me, when I first had
specifically narrative essays as one of my assignments, how many of them
included neither any description of where the action took place nor any
quoted speech. Did I really have to teach this at the college level? When
I first heard that NCTE and the IRA were working on standards, I thought
that this was the kind of thing they were working on. Instead, they produced
a bunch of vague educationist mumbo-jumbo.
Rubrics, of course, are only
one method of collaborative assessment. Among the others, I am strongly
in favor of exit exams in writing courses -- exams that are evaluated by
someone other than the teacher of the course. If we look at college Freshman
composition, for example, the actual content and emphasis of the
course ranges widely: some teachers emphasize grammar; others, creative
writing; others, library research skills. Some instructors do almost no
work on organizing and outlining; others make it the primary focus of the
course. But the course is a college requirement because the rest of the
university is assuming that students in it are getting some specific writing
skills. We all know that this is not happening.
And then there is the question
of grading -- and it goes beyond the question of mere subjectivity. One
of the innovative trends is a "process" approach in which students write
a draft. The instructor makes comments and suggestions on it. The students
revise; the instructor comments. This "process" may be repeated two to
five times on a single assignment, much of the "work" taking place in class.
Then the paper is graded. Is it any surprise that the grades are high and
the students are happy? In most cases the instructors are, in effect, grading
their own writing! And in those cases where they are not, they often grade
for effort rather than performance8.
Exit exams, although not a panacea, would certainly result in both a more
consistent course across sections, and a fairer assessment.
Lacking exit-exams, mandatory
norming sessions are an excellent idea. Many faculty members resist this
idea, claiming either that such sessions are useless or that they are an
infringement of an instructor's academic freedom. To me, these are just
irresponsible excuses. Hirsch discusses such sessions, along the way describing
some experiments in which the same papers received five different grades
from different instructors. Although norming sessions at places such as
ETS are meant to force evaluators into the same set of criteria, intradepartmental
sessions need not have this aim. If ten instructors grade and discuss their
grades on three papers, the instructors who gave the extreme high and low
grades will have the natural human tendency to at least consider moving
toward the center.
I don't want to leave the question
of collaborative assessment without at least mentioning the question of
the student writers as partial assessors. Students' suggestions have been
worked into my rubrics, but I'm thinking of more than that. I have, at
times, had students' evaluations of each others' papers count for 10% of
the rubric. This means, of course, that students have to have access to
each others' papers, preferably anonymously -- which is never possible
because they discuss the papers among themselves. The main drawback, however,
is the time consumed in calculating the grades, but computers can make
this easier. The other primary drawback is the students' tendency to want
to give everyone else full credit. This can be surmounted by allowing the
students to award only a limited number of total points. Suppose, for example,
that each student will read ten papers for ten percent of the grade. If
the student can only award 80 points, then not every paper can get full
credit. My guess is that too many students would simply award eight points
to each paper. Still, it's an interesting idea. I might try it in my Introduction
to Literature course, for a category called "originality."9
But first I'll have to discuss the idea with the class. And let them vote
In spite of the length of this
response, I'm sure that I did not answer your questions adequately, but
I want to thank you again for the honor implied in the request. If there
is anything you would like clarified, please e-mail
me, and I will either revise or add to my response.
1. Actually, the "accordion" essay is
better. The term was used and explained by someone on NCTE-Talk. Unfortunately
I can't give credit because I can't remember who the person was. The (valid)
objection to the five-paragraph theme is that not all topics easily or
naturally fall into three subdivisions. The "accordion" essay simply lets
students use two to six (or more) paragraphs to support their thesis.
2. For some idea of what these students
were experiencing, I strongly suggest that, if you can get your hands on
them, you listen to Leonard Bernstein's Harvard Lectures, Whither
Music? In this series of taped lectures, Bernstein gives a brilliant
interdisciplinary presentation of music history and theory. I say "interdisciplinary"
because, among other things, Bernstein explicates Mozart's 40th Symphony
in comprehensible terms of transformational grammar!
3. Although there are disadvantages, I
have opted to be one of those instructors who enable students to always
be aware of where they stand in the course. The grade distributions for
my ENL 111 and ENL
121 syllabi are comparatively specific, such that students with the
ability to calculate weighted averages can usually calculate their average
to date on their own. If students opt to keep study
logs, they get the logs back each week with their current grade-to-date
on it. Should students opt to do neither of the above, I will discuss their
grades with them, but only at two times during the semester -- just before
the last day to withdraw, and just before the final paper. One of the disadvantages
of this approach is that I occasionally have a student who was running
an A or a B not hand in the final paper. On those occasions in which I
have been able to discuss this with the student, I have usually found out
that the student decided to take the B (or C) in my course in order to
devote more time to a course which he was failing. I am very disturbed,
I would like to note, by at least two cases in which students who had part
time jobs and wanted to work twenty hours were forced to work 32 (just
short of full time -- and benefits?) or lose their jobs. One student opted
to give up the job; the other couldn't and we arranged an incomplete. There
are, I am sure, similar cases in which students are forced to hand in less-than-their-best
4. The quotation marks are there because
I am only an Associate.
5. I have used the rubric for the first
major paper for my specific example. The rubrics for each of the papers
can be most easily reached from the ENL 111
Main Course Page. Most of the items on the different rubrics are the
same except for differences in emphasis or adjustments for the nature of
the assignment. The rubrics for my ENL 121
Introduction to Literature Course are shorter. Having the assignments
on the web, and teaching in a classroom in which I can access the web and
project it on a screen, I am able to explain the rubric in class. I usually
spend at least one full class period going over the rubric for the first
paper. For later papers, I usually discuss items that have changed and
invite questions about any of the others.
6. The penalty points on the checklist
originated many years ago when a colleague in another discipline asked
me why I didn't teach students to include titles on their papers. I did
teach; the students didn't listen. What could I do? I decided to impose
a ten-point penalty on papers that did not have titles. The problem, with
VERY few exceptions, has disappeared. (I have more to say about this SR
conditioning later in the text.) The penalty points for the other items
originated because, in spite of our teaching the process, many students
don't practice it. The penalty points pushed them in the direction of at
least making an attempt. Since then, I have found these penalties very
helpful in dealing with plagiarism. Students can easily pull papers from
the web (or from other students) and hand them in as their own. It is not
as easy however, to find papers with the accompanying storming, outline,
revised draft, etc. I still get some papers handed in without all these
things, but the penalties automatically reduce the grade to an F so I do
not have to spend time attempting to prove plagiarism.
7. In the Intro to Lit course, in which
we do not deal with sentence structure, students simply have to correct
the error. They can do so on their own, go to the Tutoring Center for help,
or come to get help from me.
8. Although I have never used this approach
with an entire class, I frequently find myself in a similar situation when
students who are having problems come to me for help. If my suggestions
are too general, the students often don't understand. If I make them very
specific, using, for example, one paragraph in the student's paper as an
example, then the student returns with my suggested embodied in the paper
for that paragraph, but not not carried across the other paragraphs. In
a few cases, the students make substantive changes that result in a paper
that is worse than their original. They don't understand. But, because
of the interpersonal contact, because the students are obviously trying,
it is very difficult to remain objective (even with specific rubrics) and
grade the paper rather than the "effort." But is that ultimately fair,
either to the student who receives a passing grade without the skills that
the grade should represent, or to the other students who have those skills?
9. For the reasons stated in the text,
I wouldn't call it "creativity," but if I did want to evaluate for something
such as "creativity," I think a group judgment such as this would be the
only fair way to do it.
10. Life is not only complex (See later
in the text.), it is also weird. Having given this response as much time
as I could, (and having slept more -- and having spent some time with my
sportscards), I return to my reading of Wole Soyinka's Myth,
Literature and the African World. I found that I had finished
Chapter Two, and was about to begin Three, "Ideology and the Social Vision
(1) The religious factor." The chapter begins, "Asked recently whether
or not I accepted the necessity for a literary ideology ...." Soyinka does
not like ideologies:
Thanks to the tendency of the modern consumer-mind
to facilitate digestion by putting in strict categories what are essentially
fluid operations of the creative mind upon social and natural phenomena,
the formulation of a literary ideology tends to congeal sooner or later
into instant capsules which, administered also to the writer, may end by
asphixiating the creative process. Such a methodology of assessment does
not permit a non-prejudicial probing of the capsule itself, at least not
by the literature which brings it into being or which it later brings into
being. Probing, if there is any, is an incestuous activity on its own,
at least until the fabrication of a rival concept. It is easy to see that
this process can only develop into that in-breeding which offers little
objective enlightenment about its nature, since its idiom and concepts
are not freed from the ideology itself. When the reigning ideology fails
finally to retain its false comprehensive adequacy, it is discarded. A
new set, inviolable mould is fabricated to contain the current body of
literature or to stimulate the next along predetermined patterns. (61-62)
In the teaching of English, the "capsules" of current eduationist
ideology are phrases such as "eliminate standardized testing," "teaching
grammar is ineffective," etc. Another is the educationists' antipathy,
frequently seen on NCTE-Talk, against the literary "canon." Soyinka has
given me a new perspective on the educationists' prejudice against that
canon. As the storehouse of the best from all ages, the canon inescapably
includes the major works from many past ideologies. People who read these
works are much more likely to see the inadequacies of the current educationist
ideology. I find this particularly interesting because I am reading Soyinka
because the book is in Bloom's canon
-- you know, that list of works by dead white males. I have not been able
to tell from the notes or text if Soyinka is male or female, but the book