Chapter VI

Students Talk:
Validity and the Interactive Educative Experience

Up until the latter part of November, our students had never met one another face- to-face as the one, unitary class that they actually had been throughout the semester in the electronic VAX environment. Although a number of them had formed friendships, or had at least developed curiosities that prompted them to arrange meetings outside of class on their own time, the whole group had never sat down together in the same physical space along with their teachers. Bob and I thought that it would be an enlightening experience, however, to arrange such a physical get-together as the end of the semester approached in order that we could all meet, unmask (if we so chose to do), and discuss the electronic experience we'd all been having. Thus, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving break, Bob canceled his regular class meeting and asked his students to meet my ENG students in one of the large lounges in the university's student center. A relaxed get-together accompanied by food and drink, we all participated in a deliberate reflective process, talking about the class and about whether or not we felt that what we'd been doing could be called a valid learning experience.

This chapter presents some of our comments, students' as well as teachers' extracted from an audio tape made of that meeting along with elaborations that may add to my readers' understanding from a theoretical standpoint. Because in most cases I am unable to identify the speaker's name by the sound of the voice that I have transcribed, I will refer to them merely by the appellation of "Student 1," "Student 2," Student 3," and so forth.

The first order of business was to allow everyone in the group to introduce himself or herself to the others. We asked only that each give her real name, then added that revealing one's pseudonymous VAX username was optional. For many, this would be the first opportunity they had to put faces and names together with the names of the mountains and rivers of the cyber-classmates they'd come to know so well over the past weeks.

Janet "Madeira"1 was the first to introduce herself, but only by her real name. Afterwards, she turned to the young man seated next to her and added "and this is Samuel." Of course, this meant little to the class in the context of their VAX experience, so Samuel chimed in "also known as Everest;" his addition drew a collective set of oohs and aahs from the group due to the fact that he'd been one of the most outspoken of the group in VAX conversation. Next, Ron introduced himself along with giving his username, Massif, followed by Tracey as Klamath, Meredith as Bhutan, James Lee as Paraguay, and Tom as Ganges. Then, we came to Mike who interrupted the flow of unmaskings by not revealing his username. A period of meaningful silence ensued while everyone waited to see if he would change his mind and supply the missing information. Finally, the silence was broken by friendly giggles and laughter as Mike held firm to his silence. "Anonymous!" someone in the group exclaimed.

All-in-all, the class pretty much unmasked itself with the exception of four students who obviously felt more comfortable protecting the identity of their cyberselves from exposure in the face-to-face environment indicating to me that these were perhaps students who would not have spoken out (or who would not have spoken out quite so honestly) in a traditional classroom where, for some reason, being seen is an impediment to participation.

Following introductions, Bob talked briefly about the notions of chaos and complexity in education in order to get the conversation started:

At the level of education, the implications of chaos or complexity theory deal mostly with the concept of recursions or iteration in which the individual looks back on himself or herself, and through this process of looking back a sense of value emerges. Here the curriculum becomes strongly imbued with experiential transformation wherein the individual realizes that there's less of a set product to be mastered. It's a reflective process more than a set of goals to be reached. . . . We are embarked on a new paradigm, one that is both scientific and spiritual, metaphorical and mystical, playful and serious.

The forms which educational institutions take at any given time are closely related to prevailing paradigms of knowledge and truth. For example, in an era in which religious views of truth prevailed, educational institutions not surprisingly had a distinctly religious orientation. In the 1800s, on the other hand, in the wake of the scientific and industrial revolutions, schools came more and more to resemble factories. People were educated en masse much in the same way as products were produced en masse. Educational methods and curricula were standardized in the same way as industrial methods were standardized. So, if the idea of knowledge and truth changes, then most likely schools will change too, partly because schools are the institutions that deal with knowledge. The important thing for us to remember is that we are now in the midst of major change.

American society is now involved in both a long-wave and a short-wave change. On the long-wave side, we're continually involved in a shift from looking at things from a religious perspective to a scientific perspective. That's a Long-wave story going back to Galileo who tried to convince the Pope that one could do science and religion at the same time. A shorter wave change is the move from doing science in a modern way to a postmodern way. The modern way is aligned more with the factory model of school, while the postmodern way deals with information and learning more on a personal level. In the factory model of science, knowledge is "broadcast," while in the postmodern model, it is "distributed." And right now, we're right in the middle of these changes, therefore we should be seeing changes in school. Luckily, we have this class, this merging of ENG102 and ELC381 which very much reflects this shift from a linear and mechanistic world view which can be a broadcast truth (Newton, for example, viewed the world/universe as a machine), to a complex world view that allows room for chaos and the kind of structure that may arise from chaos, especially when people work together with emerging order in a distributive sense. This is all very new, though, and there are not now constructs of validity in place that would easily help us define that an educational model built on complexity/chaos is a valid or valuable learning experience. There may very well be people in this class who, when all is said and done, will not feel that ENG102 and ELC381 was a valid learning experience in terms of education. They may feel that it was not real education because Beth and I did not "deliver the goods" (broadcast) as one would according to the factory model of school. Instead, we worked with the logic of interactivity, one that is not associated with the factory model.

We expect there to be healthy differences of opinions, then, about whether or not this class was valid and about what real education actually is. We hope that one of the things that arises from this is a thinking through of these issues as students, student- educators, future educators, and citizens. The most important part of this new paradigm is that disagreement is accepted and welcomed because both of these are part and parcel of conversational interactivity.

Finally, I ask, is this approach valid? Beth and I think this is an interesting question because one of the things that happens when change occurs is that the tools of understanding and knowledge-making also change, therefore validity constructs must also change. This may be a valid experience depending on what index of validity you use. If your index is linear, built on the factory-model of the broadcast, then what we have done may not appear valid. If your index is complex, what we have done may appear quite valid. What we've aimed for in this class is a complex form rather than a linear one. Our pedagogy has been over-full with options for conversation and for interactive learning, a kind of learning where the responsibility for knowledge production is distributed equally between us. Whether or not you see this experience as having been valid depends upon what your own validity construct happens to be and that's accessible to your own self-reflection.

To Bob's preamble, I added:

We're looking to complexity and these kinds of ideas to form a new way of looking at this class and others like it, those which introduce the kinds of chaos in which we've found ourselves immersed from time to time, in order to determine valid ways of looking at what we've done. How are we going to use our validity index to see some kind of order emerging from the chaos? Is there any kind of order emerging from this system, this class?

The discussion then begins when Student 1 comments:

The way you conducted class, I didn't think there was too much chaotic about it. I know that in the beginning, some of us balked at what was going on simply because it was different, but it didn't seem chaotic. You more or less led a seminar and we've had a lot of great discussions; a lot of information's been bantered back and forth; everybody brought something in.

This student's comment illustrates the point I made in the last chapter. Simply introducing chaos into a classroom system does not necessarily mean that students will flounder around lost in confusion for the entire semester. What we are trying to get at when using conversational pedagogies is the kind of chaos that can also be seen as complexity rather than meaningless confusion. As this student notes, the class seemed different and that difference may have caused initial dissent, but before too long we were having good conversations, were sharing stories and "information," and that most everyone was participating meaningfully by bringing something in, by making contributions. Shotter has maintained, as I have noted, that conversation, when viewed in a linear way, is a chaotic thing, a hurley-burley thing, but yet it is the natural ambiance of human life and, thus, students in a conversational environment are less likely to experience the ambiance as meaningless confusion.

Student 2:

I think you do have to remember that initially there were a lot of chaotic moments because we didn't really know what you expected. During those first days of the semester we were coming into brand new situations with brand new peers, and we had brand new professors standing up telling us "here's what you have to read, here's how much you have to write, here's what's going to be on the exam" -- the normal stuff right down to the letter. In this class, you didn't do that; there was less direction. It did seem chaotic to me. But in about two or three weeks, I started noticing that a lot of the notes that I wrote down were starting to be comments being made by other students in the class rather than by you teachers. It's then that the chaos started to balance out. I might write something down that someone in this class said, put it in a report and then cite her. I saw the comments of others as being valid.

As this student has learned, a conversational class is a much more democratic arrangement than is the traditional class. Yes, we'd disrupted the normal expectations ("here's what you read, what you write, what you learn for the exam") and that disruption felt chaotic simply because it was not business as usual. While we did share some readings in the traditional sense of the word, those readings were hardly the central reading task our students had to engage in. With the VAX conversation requirement, what they read a great deal more of was their own talk. Suddenly, these students started giving authority to comments and contributions made by other students, their authority was given equal footing with that of published writers working "conversationally" only in the metaphorical sense of the word. If Everest, for example, made a comment deemed noteworthy by his peers, why should they not write it down, use his comment in a report, cite him as an authority just as they would cite any published scholar, journalist, or teacher?

Gregory Clark claims that any text's true authority arises from an interactive process in which the text's claim is made public and is then subjected to critical scrutiny and response by the audience for which it was intended:

Although every [text] is essentially a claim to power in which one person attempts to determine for others what they will together believe and do, such claims, regardless of the strength with which they are made, have no authority until the people whose beliefs and actions they address respond with their consent. Indeed, the ethical problem inherent in every rhetorical statement is situated in the moment that separates its claim to power from that subsequent authorizing consent. . . . [W]hat is claimed is transformed into something real only when it is actualized in the authorizing response of the people it addresses. The ethical function of rhetoric, then, must be understood in terms of this relationship between power and authority in a community (59).

In traditional classes, the kind that Student 2 was entering into during the first days of the semester along with our conversational class, business as usual means that students read pre-authorized texts and "get the goods" from teachers who by their very position in the academy have been "pre-authorized" by a lot of other people with impressive positions and lots of letters behind their names. Seldom are students allowed to enter into a genuine discourse with those authorities. Even more seldom are they allowed to authorize one another as students. What happened in our class was something quite different. With the focus removed from teachers and authorized texts (although neither were absent), it shifted to conversational text generated in the electronic environment by students. Each and every claim was subjected to the scrutiny of the community of conversants who, in turn, authorized the claim or responded in a way that led to revision. Thus, when Student 2 found herself making notes based on the comments of her peers, she was authorizing a text, the claim made by one of her equals that had been subjected to public scrutiny and response.

Student 3 adds:

On one extreme, you could have a class where there really is chaos. The chaos is the unstructured, unpatterned parts, the parts where you can't see what's going on. But on the other extreme, you could have a class where order is imposed. There's a lot of predictability and you always know exactly what's going on. Then, you have what's in the middle where things are fuzzy. There's a complexity where the two meet and overlap. A lot has to do with control. In chaos, there is no control. In the order side, you can predict everything, but there's not room for diversity. In the middle where there's complexity, you have to let go of some of that control so that the order that is average throughout the group emerges and you kind of guide that emergent order and let it grow. That's the difference I see between these two extremes of classes, moving away from the factory model to the new model.

This student seems to have some feel for the difference between chaos as confusion and chaos as a complex system. Our class was on neither of the extremes that he mentions, but was rather in that middle zone, in the place of complexity where diversity is welcome and from which some kind of community sanctioned order emerges. Returning to Shotter's work, the kind of chaos we introduced in this class was primarily the chaos of conversation; we expected our students to arrive at a socially sanctioned meaning/knowledge (sanctioned by them, not by us nor by the authority of outside texts) by talking to one another over an extended period of time. This particular chaos was what Shotter calls "the everyday, disorderly, practical, self-other relationships constituting the usually unnoticed background to our lives [from which we] unknowingly construct between ourselves those orderly forms of (intralinguistic) relations I . . . called person-world relations" (35). Rather than chaos as confusion, we introduced chaos as complexity -- something quite natural. It follows, then, that students would just as naturally (and unknowingly) construct some kind of orderly form. In our class, we tried to do precisely what Student 3 observes: "guide that emergent order and let it grow."

Student 4 now chimes in, directly addressing the question about whether or not our class was "valid:"

I think that this class was valid because I had to create or generate my own knowledge in the course just like everyone else had to. I also had to adsorb information from others in the class, not just from my teachers who were throwing the information out. I think when knowledge is personal like this, when it's really coming from inside you, then it's already very meaningful so you're going to remember it. That's what's valid about it for me. I'm going to leave this class and I'm going to remember more than I normally would. I'll remember the controversial issues that we talked about more than I would if I'd just read them in a book or if the teacher had just told me what to think or what the issues are. The ideas are reinforced by others and by having to put them into your own words.

In many ways, this student is using remembering as an index of validity. What is remembered effortlessly and what can be applied to future life situations should indeed be a hallmark of valid learning because only those things we can recall when appropriate are useful to us a individuals and as members of a social community. In his work on reading, Frank Smith talks about comprehension and memory, noting that "the conditions that make [these things] fluent are meaningfulness, relevance, and personal involvement" (98). If "remembering" is a particularly valid index for this student, it is clear that her ability to remember has been impacted precisely by the conditions set forth by Smith as Student 4 herself notes. The knowing for her and for the entire community involved in the conversation project was personal. At all times they were encouraged to share personal narratives and to make connections between the more abstract ideas and issues we were dealing with and their own personal experiences. The knowing was meaningful, because it arose, as this student says, "from inside you" without promptings or direction from teachers. Additionally, because the forum for sharing was the conversational, social forum, the knowledge was made relevant simply due to the fact that it had its life within the context of talk that created it in the first place. It is quite likely true that this student, as well as her colleagues, will "remember" much of the knowledge they generated in this class and that they will find opportunities to apply it a some point in their future experience.

Student 5 offers an assent to her colleagues observations and adds:

I'd like to agree with what you said and point out that it's a process of learning. It's all been about learning how to learn. If you can learn how to learn then you can actually go teach others how to learn. You're not only creating your own knowledge in this class, but you're also living it, so it's making it more of a real experience. I was personally shocked, for example, to find that so many other people are creative thinkers like me. People aren't as much linear thinkers as I thought they were. As a person who'd been put down for being creative all the time, I feel validated to find out that not everyone is a linear thinker.

What's really happened for this student, I think, is that the messy process of making knowledge has been made visible to her. Always, we are creating our knowledge socially, interactively in our daily lives. This is less so in the traditional classroom because the traditional classroom generally involves a broadcast structure, or Freirian bank structure, in which students are told what to think and are told what constitutes knowledge. But, in this class, the social nature of meaning-making was made "rationally visible" as Shotter calls it. This student could suddenly see how meaning is made in conversation with others whereas most oral conversation is often lost in the moment and is not available for later critical review. Shotter says that "by making these disorderly moments [of conversation] rationally visible, by critically describing them from within the event itself, we can bring into view the character of the social negotiations, conflicts and struggles involved in the production, reproduction and transformation of our current social orders" (60). This disorderly, non-linear character is precisely what was brought into view for this student as well as for others. It's sad to think that so many years have passed for this young woman during which she has been made to feel enigmatic for being a "creative thinker," a non-linear thinker, when all along the simple truth is that all knowledge is in great respect created through non-linear processes.

Building on Student 5's comments about linear thinking and the construction of knowledge, Student 6 adds:

Einstein said that he was at his best when he just let his mind wander and then he'd take those wandering thoughts and organize them later to write his theories.

And Student 7 makes a general observation to the point:

That touches on something that's skipped over with the whole scientific method; the way that one formulates an hypothesis is a process that's tucked away. You don't usually get to see how the hypothesis comes about. I'd like to see more classes like this one in the hard sciences so that it would be experiential. Rather than being told "here's so-and-so's theorem," students can get to go through the same steps the scientists go through in order to get the "ah-ha" so that students can experience themselves the insight. Like you were saying, you experience it, so you retain it since you've been through it yourself. You understand it.

Student 7 ties together a couple of threads in the unfolding conversation by first talking about the kind of process that even scientists in the hard sciences have to go through in order to create their hypotheses and then by relating the experiential process to the idea of understanding and retention. Experience, once again, is seen as a key to genuine learning. I am reminded of a story told by the mathematician, Henri Poincare, in which he relates the experience which led to his first memoir on Fuchsian functions. Now, one would think that if there ever was a "science" that involved pure linear thinking, neat progressions of steps leading to orderly hypotheses and proofs, mathematics would be it. However, Poincare's experience shows quite another side to what we end up seeing as a linear, logical mathematical theorem:

For fifteen days I strove to prove that there could not be any functions like those I have since called Fuchsian functions. I was then very ignorant; every day I seated myself at my work table, stayed an hour or two, tried a great number of combinations and reached no results. One evening, contrary to my custom, I drank black coffee and could not sleep. Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. By the next morning I had established the existence of a class of Fuchsian functions, those which come from the hypergeometric series; I had only to write out the results, which took but a few hours (25).

Poincare, it seems, labored for fifteen days under the same kind of misconception as our Student 5 who believed that the acquisition of knowledge should be, for some reason, a linear and logical process -- one that could be applied simply by sitting down and working hard. One could say that the hard sciences (and the humanities as well) could do a better job of teaching if we would expose our students to some narratives such as Poincare's in which scientists and mathematicians and other creative artists share their experiences with the creative process. Such a sharing would at least be a step in the right direction to dispel any myths that surround such creativity. But, then again, I can't help but prefer Student 7's suggestion. Perhaps if the process were made truly experiential then the theorems in question would be more genuinely understood.

Along these lines, I would hold to the claims of Vygotsky who observed that "practical experience also shows that direct teaching of concepts is impossible and fruitless. A teacher who tries to do this usually accomplishes nothing but empty verbalism, a parrotlike repetition of words by the [student], simulating a knowledge of the corresponding concepts but actually covering up a vacuum" (150). Although Vygotsky's concerns here are primarily with young children, I believe that the same can apply to an analogous order to learners of any age. Although students in our classes were young adults with a much greater context of knowledge to begin with than that which belongs to the young child, there are still many instances in college instruction where students talk about parroting back concepts that teachers present in direct manners. Students openly admit that their "knowledge" in these cases is more a simulation of knowledge than true understanding. Yes, they can give back the words on a test, and they can do quite well. Unfortunately, if they were ever faced with situations of having to apply such knowledge, they would be unable to do so. If we offer them opportunities, however, to engage in a discovery process for themselves, they are more likely to get the "ah-ha." When the light bulb flashes on, we can count their learning experience as fruitful.

Student 8's comments, however, demonstrate just how reluctant some students are to abandon the idea that learning and knowing are not neat and tidy:

I was really expecting for this course to help me come up with a useful neat method. I didn't want to know that the process of learning and knowing could be so chaotic and messy -- a lot of time things are just accidentally discovered. This has been made more visible to me in this class. The focus has been on process and that's been at times chaotic. It seems to me that what's been important in this class has been the process, almost like there's no concern placed on the finished product at all. But, if the process is correct, then I guess the product is guaranteed.

This student speaks directly to what I believe to be the case in any field -- the process is of greatest importance. One has to get down and dirty; one has to dip deeply into chaos as part of the process. But, if one does genuinely act and do, then some kind of product of quality is virtually guaranteed.

Student 5 again chimes in with:

I see the process as having taken my mind's focus away from the notion that I have to always be thinking about rules to one where I understand that it's okay just to relax and learn. That's a better approach for me as a future teacher. This course has helped me more than any other course I've taken because I now have a better empathy for what people want when they come into the classroom and want you to teach them something. Yet I now see that you don't really become a taught person until you go through the process of learning something as living it -- learning by living helps you retain it.

This class has also helped me see that while creativity is, yes, a messy thing, it is also a process and one that's essential to learning. So the next time that someone says "yes, you're a creative person, but that won't really work here in this class," then I'll know that, first of all, I should feel sorry for that teacher, but also that that's not a valid comment. Students are creative people and learning is brought out through a creative process. I no longer feel stupid now when I'm at a certain part of the process where I'm not understanding; as long as I can engage in something like questioning and answering with others as part of the creative process, then I'll be okay.

Here, we can see that this student's interaction in the class has led her to a more secure feeling about herself and her style as a creative learner. Additionally, she acknowledges the relationship between being a "taught person," "living" the learning process, and engaging socially with others in a dialogical process that allows for questionings and answerings.

Student 9 adds her own perspective:

I get really frustrated in my linear order classes, especially when I'm told what to write about and what to say in my papers. It's interesting as a future educator to compare that kind of traditional class to this class and to ask what kind of education I actually want. Do I want to be told either what has been thought or what I should think, or do I want to be given some general ideas and then be set free to figure out what it is that I actually do think. I think I'll take this experience into my own classroom. Until I got here, I wasn't able to really think on my own. I think there will be a change from the linear, traditional model because it's out of date. I think there's a new generation who will want to get their education. But because there's always been such a focus on grades and there doesn't seem to be any way really out of getting them or giving them, it'll slow down the change. In the earlier question [that our class considered about who would have evaluative authority], I didn't want the teacher to have all the grading authority. I find it better not to have a classroom structured around worrying about what grades are or are going to be. I'd rather have the focus on the process. For one thing, as you're working [if you don't have to worry about your grade], you can actually change your mind.

This shift in conversational focus from what makes learning valid to how we validate learning through a system of grades created a good deal of exchange in which students revisited the first interactive experience of the class: having been asked to decide as a group who would have evaluative authority.

Student 5 asks, in retrospect:

Do you think that if we voted again, that the vote would be different? Has the process taught us that there may be an alternative way?

Student 9 answers:

I don't know. So may of us always need the grade, need to be on some imaginary list like the dean's list. Some people don't want to change, but then again a lot of people are willing. That's the wild side of people speaking out. I think, though, that more people are willing to stick to tradition, so I don't think the vote would change.

Student 5 again adds:

I thought that if people could actually see the class as it turned out now in retrospect, that they would vote for something different because the process has brought us through to another place that has shown us that we can work well together as a group. It doesn't seem like you agree that that's happened.

Student 10 responds:

I do still think that a lot of valuable stuff has gone on. I think we did work well together as a large group and then in our smaller groups as well. Although the grade thing was still hanging over our head [after our vote], I didn't feel as oppressed by that as I do in other classes. I think something good went on. I think that some people did change, even if they wouldn't vote differently.

Student 11 enters with a justification of her vote:

The only reason I voted for the traditional model is because I didn't think it was an issue that was ever going to be settled if we just allowed ourselves to keep talking about it, so I just voted for expediency I guess.

Student 12 explains his position thusly:

I was determined that teachers be the sole evaluators. But grades have always been very important to me. I come from a family that has worked its way up to the middle-class. I have to take home something every semester showing that this is what your money is going for. It's too abstract to go home to your mother and tell her that, well, I learned something about problem-solving theory today; that isn't enough. I come from a family where there has to be two of everything. If there's one duck on the table, there has to be another one. Everything has to be balanced. We're a very linear family you could say. So the abstract thing wouldn't work at all.

Student 13 points out another consideration in support of a focus on grades:

After this class, it doesn't really matter if you learn anything or not because all that matters is the grade -- whether or not you graduate and get a good job. I'm not saying that's right.

Student 5 really takes exception to the direction class opinion seems to be taking:

I disagree. Going back to the industrial revolution and current education. There's a book called The Fifth Discipline which has to do with businesses and how to help your employees learn; they talk about emergent orders within companies. I would argue that if you follow the model, the factory, linear model that you mention, and that if you just get your grade, you're going to have to go back and learn new ways of learning. The real world is changing and education hasn't caught up with it. The idea is that the next generation of companies that succeed will be following things that are more along the lines of carrying your own weight and communicating with other people. There will be less focus on the product and more focus on the process that leads to products. How do we work together? How do I fit in and work with others on my team?

Student 5's comments were followed by a general exchange of ideas regarding the current "real world" workplace and what kinds of things are now being expected of employees. In general, it was agreed that the collaborative, interactive learning model is becoming more and more important in the business world and that the kinds of learning experiences that students had in this class would be applicable in the current marketplace.

Student 14, however, wished to re-assert the continuing importance of grades despite changes going on in business:

Let's talk for a minute about grading though. When you get out into the world, into the workforce and you're looking for a job, all you have to show to an employer is your GPA. Only that will tell him how smart you are, how well-rounded you are. If grades were not that important then they'd have no bearing on whether or not you got a good job. That isn't the case. I know my Dad, who's a principal, says that your NTE [National Teachers' Exam] score has to be good, and you have to have a 2.8 GPA or better if you want to get a job as a teacher. So about not worrying about grades, I'm sorry; I've got to have my A or my B. Even thought classes are built for creative thinking like this class, I know grades are still important if I want to work in the school system. Employers may not know what it means to have a 3.0 or a 3.5 or what went into that, but it at least proves that you are smart enough to know how to play the game so that you can get that good job.

This student is perfectly right to raise this issue about grades and to express her continuing concern about them. It's quite a legitimate concern as long as it continues to be the case that employers look at things like a student's GPA when considering new hires even though they may have no idea whatsoever what went into creating that GPA. We as teachers who wish to institute complex, interactive systems owe it to our students to honor their continuing need not only for assessment (and interactive, conversational pedagogies are assessment rich) but also for traditional grades. Grades, in most cases, continue to be the product for which they feel the most concern.

The fact that this face-to-face conversation followed the path that it did from questions and comments regarding what constitutes an intellectual experience of learning to an objective, measured experience of learning is noteworthy. Not only does measurement continue to sum up (no pun intended) the student in terms of meaningful content for parents and employers, it does so for the educational institution as well. Despite our more recent turns to assessment vs. grades, despite the fact that many of us attempt to institute some non-grading policy in our classrooms, we nevertheless (except in rare occasions) must end up assigning each student a grade. We must at some point measure them and record that measurement no matter what index we use to guide us. As Student 13 remarked, it doesn't really matter what you learned in class when all is said and done -- what counts in the end, or what will be remembered because it is objectively and publically recorded, is the grade. Our system, despite espousing theories to the contrary, treats students as if they are indeed vessels-to-be-filled and then weighed at the end of twelve years of "lower" education and again after four years of higher education.

We writing teachers often like to see ourselves as above all that (despite the institutional imperative to grade). We substitute assessment for grading as long as we can, postponing the inevitable while we expect students to play along with this strategy as if they really can forget the larger pressures brought to bear upon them to achieve the grade as product of their efforts. And even if we don't try some new stategies for grading, current theory in writing instruction in all grades speaks to the importance of writing as genuine communication rather than as a set of skills that can be mastered and then performed for our evaluation in "themes" and essays. I find it a curious and sad irony that our institutions often actively disseminate such theories, encourage staff and students to give papers at conferences that laud such ideas, and send their teachers to these conferences and workshops in order to expose them to this alternative way of viewing writing when the same institutions clearly engage in practices that speak to quite opposite approaches.

Recently, I worked on a project for the state of Ohio which involved evaluating writing proficiency tests administered to all students in grades eight through twelve. Over the course of five weeks, nearly 100 readers assessed 150,000 tests, each with two writing samples per test. In our training sessions, we were drilled in ways to break down each sample of student writing into categories to evaluate separately: content (was there enough writing -- a volumetric consideration), organization, language (were word choices appropriate, predictable or imaginative; did the writer use imagery or simply report), and conventions (grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.). It was quite a challenge on the one hand to be asked to assess a sample "holistically" and on the other hand to be asked to "divide and grade." I remember being often told to ask questions like "do these grammatical errors impede communication," "does the child's language impede communication," "does the organization impede communication." Yet, it was quite explicit on the level of genuine exchange that communication was irrelevant. Here were 150,000 children, all of whom had been taught as part of Ohio's writing curriculum to write with an audience in mind in order to communicate, yet the audience which so carefully poured over these children's papers was not to allow communication to impede their assessments. I can't tell you how many times children, for example ESL students, would communicate with me so beautifully that I was moved to tears, yet I had to deliver failing scores. I can't tell you how many children were trying to say something either to me or to me as part of this assessment system about what they thought of the system, yet I had to ignore that communication just as it was ignored by the whole evaluative hierarchy on up the line. Then, there were those students who were obviously trying to communicate their pain, their need, their troubles, yet unless they clearly expressed suicidal intent or disclosed experiences of abuse, these too were explicitly ignored. I could barely tolerate the hyprocrisy of the whole situation and I felt it was a terrible tragedy for these children to be told one thing about writing (write to communicate) while the lesson they'd get from experience would directly contradict what they were told. We were surely an audience of some sort, but we were charged by the system with being an un-responsive audience; there was no opportunity for communication. Can we doubt that our institutions themselves ironically create poor, "irresponsible" writers? Where is the response-ability in this system? What students take away from experiences like these, which are pervasive experiences, is a combination of cynicism and a reinforcement of the idea that the grade, the evaluation is what counts.

During this face-to-face meeting with the students of ENG102 and ELC381, Bob and I learned that the class had been a success in the best sense of the word. Although their anxiety over grades was deeply entrenched, justifiably entrenched considering institutional and social reinforcement, students had learned how learning happens through interaction with others; they had learned that learning is a process, a messy process; they learned that they had the power to authorize claims, to create, revise, and re-create meaning in collaboration with others. They also learned to question critically the status quo even though, at present, the status quo seems too hardened to change. It is the hope of the teachers and students of ENG102 and ELC381 that continuing efforts to make interactive learning experiences available will gradually lead to a broader change in our current indices of validity.

In the meantime, we take heart in knowing that successfully "play[ing] the game" at school, as Student 14 called it, may involve students finding some way to get genuinely and personally connected to what they're doing in their classwork, and genuinely and personally connected to their colleagues. For people who are really involved, for those that care about what they're doing because their learning projects are intrinsically motivated, there's not much of a way to miss; good grades will most likely follow. We believe, in the wake of our experience, that complexity, interactivity, and response-ability have been show to get students involved and personally connected to the work they're asked to do, and that this connection is ultimately a valid learning experience.


1 "Madiera" was this student's VAX username. "Janet" is a pseudonym I am applying in order to protect my student's identity. All subsequent "real" names are likewise pseudonyms.

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