Re: Assessment/Grading p.o.v.

Michael S. Allen (allen.181@OSU.EDU)
Fri, 30 Aug 1996 14:02:40 -0400

I'd like to jump in here, if I may, and note how any discussion of
"assessment/grading" tends to weave its way into many "different"
threads--And I'd like to add one more. Bob wondered, half jokingly:

let's say pomo theory has really gotten to us, and we
say that each student probably has a "little Citidel" and a "little
Hampshire" within an overall multiplicity of selves.

Of course the idea of little Hampshires and Citadels popping up in our
students-- and in us--is comic. But if we accept the idea that we are
composed of different selves, and that different settings, context,
audiences help compose us--which I take to be the heart of pomo theory in
writing--then there really is a problem with standardizing anything.

I don't think, however, that we often look at something else, equally as
influential in constructing our ideas and practices about grades,
evaluation, assessment--and that is *who we are*. Who are we when we
grade? Are we the same persons we are when we respond, or "like" (in
Elbow's sense) a student's paper? If we say we aren't, then we risk
opening ourselves up to the traditionalists and positivists who immediately
question our relability and (dare I say it a day after Clinton's speech?)
character? But if we say we are, then I think we are unfaithful to our
experience, much less writing research and theory.

I say this from a particularly painful place: in the tenure sweepstakes,
I'm a three time loser. No one should listen to me who wants advice about
how to navigate the heavily political shoals of English departments. But
my experience only confirms my belief that most English departments do not
take--and more to my situation, do not *want* to take--seriously the way
assessment/evaluation/grading issues merge, spin off, lead into other areas
of knowledge, theory, practice. Too often, behind the defense of grades
(and sometimes even the attack on grades) there's the assumption of a
single self, a single student audience (Kathleen's reminder that some young
women *need* grades for fairness is a good example) exists when we respond,
evaluate, assess. And moreover, too often we never examine an equally
problematic idea: that we are unchanging as we respond, evalaute, assess.
To examine such an assumption, of course, would help to undermine classic
(positivist) reliability: How can you have a standard if the "standard
bearer" keeps changing his/her mind (sort of echoes the criticism of
Clinton, yes? Hmmm...).

Most people, it seems--and I include most of our English department
colleagues, desipte their professions of being liberal--crave solid ground,
standards, authority, ideology, slogans, p.c. rules: good guys and bad
guys. That's what standards, grades, and tradtitional assessment give:
there's a "real truth" out there and here's the way, the grade, to prove
it. And even if we give the grade because it's necessary, we ought to
realize what doing so does to us: when we grade we change ourselves from
the teachers, responders, coaches we've been, to someone who says there is
a "truth", a standard, and we are the embodiment of it.

I don't like being the embodiment of "truth"--it's a false idea, a false
notion. But it's a notion that a lot of people *need*. Therefore, it
seems to me that what we need to do is develop ways in which the "truth"
function of grades is shared--that no one person has to embody the "truth"
but that truth is constructed out of several "truths": that evaluation is
shared, that others (students, other instructors, faculty at other
campuses) are brought into the evaluation process, that the embedded social
construction of evaluation (which takes us over when we give grades) be
brought to the surface, debated and constructed in a shared, collaborative

This can be seen as a complicated process--as some on this list have said
(Arizona?) that portfolios are compicated. But portfolio are only
complicated if seen from a traditional perspective--if you assume grades
for every paper, if you assume a traditional classroom power hierarchy, if
you allow to go unexamined the idea that grading affects the teacher *as
much as* the student. What we need is a mind-shift out of the dark ivy
halls of traditionalist pedagogy which echo with the heavy footsteps of
literary texts.

I always get in trouble when I say such things, but it's almost a disease:
I can't stop myself. I'm not sure if or when the teaching of writing will
ever get to the place where it will have the political cojones to assert
its opposition to the traditionalist, hierarchical, positivist notion of
writing which most English departments have. To me, it's clear that the
traditional ways of doing things hurt students and teachers. But to
question such traditional ways shows just how hollow "academic freedom" is
in English departments when it comes to the teaching of writing.

Mike Allen