> How about even in the sense of the word itself?--that is, how do you
> know any particular quality without an idea of what it is NOT? In
> this case, "competent" is meaningful at least partly because of what
> you think of as "incompetent" and instances thereof. Likewise, how
> does labeling someone's work as "excellent" or "really nice" or even
> just "engaging" become meaningful without an idea, and probably lots
> of examples, of what "awful" or "really not very good" or
> "distancing, unengaging" mean? Distinctions are inherently
> comparative, aren't they?
I'll buy all of that. Thing is, I think it's the *students* who
need to learn to make those distinctions (I already learned; it's why I'm
the teacher). And I don't think people learn to make them without
exposure to a _lot_ of different kinds of writing, and by trying to write
for a _lot_ of different audiences. I think that learning the various
genres of academic writing proceeds mostly by trial and error, like all
language learning. The words of advice of a zillion English teachers
(including me) help students to learn the genre, but the best of them
know tacitly that the rules are specific to specific contexts ("Dr. Jones
really hates it if you use comma splices"), and that all the rules
they've heard, taken over time, are a sort of aggregate and imprecise
description of the genre(s).
I want to get at the process a little more directly, is all.
Instead of offering *my* view of academic writing, I want students to
begin to articulate what *they* know, and to learn to make the sorts of
distinctions Steve outlines above. Insofar as grades interrupt that
process (by making my judgement focal: Not just important or more
important because I know more and am older and have been doing this
longer, but focal), I think they work against learning.
> I know that the ways in which these
> distinctions get framed is often wrongheaded and unproductive, but
> going to the "no bad dogs" extreme ("All Students are Honored at
> Smith Elementary," they said with smug undifferentiation) seems not
> all that good either.
Nope. Doesn't seem that good to me, either. But I don't think
the two choices are intensely capitalistic competition and feel-good
nothingness. There's a whole, huge middle ground in there that we're
only starting to explore.
University of Michigan-Dearborn
4901 Evergreen Rd.
Dearborn, MI 48128
Web page: http://www.umd.umich.edu/~marcyb