ranting for anarchy

Eric Crump (wleric@SHOWME.MISSOURI.EDU)
Wed, 14 Aug 1996 13:55:35 -0500

On Tue, 13 Aug 1996, Darlene Sybert wrote:
> As Charlie said so well, true for some people. What about the others?
> Are we just going to assume because they signed up for the course and
> showed up in class a few times that they have learned something...or
> are we going to stop giving degrees or any certification that a person
> has mastered a particular area of study?

Certification ain't all it's cracked up to be. It mostly verifies that
So&So has demonstrated proficiency in jumping through the particular
hoops we set up. Very nice. Valuable, too, since enough people in our
society still believe credentials mean more than they do. But credentials
are only one indicator & not even the best one. Like grades, they are so
sparse of information as to be only suggestive. The problem is, we treat
them like they were definitive. Bah!

But I'm not gonna argue that we ditch credentialing. I would argue that
there are better ways to perform that function, and one way is to put it
in the background where it belongs. Grades and credentials are just
little markers we place along the way just to say 'I've been here.' We
get into real trouble when we make the markers our destinations. That's a
journey to nowhere.

I do, by the way, agree whole heartedly with your assertion & Charlie's
that students' preferences vary wildly. I think that fact helps make my
case: grades (and I don't mind if every time I write 'grades' you assume
I'm implicating the whole evaluative aspect of our current system)
promote rigidity in the classroom! They seem to demand that we create
standards and criteria against which to measure students. What could be
less flexible, less sensitive to difference?

Mike asked a few days ago what (in the world) *does* happen in my classes
(since I talk so much about what I *don't* do). I mean to answer that
better, but I will add one bit here: students are granted the authority
to make their own choices and to assess the results. That means, though,
that students who prefer more structure can demand it! I make that very
explicit. I tell them that if they would like me to make assignments for
them to fulfill, complete with criteria for success and grades on the
result, I'll do it.

It's a neat trick, isn't it? Even students who prefer to be passive have
to take the initiative to choose that option. <heh heh>

What if they don't want to choose? They are out of luck. They flounder.
They accomplish little or nothing. I rationalize that these are the very
students who would get little or nothing out of the class even if I
taught in a more traditional manner, using my institution-granted
authority to tell them what to do and how often. They would comply,
perhaps, but minimally. They would get a passing grade, but they would
have learned little and, worse, been entirely unchanged by the

In my class, as it is situated now in a traditional educational
environment, those students *should* fail.

But in my ideal (and someday to be created) educational world, those
students *wouldn't even be in the class!* Why in the world make them
participate in something they don't see the value of, aren't interested
in, and--even if they manage to play the game well enough to score--won't
get a damn thing out of it! Those students are not inherently dull or
lazy. We put them somewhere they don't fit. It's as much our fault as
theirs. In a really productive educational setting, those students would
gravitate to the subjects they cared about, where they would excel. When
they discover a need for writing and for improving their writing skills,
*then* they will come to it. And come to me.

> And those students don't even need an instructor...

But they do need mentors, guides, colleagues. We can provide those kinds
of support.

>... but what percentage
> of students would this ever include?

All. Students only need coercive instructors when we make them take
spinach classes, stuff *we* think is good for them that they have no
reason to like or be interested in. Give them choice and they will
choose well (and even when they don't, the process of choosing poorly is
edifying! failure is more important to learning than success!)

> Wouldn't there always be a majority
> that would rather do something else than write three drafts of an essay?
> That is hard work...no matter how interested you are. What would motivate
> a student to do that instead of playing with his new college friends?

Yes. There's no reason to expect a majority of students will ever want to
focus on any particular skill or subject. They'll all approach skills as
those skills become relevant to pursuing their interests. that means that
quite a few students, perhaps an eventual majority, will become
interested in writing. But only when it serves them to do so. Otherwise,
writing instruction is dang near futile anyway.

There's good reason why coerced students resist writing three drafts of
assigned papers. It's ludicrous! It's artificial! It makes no sense in
their world. It's not the hard work they shun, it's *irrelevant* hard
work they despise. So do I!

Teachers (and their pedagogical creeds) often justify practices like
drafting with assertions about how good it is for students. "Multiple
drafting teaches students that writing is a recursive process." huh. Does
it? I don't think so. I think it teaches students a much more basic
lesson than that. It teaches them to comply with the teacher in order to
get the grade. It teaches them to become numb to absurdity and comply.
Learning that writing is a recursive process can't be got to via enforced
drafting. It's a realization that comes from being immersed in real
writing situations. It's not necessary to teach it. It's important that
people who need that concept discover it.

Eat your spinach, boys and girls.

Given those kind of conditions, yeah, most students would opt to go drink
beer until they vomit rather than voluntarily work on writing. But if
writing is something *they* discover a need for and it is an integral
part of projects they care about, you'll have a helluva time dragging
them away from the computer. And I don't mean just 'gifted' students, I
mean all students. People who are committed to their work don't need to
be forced.

What happens is that we get into this circular situation. We force them
to do icky stuff, and then when they show signs of disinterest or
resistence, we use that as rationale for forcing them to do icky stuff.

Eat your spinach, boys and girls. Oh, you don't like spinach? No dessert
until you eat it, then!

Now, when I make claims like this, somebody always assumes I'm arguing
for anarchy, for 'anything goes.' They asssume that freedom inevitably
leads to degeneration. I don't think so. Far from being some kind of
strange savage race that would revert to barbarism if the bars were
removed from the windows, students will use freedom well. They'll develop
rules and structure. Or I should say, *we* will. Because the key to the
whole thing is collegiality.

You all think I'm being a cream puff? Heh. This stuff ain't easy. It's
easier to whip people or reward them with grades to get them to perform
the right tricks. Helping them learn is complex, messy, difficult to
document in a meaningful way.

And it's a helluva lot more fun.

--Eric Crump