Re: RS Empty rhetoric (LONG)

Marcy Bauman (marcyb@UMD.UMICH.EDU)
Mon, 19 Aug 1996 10:36:54 -0400

On Mon, 19 Aug 1996, Steve Finley wrote:

> Anyway, I think the reason that students generally like the
> sense of place that grades give them is that they know that one
> writer is not necessarily as good as the next, and that there is such
> a thing as just plain crap (contrary to the "no bad dogs" philosophy of so
> many comp-rhet teachers, not necessarily anybody on this list), and they
> want to see where they stand.

I agree with Steve that, given the current situation in
classrooms, people want to know where they stand, and I've also generally
found that people do want feedback on their writing -- both response, in
the sense of "I agree!" or "I disagree!" and in the sense of "Paragraph
three sounds clumsy to me."

I've got a LOT of problems with grading, though (most of which I
outline in a chapter of the NCTE book on grading & assessment, which is
due out sometime this fall, I think . . . ) But I'll try to be brief.

#1. The fact that grades let people rank themselves against one another
conveys a false sense of what constitutes good writing. If we could put
all writers on a universal scale of goodness, there would be no canon
wars: we'd know who was better, Faulkner or Alice Walker. This idea
that there is a platonic scale of goodness causes people to pay excessive
attention to what the _teacher_ thinks is good, and not to that still,
small voice within which tells them what _they_ admire in writing and
(more important) whether their writing has achieved the effects they want
it to have.

#2. Because the teacher has to give the grade, the teacher's feedback is
distorted so as to be nearly useless. Students tend to read the comments
we write as justifications/explanations for why they received a certain
grade, rather than as our honest reactions to a piece.

#3. Grades take the emphasis away from writing as a communicative act,
and place the emphasis on writing as performance. They camouflage the
idea that people write because they have something to say to others.
Because the endpoint of writing is to get a grade, people don't think in
terms of how their audience is going to react, only how their judge is
going to react.

I could go on and on. Grades may make sense for some things; I think
there are a lot of subjects where you could argue convincingly that
grades are important and valuable (they never bothered me in math class,
say), but I think that grades in writing classes are destructive
basically because they promote false notions about what writing is, and
they force people into ways of learning that are unlike any ways they use
to learn any other language abilities.


Marcy Bauman
Writing Program
University of Michigan-Dearborn
4901 Evergreen Rd.
Dearborn, MI 48128

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