A Happy Medium (Might?) Solve All Problems

I struggled with Elbow’s piece because, for me, ranking is necessary in the world we live in. Like Elbow points out, we are expected (at least at Queens) to produce some form of ranked grade at the end of the semester for the student. While I agree with his thoughts on the constraints of ranking, I struggle with his urge to place it as ranking or evaluation. For me, ranking can be an evaluation similar to the way Elbow describes. Evaluation comes in through those detailed comments English professors all seem to leave on papers, coaching the student through their essay, serving as both critic and cheerleader. In turn, the ranking can be based on the evaluation through the use of a detailed rubric, where the emphasis is placed on the ideas the student is producing. Yes, for Elbow, a rubric is just a form of ranking, but I believe there is a difference between absentmindedly assigning grades and determining what each grade means to the teacher and what the student needs to do to accomplish that. For me, evaluation and ranking should go together.

Take Cynthia from Anston’s article. She ranked the essay without providing real evaluation. If she were able to rely on evaluative reasons for the grade, Jonas would not have been able to challenge her so blatantly. Further, a reliance on a rubric would also allow Cynthia to remove her ideology from the grading process, focusing on the performance Jonas is giving over the blatant racism in that text. If she were to come across ideas that she didn’t agree with, Cynthia could use marginal comments to question what exactly Jason means or ask him to explain further for a clearer statement. Ultimately, he followed the general assignment and took a stance on a problem. I don’t believe you can fail someone for being racist or sexist; you can work to find what’s wrong in the argument or how the paper fails to achieve the assignment appropriately. Granted, your ultimate grade will be affected by an inherent bias (as briefly discussed in the Young article). If the desire is to remove that form of communication from the classroom, it would be more beneficial to sign a contract at the beginning of class; not a grade contract, but a code of conduct that forces the students to come to a standard agreement of acceptable behavior for the classroom. (Here’s a link to MIT’s difference between explicit and implicit classroom contracts. http://tll.mit.edu/help/explicit-and-implicit-contracts-classroom).

To end this post, I want to return back to the concept of grading and talk a bit about Young’s article. One of the major themes the educators were presenting was that grading is extremely difficult to do free of biases. Which, I agree, as I was grading my first papers, I had to fight the urge to give students who try really hard in class better grades on their papers in their deserve. However, I participated in grade inflation (as defined by these educators) because of me wanting these students to succeed. While I think classifying student revisions as grade inflation problematic, I understand where it comes from. I allowed students to revise so they wouldn’t have an F on their first paper.   So, I guess my major struggles would be: is revision inflation? Can we find a happy medium between ranking and evaluation? And can that happy medium help educators defend themselves against student backlash against grades?

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2 Responses to A Happy Medium (Might?) Solve All Problems

  1. Hi Kristi –

    I have not always been a good student, I failed the seventh grade in Junior High and up until my experience as an exchange student in the United States I had no intention whatsoever of going to college – no one among my brothers nor my twenty-five cousins had graduate college, so the thought didn’t even cross my mind until then. One year into my undergraduate studies, I had only taken two exams (the equivalent of one class per semester in the U.S. system) and was still what educators like to call a student whose attitude gets in the way of his potential. I opened my comment on an autobiographical (and seemingly unrelated) note just to contextualize how coming from an anti-authoritative position determines how I situate myself in relation to the power that we are accorded simply for being “on the other side of the desk” – the same power that allow us to rank/evaluate. What was particularly surprising for my teachers, especially in high school, was how, despite my negative attitude, I would be succeeding/failing in subjects belonging to the same realm (literature/history, chemistry/physics). What often determined my successes/failures was indeed how I felt treated by the human being on the other of the desk. For most of my career as a student (twenty-two years… have I really been in school for that long already?) I have tended to work better with teachers and professors who expected me to succeed, rather than fail. They would pass this up not only in their attitude towards me in class (yes, I was a punk and a brat), but also in the way they graded my work – after receiving a good grade, I would give the subject and my assignments more consideration, because I did not want to let the professor/teacher down nor prove him wrong. In reading Elbow’s essay, I was reminded of all this and more. The first time I read the article I thought I kind of lost him in his reasoning for “liking”, but upon a re-read with my own experience in mind it all made perfect sense.

    Furthermore, we should keep in mind the peculiarity of the subject we are teaching – as much as academic writing is a more regulated form of writing, our students’ different backgrounds, experiences and sensibilities still have a huge impact on their performances on paper, and cannot expect cookie-cutter work from them. There are some technical aspects of their writing that we can (almost) be objectively evaluate as right/wrong (e.g. tone, style, how a quote should be selected/introduced, how to mention sources according to MLA, etc.), but there are also so many other aspects upon which we can only assert relative influence in the short time they are exposed to our teachings. Some of the most brilliant ideas that emerge during class discussion come from students who are not able to express them with the same eloquence on paper – and yes, it is our job to give them the tool to improve, but my impression is that there is only so much we can do in a semester – and what we can actually do (providing them the tool) represents only the first step towards a wiring/re-wiring of the synapses that are impacted during the act of writing, a perpetual and lifelong process for every writer.

    In terms of grade inflation – I plead guilty, but at the same time I justify myself with the same criteria that Elbow uses (and have done so since the beginning of the term, before I read his article). I also have a contract with my students – as long as they do the work and show their involvement in the work we do in class and that they do at home, they will pass my class with a grade of C (most likely B, actually) or above. I only gave a few Cs in each of my classes so far, and it was mostly students who did NOT revise a single word in their essays even though they received peer review and detailed comments from me – and even in those cases, I have to admit that I was probably influenced by hearing so much about “grade inflation” from fellow instructors – reading Elbow’s essay makes me feel more confident in my position towards grading.

  2. Giselle Shohet says:

    A Response to Kristi (and Stephano) from Giselle
    After so many years teaching public high school, ranking is still a painful process; it is the dreaded report card grades! Nevertheless, I most resonate with Kristi’s words that ranking can be an evaluation through detailed comments. Although commenting is a time consuming process, it is preferable to reducing students to a number or letter.
    As to the practice of using a rubric, they have their purposes in that they keep student and teacher focused on criteria for evaluation. Still, sometimes, it seems they scatter our attention unnecessarily. For this reason, a rubric shouldn’t dilute what the focus should be in the revision. In addition, the quality of papers may be vastly different even with the same number of checks for excellent on the same rubric.
    Also, I want to acknowledge Stephano for sharing his situation of coming from a family that did not attend or graduate college. He wrote that his motivation came more from his relationship with his teachers. The grading and evaluation were more of an extension of this (positive or negative) relationship. Ultimately, it is important to keep this in mind as educators as we rank, evaluate and like student work.

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