The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence; the best opens up an exchange that need never end. – Rebecca Solnit
“My main premise or subtext in this essay is that we nonprofessionals can and should work on it [assessment] because professionals have not reached definitive conclusions about the problem of how to assess writing (or anything else, I’d say).” (Elbow, 187)
Sassy Elbow, very sassy. I like it. Much of what Elbow said about the merits
or lack thereof of writing assessment in his essay, “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment”, I agree with. Elbow identified some very relevant and pressing concerns with the contemporary process of writing assessment: 1) its unreliability 2) its inability to actually improve student writing and 3) its focus is so often not the students’ benefit but the system’s own. Elbow says, “Much of what we [educators] do in the classroom is determined by the assessment structures we work under” (187) –which is horrifying bad enough without him continuing soon after, “In short, the reliability of holistic scoring is not a measure of how texts are valued by real readers in natural settings, but only of how they are valued in artificial settings with imposed agreements.” (189) So, not only are educators’ hands bound by a system unconcerned with individual student improvement, this system can’t even be relied upon to actually measure what it’s supposed to measure. Crazy.
Now, as discussed in my prior writing on the subject, I am decidedly not a fan of writing assessment as a whole. At least, the methods used to perform it thus far leave little to be desired in my mind. There’s something about reducing a written work full of potential and promise and exploration down to a single number or letter that makes some very large, integral (perhaps primal) part of my being recoil. If you’ll allow me a poetic respite, my heart bleeds–breaks for the writing that is stolen from the world by assessments that find writers wanting and consequently leave writers not wanting to share their voices anymore. It’s devastating. Unfair.
Maybe it’s that most writing assessments seem more interested in telling students what to say and how to say it instead of in encouraging them to keep using their voice that makes me bristle. That robbery, that sleight of
backhand, even in done unintentionally, we all know ignorance of the law is no excuse, right? (And crimes committed without intent are still illegal, just saying.)
Perhaps I’m too pessimistic or harsh or fatalistic in general, but in my writing courses and in the university Writing Center I work in, I’ve seen the indelible marks “arbitrary” assessments leave on students and in their writing. I hear the scars when I am so often asked, “Is this good?” or “Does it sound right?” or “Do you think the Professor will like it?” or “Will I get a good grade?” On and on, ad infinitum…
How about, “Do you think this is good?” or “Do you like what you’ve written? Like what you write?” How many students can’t answer those questions? Or, have never been asked those questions? How many could respond positively? Can I?
I’d like to think I write what I like. I like to think that. But how much of what and how I write has been shaped by the assessments and the comments and the evaluations I’ve received from my teachers and my professors (who have read anywhere from 1-3 written works of mine tops)? More, how much of what I don’t write is shaped by them? Is shaped by a culture that glorifies authoritarianism at all levels, education not excluded?
The persistence of questions like these is why it is so important educators be mindful of the kind of evaluations they are conducting. Both Elbow in his essay and John Bean in his, “Writing Comments on Student Papers” seem to consider the long-term ramifications writing assessment has on students. Personally, I reserve my right to still hold reservations and suspicions toward the entity that is writing assessment but, neither man is advocating for assessment so much as they are for evaluation. Which makes both researchers’ works sound like semantic arguments but, thankfully, they’re not.
In Bean’s work, assessment becomes a kind of evaluation centered around revision-oriented commentary. Instead of correcting papers, educators are responding to papers. Comments are made to prompt revision, not to justify final grades. Papers are read for their ideas, not their errors. Instruction is centered around improvement and students are regarded as actual individuals, deserving of all the dignity and all of the respect that entails. More, Bean’s method advocates for students to eventually take responsibility of their own review and editing. By focusing review on suggestions for revision instead of on error detection and on vague, oft insincere (let’s be honest) commentary, students are able to retain some agency of their own writing. Whereas students can’t always argue with corrections, they can consider commentary/criticism and act in accordance with the decisions they come to. Also, in this system proposed by Bean, there are multiple drafts submitted before the final which allows students to make their decisions free of the burden of a grade for essentially the entire process. And, because students have been allowed to make revisions and to improve, their anxiety about their final grade is lessened. If not ample, reasonable consideration is being offered from both sides in this model of evaluation. Students consider their writing and their own learning while educators consider the students as well as their students’ writing.
While I definitely believe this system is still more ideal than practical in many ways (for example, revisions will only be as good as the suggestions the reviser provides which inherently still means the student is deferring to an authority and, also, I’m not sure students are incentivized enough to make their own revisions), I do appreciate the realization that no draft is without potential. This concept is something Elbow elaborates upon in the alternatives he promotes to
sometimes replace strict writing assessment.
Of evaluation, Elbow says, “The process of evaluation, because it invites us to articulate our criteria and to make distinctions among parts or features or dimensions of a performance, thereby invites us further to acknowledge the main fact about evaluation: that different readers have different priorities, values, and standards.” (192) Here, Elbow not only identifies the individual in the writing but the importance of that individuality to writing/the writing process. Because individuality directs the writing, it should provide direction to the evaluation.
Which, shouldn’t be as revolutionary an idea as it is.
I remember, in a creative writing course of all things, receiving an overall comment on the first 10 or so pages of a novel I had been working on for the better part of many months that read, “This could work.” That was it. Not even This works but This could work. Not even a semblance of recognition for the writer behinds the story. Luckily, I let this uninspiring commentary only inspire me more but you can’t expect every student to have the same mental fortitude. And, Elbow recognizes that.
“When everything is evaluated, everything counts.” (197) Including the individual, the writer. Again, file this under things that shouldn’t be revolutionary but unfortunately are.
Honestly, though, if writing assessment isn’t focused on the writer, what is it focused on? If instruction isn’t centered around improvement, what is it being centered around? If students don’t like what they write, why not?
I think the answer to all those questions is woefully singular and until something gives, both writing and writing assessment will unfortunately continue to be disingenuous.
Till next time~
Remind me in class to talk about the idea of reciprocity (if you’re interested) because I spent another post ranting and raving about writing assessment!
And, in light of the discussion last week’s meeting spurred, I thought this exchange that came across my feed was appropriate to share with everyone: