Notes Towards a Production-Based Assessment Model For First-Year Composition

I’m currently reading Asao Inoue’s award-winning Antiracist Assessment Ecologies (which happens to be available for free from the WAC Clearinghouse).  There’s a lot to this book, some of which I challenge.  On one point, though, Inoue has me totally sold: the importance of evaluating student writing based on energy expended rather than adherence to some standard of quality.  Inoue frames his argument in terms of “labor,” and lays out an elaborate system by which, via grading contracts, students cooperate to set the conditions of their labor.  Though, as noted, I don’t agree with Inoue on every point, his argument got me thinking about how I would go about transitioning from a quality-based to a labor-based assessment system in my own writing class.  Here are some notes towards that end.

Let’s say we have a typical required freshman writing class in the University of Pittsburgh format (Pitt is where I got my PhD and the system with which I am most familiar).  In such a class, I would probably assign four essays (plus drafts and revisions), 10 or so short writings or blog posts, and a presentation or multimedia project.  Pitt encourages portfolio grading, so rather than grades for each assignment, students get a preliminary grade mid-term and another, final grade, at the end of the course.  Grades are to be based on the student’s progress towards the English department’s course goals for FYC.  These goals are:

  1. Engage in writing as a creative, disciplined form of critical inquiry.
  2. Compose thoughtfully crafted essays that position your ideas among other views.
  3. Write with precision, nuance, and awareness of textual conventions.
  4. Revise writing by rethinking the assumptions, aims, and effects of prior drafts.

I think these are pretty progressive grading criteria.  They stress revision and writing-to-learn, and don’t place undue emphasis on formal correctness.  Inoue’s claim, though, is that even enlightened grading criteria like these disadvantage users of non-dominant discourses and in general cause lots of problems.  As noted, he wants to assign grades (his model assumes we can’t escape grading altogether), based on the amount of time a student spends laboring for the class.  He proposes to keep track of this labor through journals, self-reflective writings and other modes of self-reporting.  For him, whether the product of the student’s labors shows traces of “engaging in writing as a creative, disciplined form of critical inquiry” simply doesn’t matter.  It’s the process he cares about, not the product.

I too care about process.  I should note, though, that unlike Inoue, I don’t see all discourses as equal, value-wise.  While I won’t go into detail about it here, I do think some types of writing and thinking are better than others, in that they help their users engage with the world in more generous and flexible ways.  Simply put, I have ideas (undoubtedly culturally inflected) about what makes for good writing.  I use these ideas to guide my teaching activities.  And I don’t want to stop doing this.

That said, I agree with Inoue that it might not be particularly fair or effective to grade students based on how well they emulate my ideal discourse.  My goal, above and beyond any sort of specific product, is to help students increase their meaning-making abilities.  Increase in meaning-making ability, I’ve found, comes about primarily through practice.  Students need to read, write, revise, and in general, engage with the ideas of others.  I want my grading system to incentivize these activities.  It seems that Inoue’s labor-based grading methods might excel in this regard.

So how would I go about applying a labor-based assessment program within the Pitt system?  Following Inoue, I think a good place to start is to assume that if a certain amount of work is completed a certain grade is to be assigned.  If all 10 blogs posts and four essays are completed, for example, the student receives a B.  In Inoue’s model, students can achieve an A by writing longer papers.  In my model, I would take a similar approach; students can “level up” by completing a fifth essay after the required four.

Though I want to adopt Inoue’s principal of labor in a general way, I feel the need to make some changes.  One of his key insights, I think, is the importance of conceiving of the writing assessment environment as an ecology.  This means that all the parts of a writing course—and how texts are judged within that course—should be seen as mutually sustaining.  Assigning grades based on labor expended works in his classroom because of the intricate groundwork he lays for such a program (discussions of what “labor” might mean, activities to keep track of that labor, etc.).  Because I have different students and different scholarly interests, I need to allot my resources differently.  I therefore can’t lay the groundwork necessary to sustain a pure labor-based model.

In light of the above, I propose that I assign grades based on assignments completed rather than “labor” in the sense of hours worked.  This gets rid of one potential problem (students being deceptive about how much they actually worked), but adds a new problem: students who complete assignments only in the most perfunctory way.  What if a student spends only minutes on an essay and hands in nonsensical drivel?  Is it fair that he gets a B like everyone else?  It does not seem fair.  To guard against this, in my production model there would have to be explicit guidelines for what each product must contain.  The trick, of course, would be to establish guidelines without going too far and forcing adherence to a dominant standard.  This is difficult, but I don’t think it’s impossible.  I think we can ask that student writing contain certain features while still being true to the spirit of Inoue’s argument.

How might we do this?  Let’s consider the types of activities required in an FYC class at Pitt.  First, for drafts there’s really not much of an issue: any student who submits a set amount of words on a set date receives full credit.  Likewise, blog posts or other informal writings can be judged by a similar standard.  Essays are a more complicated matter.  To see how we might set non-oppressive guidelines, let’s consider the four essay sequence I teach at Pitt.  It typically looks something like this:

  1. Personal narrative regarding the student’s experience with a conflict of their choosing (with “conflict” described as any situation where there’s no easy answer);
  2. Application of a course reading to the conflict;
  3. Outside research regarding the conflict and application of these ideas to the personal experience of the student;
  4. Synthesis which combines and expands on the ideas in the previous three essays.

As noted, in a typical quality-based assessment environment grades are assigned based on the degree to which student writing aligns with an ideal standard (at Pitt, the standard is captured in the course goals).  In my adapted labor environment, production is key.  If the student does the work, she gets full credit.  But how do we judge if one “did the work” rather than just filled up the page with gibberish?  It seems to me that the answer is to establish, for each document, a clear set of required formal features.  These features should be “objective” enough that there can be little debate as to whether they are present.  Obviously, this requires a radical simplification of our assessment criteria.  Let’s take the first essay in the above sequence as an example. To get full credit for this assignment, we could ask that an essay contain:

  1. A certain number of words;
  2. Some description of events presented in chronological order (this feature marks a narrative);
  3. Use of the pronoun “I” (this feature marks a personal narrative);
  4. Some description of two or more options or choices for some person or group of people (this feature marks a conflict).

If a piece of student writing can be arguably said to possess these four features, the student receives full credit for the first essay, no questions asked.  Formal features relevant to the second essay might include reference to a course reading and at least two quotations.  For the third essay, we might increase the number of sources referenced to three and the number of quotations to five.  The key point is that whatever features we demand, the criteria must be explicit.  The student must be able to judge for himself (and know for certain) whether the assignment will receive full credit.  In this way, I’d argue, the power to “give” grades is largely taken out of the teacher’s hands.  At the same time, though, because they must adhere to basic standards, students are held to account.

So what’s the point of all this?  What might we gain by moving from a system in which the teacher’s subjective interpretation of quality is paramount, to a production-based system in which assessment criteria are equally available to both teacher and student?  What might we lose?  Let’s take the latter question first.  What we obviously lose is the ability to use grades as a motivational tool.  Let’s me be clear: I will still comment on my students’ essays and those comments will still be designed to move my students towards the type of writing and thinking I like and value.  The only difference is that now, my words won’t be backed by the force of a grade book.  I honestly don’t know what the results of this might be.  Even without grades, it seems, the teacher-student relationship will still be marked by an uneven power dynamic: my students may still try to suss out and emulate what they think I want.  It does seem, though, that without the pressure to please the teacher for a grade, students may be more likely to take chances, to engage in the type of writing they like and value.  This, in turn, might increase their investment in the writing process.

In particular, I can think of two types of students who might benefit from my production-based model. The first group consists of users of non-dominant discourses (these are the students that Inoue is primarily concerned with).  Because matters of usage, language, etc. are no longer part of the grading framework, students formerly penalized for such matters might be newly empowered.  Any student willing to produce the pages, no matter their facility with the dominant discourse, after all, can get an A.  The other group that stands to benefit, it seems to me, are highly motivated, slightly neurotic students.  These are the ones who approach you on the first day of class and announce that they must absolutely get an A.  In pursuit of top scores, they spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to do exactly what the teacher wants (and worrying that they have failed).  It seems that with their grades assured, this type of student can direct their mental resources towards more productive and self-determined ends.  They might be able to relax a bit, which very well might lead to better, more sophisticated writing.

As noted in my first paragraph, this post represents merely notes towards a labor-based assessment paradigm.  My thoughts at this point are undoubtedly fragmentary.  I am excited, though, to apply some of Professor Inoue’s labor-based principles in my classroom.  Ultimately, practice will reveal the best path to take.

ESL Manifesto

As someone who has taught writing to both native English speakers and second-language learners, I’ve noticed something of a “two cultures” situation between these ventures.  The former is dominated by English departments, generally, while the latter is dominated by linguistics.  These two groups have different ideas about how writing should be taught.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about where my own views fit in.  To help figure this out, I’ve drafted a short statement of how I teach writing, a “this I believe” statement, you could say.  Here it is:

  • A writer improves by writing.  The job of the writing teacher is to create an environment in which the writer has to write.
  • To write is to create meanings (interpretations of our shared world) and make those meanings understood.  As such, the student writer must receive constant feedback as to how her meanings are received.
  • Increased linguistic sophistication is achieved when a writer is forced to create meanings beyond the forms on which she normally relies.  The learning environment should be structured to encourage such movement.
  • Conscious knowledge of the writing act (grammatical rules, names for textual features or stages of the writing process) is useful to a limited extent.  The introduction of such knowledge should always be subordinate to active meaning-making.

Reviewing my claims, a number of things stick out.  First, as is perhaps apparent, I make no distinction, on a theoretical level, between teaching native and non-native speakers.  In all cases, I’d argue, teaching writing is a matter of triggering the innate human tendency towards meaning-making.  We learn a second language, I’d say, the same way we learn a first language: by doing it.

Second, my sidelining of the conscious elements of the learning process might surprise some.  Now, I admit that some knowledge of basic textual forms is beneficial.  For example, the idea that it often improves uptake to say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you said (introduction-body-conclusion) is something everyone should know.  In my experience, though, by the time they get to me (a university writing instructor), most students already know such rules, at least in the abstract.  If there’s a problem, it’s that they can’t actualize this knowledge.  This means that presenting ideas about how writing is or should be is usually not an efficient use of class time.  Instead, the students should be the ones producing the content.  They should be doing the writing and thinking, not the teacher.

Third, the ecological nature of writing should be respected.  Smaller units of discourse are inevitably shaped by the larger units of which they are a part: a word gets its meaning from a sentence, a sentence from a paragraph, etc.  This means that you should be very careful about decontextualizing language units.  Consider the sentence.  If you want better (richer, more technically correct) sentences, you can’t focus solely on individual sentences.  Instead, each sentence must be engaged within a larger discursive structure.  This is what I’m trying to get at when I speak of students creating “meanings.”  Meaning, as used here, is a complete idea, projected into the world for a purpose.  This purpose, in turn, shapes each sentence, paragraph, etc.  By focusing on meanings (instead of decontextualized units) students learn to engage in the dialectic between part and whole which is inherent in the writing act.  This helps them become better writers.

Finally, the value of difficulty should be acknowledged.  Students must write, but to grow, they must do more than just write: they need to move beyond the forms they typically rely on.  This implicates content.  Students need to be forced to write about things they haven’t written about before.  And these topics should be complex (relevant to the student’s current level).  Even if students are writing every day, I’d argue, their growth will be limited if the topics they are writing about are too simplistic or too familiar.  In such cases, they’re just displaying their abilities, rather than expanding those abilities.

That’s it.  The above ideas are largely draw from (American, English-department based) composition theory.  I honestly don’t know how they would be received in ESL circles.  But I welcome any discussion the above might spark.

Is Literacy Inherently Liberal?

Yesterday I wandered into a dark corner of the web: the comments section of some obscure right-wing clickbait purveyor. As a writing teacher and student of rhetoric and composition, I find such spots fascinating.   Some thoughts.

First, what is up with all the misspellings and crazy grammatical constructions? I ask this question in all seriousness. Let’s be clear– I am in no way a SNOOT. In fact, in my writing classes I make an exaggerated show of not caring about grammar. But still, on this particular website, almost every comment contains non-standard language. Why?

The easiest explanation is that the people attracted to right-wing clickbait (stories about hero police dogs, etc.) are simply not very “literate.” They are older, perhaps didn’t go to college. This lack of linguistic sophistication is reflected in both consumption (what they choose to read) and production (their commentary).

Let’s unpack this further. In this case, sophistication = socialization. Proper bourgeois subjects like myself (and most likely my reader) have been trained in certain habits of thought and action. These include linguistic norms and rules relating to evidence, logic and narrative coherence. We write in Standard Written English (SWE), understand the world via Standard Bourgeois Logic (SBL). Our click-baited friends, for whatever reason, have internalized different standards. To us, therefore, both their choice of reading material (“libtard teacher stomps on flag”) and language use (no distinction between your and you’re, seemingly random capitalization) seems alien.

The above is pretty basic stuff. A more interesting question is whether discursive practices and social/cultural/political values are linked. Does the internalization of SWE and SBL push learners towards a certain political alignment? Or in other words, if one can write a coherent paragraph is he or she less likely to be attracted to the ideas underlying “Obummer” clickbait?

This is a difficult question. Of course there are both left-wing and right-wing clickbait websites. And of course, one can be discursively sophisticated and hold right-wing views. It does seem though, at least from my admittedly bias perspective, that the least “literate” discourses lean conservative. Hence my titular question.