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.

Digital Media Literacy & Writing Instruction

As discussed in a previous post, this semester I’m thinking about digital media literacy and its relation to writing instruction.  James Potter’s Theory of Media Literacy: A Cognitive Approach is my starting point.  So, if we follow Potter, what might digital media literacy entail?  How might it relate to the writing classroom?  In this post, I’d like to posit some tentative answers.

First, to define digital media literacy, we need to specify our goals.  What are we trying to do?  At what level of the media ecology are we seeking to intervene?  Potter, as the title of his book indicates, works at the level of individual.*  “The primary responsibility for increasing media literacy,” he writes, “resides with the individual person” (65).  As I see it, his claim here is that we (as scholars, educators or policy-makers) can’t force anyone to do anything.  Individuals, as media consumers, are the ultimate decision-makers.  This means that literacy promotion must be inherently rhetorical—we have to convince people of the benefits (to them) of certain ways of thinking and being.

Relatedly, Potter puts great emphasis on tracing the effects of media consumption.  “Any theory of media literacy,” he writes, “must at its core be a theory about how people are affected by the media” (66).  I think this is an important insight.  It reminds us to focus on the real-life consequences of our media consumption habits.  The underlying idea is that individuals are impacted by both the form and content of the media they consume.  We should seek to trace the nature of this impact.  Such inquiry, Potter believes, will reveal that some ways of watching TV or using your phone, say, are better than others, in that they lead to more desirable personal and social consequences.  Media literacy scholars should seek to identity and promote best practices.

So Potter urges us to study (and try to influence) individual media consumption habits.  Now, the question arises, how does this relate to writing instruction?  Some would argue that it does not.  They believe that writing instruction should focus on the production, rather than the consumption of texts.  The type of text to be produced varies, but the key point is that those in this camp devalue interpretation.  I take the opposite approach.  As I see it, the primary move at the heart of all writing instruction—whether teaching academic writing, creative writing or digital media—is the enhancement of the student’s meaning-making ability.  And meaning is never made in a vacuum.  Instead, we write and think using resources we draw from the world.  Writing, as Thomas Kent argues, is intractably hermeneutic.  It presupposes interpretation.

If we assume that all writing involves interpretation, we start to see how media literacy might intersect with writing instruction.  Our goal is to enhance meaning-making ability.  To do so, we must hone interpretive skills.  Media literacy theory, I’d argue, can provide guidance to this end.  In particular, the concept of filtering seems key.  According to Potter, interpretation involves not just how we understand what comes into our field of view, but the practices and habits by which we decide what comes into view in the first place.  These habits of attention are engrained in us through media exposure.  Taking this to be true, it’s only reasonable to assume that these engrained habits impact how students read and write.  Undoubtedly students spend more time texting and on Facebook than they do writing essays or creative non-fiction.  The practices learned in the former very likely shape the latter, both as to form (how we write) and content (what we write about).  Media consumption habits must thus be a concern for writing teachers.

So to summarize, the goal, when thinking about media literacy, is to identify and promote healthier media consumption habits.  For purposes of rhetoric and composition, “healthier” equals those habits which allow students to construct more expansive meanings.  And what might these habits be?  This is complex question, but I think more attention to our filtering practices is important.  What have we been trained not to see?  How can we engage with Facebook and Netflix in ways which gives us a more complex and complete repertoire of facts and ideas with which to write and think?  To promote media literacy, writing teachers will have to devise strategies to help students ask and answer these questions.  Potter’s ideas provide some guidance, but there is obviously much work to be done.

*Some complain that media literacy education of the type Potter promotes, by emphasizing individual choice, ignores the determinative effects of larger social structures.  They argue that media literacy should entail elucidating these structures and engaging in collective action to change them.  While I’m all for change, I’d argue that this work—while important—isn’t the work of writing teachers.  Simply put, in the writing classroom our primary goal is not/should not be to shape policy at a national level.  Instead, it is to help our students (as individuals, necessarily) survive and thrive in the current discursive environment.  Of course, it’s not an either/or choice.  As Potter shows, intervention at the individual level can and will promote broader change.  We just have to be satisfied working from the “bottom up.”

Putting the Beatles in Context

The centerpiece of my writing class is always the lived experience of the student. I try to stress though that our experience of the world is never disinterested or given. Instead, what we see and hear and feel is always shaped by various forces. Here’s a lesson plan that seeks to illustrate this point.

Note: this is for a 75 minute class.

Lesson Plan:

To begin, I had my students listen to the Beatles’ epic “A Day in the Life,” and do a short (~7 minutes) freewrite describing the experience. My prompt asked them simply, how does this song make you feel? What does it make you think about? Why?

* This activity could utilize any piece of music, as long as 1) the students are not overly familiar with it and 2) it has a substantial entry on Wikipedia. “A Day in The Life” works particularly well, I found, because of its challenging nature and the well-documented (and interesting) circumstances of its composition.

After freewriting, I asked if anyone knew anything about this song (some recognized it was the Beatles, but no one knew its name). I then told them the name, and asked them to go to the relevant Wikipedia page and do some research. “Find out where this song comes from,” I asked. I gave them 15 minutes to read about the song. Though instructed to start with the song’s Wikipedia page, they were encouraged to follow whatever research path grabbed their attention.

We then listened to the song again, and did another freewrite. My prompt this time asked them to note any differences in what they heard or felt or thought. In short, I wanted them to reflect on how background knowledge changed their experience of the song.

Theoretical Justification:

I know from my own experience that learning the context and compositional background of a piece of music (or film or text) inevitably alters how I engage with that work. I was hoping that my students would experience the same effect, and that reflecting on those changes would make them more aware of how knowledge (and context in general) shapes their understanding of the world.

I also feel that engaging deeply with an object (especially a disruptive one like this song), and attempting to share that experience, is a fundamentally beneficial activity for young writers. It forces them to put their subjective experience in symbolic form. It’s also useful for them to see how others make sense of a shared object. This tracks with one of the main goals of my class—to better understand how we see the world, and how this differs from how others see it. Though I didn’t focus on it much, the varying research paths taken could also provide fruitful grounds for discussion.


After our second freewrite, we spent ~45 minutes discussing what we had written. I started off by having some students read their first freewrite aloud. Their responses were varied and fascinating. Some students wrote of being “confused” and “scared” by this “trippy” song, with orchestral parts which reminded them of the score to a horror movie. Others wrote about how some parts (Paul’s verses, in particular) reminded them of childhood. The dominant tendency, after doing some research, was to focus more on the lyrics and the story behind the song (IE, an acquaintance of the Beatles dying in a car wreck). This, predictably, lead to the students hearing an increasingly plaintive element.

Perhaps the most telling response was from a student who wrote about how at first, the unusual structure of the song caused her “anxiety.” This anxiety was relieved once she did some research and “knew what the song was about.”  This response says much about this student’s relationship with novelty.  It is my hope that after exploring this relationship in the classroom, she’ll be more inclined to take note of it in other contexts.


This was a fun exercise, and I certainly saw changes in my students’ experience of the song.  I’m inclined to believe though that to really facilitate the kind of inter-contextual transfer I’m seeking, it may be necessary to have the students draw some generalizable conclusions from the activity. Towards that end, perhaps this in-class activity could be followed by an essay assignment in which students discuss this “experiment” and what it says about the relationship between knowledge and lived experience.

In group discussion I’d also like to put more emphasis on what the differences noted “mean.”  For example, the song’s background story made one student feel less anxious.  What does this change say about the importance of narrative coherence in her world?  Certainly this question was implicit in our discussion; if I were to teach this activity again though, I’d like to make it explicit.

On Bad Writing

In my last post I wrote about unsophisticated discourse.  Today I’d like to discuss some of the features of such writing.

It seems to me that one of the key features of “bad” writing is a reliance on dichotomies: liberal/conservative, good/bad, etc. Of course, every academic since Derrida has warned against the dangers of binary thinking. I don’t want to join that chorus. Oppositions, binary or otherwise, can be useful– they’re a form of abstraction which allow us to cut the world into manageable bits. Of course, as online trolls and lazy students demonstrate, the power of abstraction can also be abused. So then, what distinguishes good abstraction from bad?

One key, I think, is that the writer recognize, and signal to the reader that he recognizes, that oppositions are just tools for thinking. There is, of course, no such thing as “liberal” or “conservative.” These are just symbols we use to signal a certain web of political commitments. Such a web naturally has contradictory element. A sophisticated writer/thinker knows this. For example, instead of “all liberals hate America,” she may write, “liberals have a tendency to be critical of the dominant culture.” The nuance in the latter statement indicates that the writer knows that an abstraction is just an abstraction. The former writer, on the other hand, seems to fetishize his abstraction. The term “liberal” appears monolithic to him, and therefore, he appears simple-minded to us.

Unsophisticated writers also use a lot of insults. On the clickbait website I discussed yesterday, it seems that every other post refers to someone as “stupid” or a “moran.” Why is this? Are people with low literacy skills just jerks? No. Following my always generous sensei Dave Bartholomae, I see these writers as trying to express their experience using the limited linguistic tools available to them. There is pain in their world. They have named that pain “liberal” or “Obama.” And by writing, for example, that “Obama is a hommos muslim,” they are attempting to share their subjective experience of this pain.

So in short, as a writing teacher, when I see writers resort to petty insults I want to find out what’s really bothering them. They are undoubtedly feeling some complicated stuff (all feelings are complicated). They’re just expressing it in a way that users of SWE/SBL find simplistic.