Friday, March 11, 2005

Sincerely Yours

A few days ago, I mentioned that I am an advocate of “sincerity in teaching.” What I mean by that (not that anyone asked) is that I tend to acknowledge a political position during a class discussion or openly identify as a feminist, for example. I’ve also admitted to my classes that grading writing can be quite subjective. This last statement probably causes more trouble than any of the more overtly political stuff. Because once I'm out about the grading topic, I inevitably get evaluations that say things like, “Her grading is too subjective” or “She only wants students to write what she agrees with” (this is so far from the truth). I was having lunch with a colleague recently and complaining about this. I started to articulate an explanation I can give to students about how grading as an act is subjective, that teachers can often agree on a grade but will have different rationales for that same grade, and that the subjective nature of grading doesn’t mean I’m only approving positions I like. My thoughts were that if I am even more "sincere" and up front about my beliefs it might help keep these complaints at bay.

My friend interrupted me and said, “No, Julie, you’ve got it all wrong. They don’t want to hear that. You’re not going to like this, but what you need to do is invent a scheme of grading that looks objective, so they feel like there’s a science to what you’re doing. Then they’ll feel good about it. They crave authority and direction. They don’t want to think anything is ever subjective. Never say that!”

She’s right--I don't like it, but I think she's also right about the emotional message students crave. Well, if you read Cicero, you see that students have always craved clarity over ambiguity. But how do others handle this? Is there a groupthink at your school that leans toward authority? Does anyone work some place where students exhibit other groupthinks? What schemes, scientific or otherwise, have worked for your grading activities?

The week is almost done and I am tired. It has been a long one and I didn't get to nearly half the things I intended. I did, however, have a conversation about caskets today.



At 4:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous has had a long week, too, made even longer by the never-ending winter we've had here in New England.


As far as subjectivity in grading goes, I often make the same admission to my students. I haven't gotten a lot of negative feedback about my subjective response to their writing though, usually because in classes I often have students generate and approve the grading/response criteria (in a sense, the class becomes aligned in its subjectivities).

So is there a role for this subjectivity in writing center sessions? Anonymous gets annoyed at the notion that the writing center is somehow a "non-evaluative" place. I think that tutors constantly make evaluative judgments about student writing (and I've listened to lots and lots of session transcripts that support that claim); they just don't slap that final grade. And skilled tutors don't just say, "Yeah, this is great" or "Nah, this needs work." They offer explanation for their evaluations and ask about (and listen to) the reasons for the choices writers made. So we don't just write "AWK!" in the margins, we talk about what makes a sentence sound awkward and work with a student to develop strategies to smooth that sentence out. But the notion of akwardness comes from an initial judgment: an evaluation.

Time to go get the bbq for dinner.


At 8:33 AM, Blogger spiral said...

I, too, try to allow students to come up with criteria for grading, and as my students generate criteria, I give input about my feelings about their ideas to make at least a faux-collaborative effort (we always acknowledge in class that I have the final say, but I almost always use all of their ideas in some form).

My students seemed to feel better about having the criteria on paper, but ultimately, they still saw my input as subjective and feel that I try to direct their creativity too much when I give comments or ask questions on drafts. In fact, when I've had students do interviews with other people to find out other people's ideas about writing and what makes it "good," some students seem to go out of their way to find people to tell them all notions of writing are subjective.

It becomes very hard to reign in this ultra-subjectivity so that they will at least entertain the idea there is some degree of subjectivity, but there are still some common ideas to think about when writing. I feel like without getting to some place of common ground, some of my students caste off writing instruction and writing in general as an icky-muddy place where either they do not want to do anything or they feel they can do anything because what they do does not matter. After all, it's all subjective, and a certain amount of fatalism ensues in some students. I know I can't (nor do I want to) push them to believe me or listen to me because I'm one of those authority figures. As a colleague put it, "It's like being a mom. Your own kids won't listen to you, but if someone else says the same thing, they'll listen."

Plus, a big part of me wants to just let the doors swing open so that students can let their ideas go.
Unfortunately, though, I feel my gatekeeping role more heavily each semester and know that there are certain things my students will have to be able to do to pass the next class, to get past HR to get a job, to establish credibility in certain readership contexts, etc. I have a hard enough time making sense of these issues for myself, much less my students, and I would really like it if someone would tell me these issues do not become less complex with increased teaching experience because I just keep seeing more and more and more . . .

At 4:31 AM, Blogger Tamara Miles said...

Will it come as a big surprise to anyone to hear that I HATE GRADING PAPERS? Looking at the papers, talking about them, offering help, teaching --- I like that part --- but the grading I can do without, not just because of the work but because of the emotional entanglement. There is just no easy way to write or to hear "D" or "F." That said, I CAN justify the grades. Yes, grading is subjective; however, there are certain criteria that are fairly straightforward and can be checked with a rubric. My students know up front what I expect --- and if I'm setting them up to write what I want on the formal papers, well, there will be other times when they write what they want, and I don't grade it at all. There will be still other times when they write what another teacher wants, and eventually they will write what an employer wants --- there's not much of a way around that.

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