Upside Down and Backwards


The more I think about it, the more I think I and my friends have been teaching upside down and backwards. I don’t have this all straight in my mind, but here goes:

We have succumbed to the myth of transparency. This myth of transparency feeds off the myth of grades.

The keynote speaker at this Drexel assessment conference after making some reasonable claims floored me when he said, we have to get the students on our side, and we do that by grades.

I did my usual double-take, rolled my eyes, and groaned to register my disapproval. Typically, no one noticed me.

So the speaker went on: Grades is how we motivate them (has he read Dewey?) and we have to be clear about our criteria for determining grades. That’s why we create rubrics. We let them know explicitly what we’re looking for and different levels of achievement for each criterion. That’s transparency.

In my last post, I admitted my sins, the decades during which I have promoted this transparency myth–it is, after all, what lies behind genre theory. I don’t want to oversimplify, but according to us genre theorists, we recognize that discourse is not free-range; in specific kinds of situations, readers tacitly look for the markers of a particular genre that fit the rhetorical situation (and for markers that the writer has the right to speak). So we try to clue students in on how this works with writing. And we let them know that writing comes bundled in genres. Which, more or less, it does.

I can’t entirely explain why I no longer think that genre-based instruction is a good way to help  students with their writing. This conference, however (and ironically), has solidified my thinking. There have been some very good people here, but I have heard trope after trope, “culture of assessment,” “bottom-up stuff,” “evidence-based assessment,” and so on. Most of the discourse is based on transparency: tell the students clearly what you’re looking for; create a rubric/grading scheme that reflects those objectives; evaluate them on the basis of that scheme; evaluate your teaching on the basis of how well your students have performed; close the loop–re-imagine your instruction so that your students will do better the next time around.  [My compliments to Christopher Nelson and Stephen Hales for eloquently challenging this paradigm.]

I want to make two points: there are a lot of well-meaning, incredibly talented people who are hopping onto the assessment train; the train is traveling away from teaching and toward upper administration positions. I say this, knowing that these people are incredibly talented and many of them serious about their commitment to student learning. But I think there is a kind of genuflecting to these popular tropes, and the tropes (or cliches) in some way take over student-centered learning.

I have other critiques of the assessment movement, but I want to get to a point about teaching writing. I will try to say this in a way that minimally offends.  But here: I have already said that we mis-teach by creating fake audiences and fake rhetorical situations (and I have done my share).  I think we teach our students more about writing when we construct writing situations from which we don’t know the outcomes. We don’t know what we are looking for. When we pose a general writing topic and tell our students, let’s see where we can go with this. And where as teachers, we are simply curious about where our students’ writing will take us.

To teach like this, you have to get rid of the notion of grades and criteria. You have to think of writing as a mode of communicating, not as a method of the student showing the teacher that the student knows how to do something. This all seems so obvious. Why are we doing it so wrong?

2 Replies to “Upside Down and Backwards”

  1. I just typed a fairly long comment and then it disappeared when I had to sign in. Alas. Briefly this time: I love what you are saying here, and in many of your posts, Irv. Range free writing: that's something I'll share with my students in my teaching writing course (mostly education majors). Sure, understanding genre can be helpful, but the best way to do that is to "read like a writer." Read examples of the genre you are writing in and note what the most compelling writers do. But don't think you can just fill in the blanks of some genre template. And recognize how often we "mix" genres or qualities of different genres. I love your comment in another post that we should look forward to reading student writing as we do a novel. I'd compare it to getting a magazine in the mail and enjoying the variety of articles in there. As teacher, I'm the magazine's "editor" who gets to read all the submissions. If it's a good magazine with an exciting, interesting, open vision, many of the submissions will be worth reading. Keep up the good work, Irv!

  2. thanks for your note–if I didn't write in response elsewhere. I can't imagine why we should create writing tasks the responses to which we don't want to read. Basically, I want my students in their essays to tell me something that will help me understand who I am.

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