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Grading the Grader who Graded the Grader, Part 2.5

Last week I looked at an essay written by a prospective teacher. First I asked for comments about the essay – and there were lots of excellent ones – and then I offered my own analysis in “Please Grade the Following Essay, Part 2.” Part 3, the article that explains what the essay is from and why that matters, is on its way, barring more unnecessary delays by the New York State Department of Education.

For now I’d like to address a piece by Daniel at Key Words that parses my approach in Part 2. It is vital that education bloggers address criticism in full [when circumstances allow, of course]. That’s the real strength of the blogosphere and hearkens those who insist rightly that blogs are about conversations. The label “conversations,” though, doesn’t do the exchanges justice; if we’re committed to discussing issues for the advancement of knowledge about that topic, we need to address fully the concerns that rise in the debate out of an obligation to the discipline. And, as a side note, it’s only right to respond to someone who has taken the time to evaluate your work [again, when circumstances allow. Christopher Hitchens may not have the time to address all his critics].

I won’t give Daniel a grade, but I’ll respond to the criticism.

Daniel’s first issue with my critique is my decision to evaluate the essay by factors that weren’t part of the original grading instructions. He says:

The criteria for grading EXPLICITLY excluded writing ability beyond that necessary to communicate the writers ideas effectively. Mr. Tabor decided to start with the forbidden fruit:

Despite the instructions, I’m not going to pretend that writing doesn’t matter. Writing is a reflection of thought; words make sentences, sentences make paragraphs and structure presents the argument. Poor writing matters so much because it shows poor thought processes. Commenters mentioned that there were illogical rambles, poor syntax and structure, all of which reflect parallel errors in the author’s thoughts. Writing really isn’t about writing, it’s about thinking.

He’s right – I spurned the instructions. I didn’t pretend that I followed the same guidelines elucidated in the exam instructions. That’s why I evaluated the essay on my own site and not in the official capacity as a grader of the exam. He continues:

He does a beautiful job of justifying it, but his justification doesn’t work for two reasons. First, because no matter how important writing is – and I do acknowledge that it is highly important – it wasn’t what this assignment was about. The writer was told up front to focus on content instead of style. This is BOUND to affect how he is going to approach the assignment. This is a TIMED assignment, so the writer is bound to make sacrifices in order to actually complete the assignment. Discarding the instructions the writer was going from is a flat out bait and switch.

I’m not sure exactly how to respond to this charge without reiterating what I’ve said here and in the original post. While the examinee was constrained by time and had little incentive to conform to standards of writing that deviate from stream-of-consciousness exposition, a competent teacher [and writer] shouldn’t have trouble writing a short essay that addresses the question and isn’t painful to read.

Key Words is right about the bait and switch. The focus of the essay analysis [that will be fleshed out further in Part 3] isn’t to berate the fictional writer, it’s meant to expose flaws and inadequacies in the examination – that isn’t done by using the given rubric. I chose to evaluate the essay by responsible measures I’d like to see in place rather than the shoddy, simplistic standards given. On to reason #2:

The second reason Mr. Tabor’s justification doesn’t work is because, well it’s just flat out wrong. He sums up his reasoning with the statement “Writing really isn’t about writing, it’s about thinking.” It’s not. It’s about outputting the results of one’s thoughts. Now, for many people, thoughts DO have a direct correlation to writing – these people are verbal thinkers. They are very common in society – I believe the statistic I last read was that about ninety percent of all people are primarily verbal thinkers – but they are NOT the whole story. Some of the strongest thinkers in the world are visual-spatial thinkers. They are the strongly right brained people among us and they only convert their thoughts to words as they become necessary for communication. Mr. Tabor’s reasoning completely ignores the visual-spatial thinkers.

If “outputting the results of one’s thoughts” isn’t thinking, how narrowly has “thinking” been defined? The visual-spatial, left-brain/right-brain, kinesthetic-versus-whatever-else-is-fashionable argument isn’t relevant here. This is an essay test for prospective educators, not a performance art exam. By no means is an essay test the ultimate measure of intellect, ability or knowledge – few would argue that it is. It isn’t the whole story and it isn’t meant to be.

While the expression of talent has many forms, basic writing skills aren’t relegated only to left-brain nerdboxes. I expect – and many tell me that I’m wrong and naive to expect this – that a college graduate should be able to write competently regardless of their major, future career or prized skillset. Remember, even students majoring in 17th Century Siberian Basketweaving Studies have a liberal arts component to their degree and have presumably completed high school.

And, for the love of God, even a pseudoscholar like Ward Churchill [whose graduate degree was in Graphic Design, not any element of Ethnic Studies or a related social science field] writes better than this essayist. I’d guess he’s a right-brain thinker, too. [b.n. for a daily discussion on neurological processes understandable by laymen like myself, check out www.mindhacks.com - they often discuss the validity of such claims about learning. It can only enhance your teaching.]

The last point is more than just nit picking on this assignment. It reflects a weakness with the mass education process in general. Most school based teaching caters to verbal thinkers. This is in part because it’s easier to teach verbally to large groups of children, but also because the teaching profession in general attracts more than its fair share of verbal thinkers.

Or we teach verbally because it’s the basis for the fundamental skills every student will need after high school.

The next issue Mr. Tabor tackles is more on target – the content of the essay. This is, however, in my opinion, where the assignment itself failed the writer.

I agree here – it’s a terrible assignment and even the sharpest thinker or most talented writer would struggle to generate truly valuable content from a question this rotten. It’s a variant on the famed, “garbage in, garbage out.”

First of all, the writer isn’t suggesting the teacher “pander” to the kids. He’s suggesting the teacher take some time to focus on career relevance – as the assignment requested. Also, I looked for where the author even suggested this approach was “novel” and never actually found it. I think Mr. Tabor is reading more into the essay than was written. He’s then grading on his ‘invisible’ portion of the essay, which I find troubling.

The writer suggests pandering by having them pool their whims and inclinations – which may or may not land on content relevant to career education, but I’d bet a kidney on “not” – instead of teaching them. “Pandering” wasn’t the best word choice, but it’s not far from the truth.

As for my suggestion that the author thought the approach was novel, I did indeed read into the essay. The author didn’t say it. However, it was an observation about the author’s possible thoughts and wasn’t factored into my evaluation. I didn’t consider it in the evaluation then and I wouldn’t now, though I thought it was worth mentioning in my write-up. The charming irony here is that Key Words reads more into my essay than was written and relates my comment about the “novel approach” to the grade I gave. It simply didn’t factor in.

Key Words then discusses my position that career education can be delivered through English rather than the other way around:

The first part is a valid criticism – Career focus day is NOT English and, although it would be easy to teach English while implementing this (e.g. written essays reviewing the merits of the presented careers and how they fulfill social needs/match the student’s goals), the writer failed to show how this would be done. The second part, however, is more a criticism based on Mr. Tabor’s opinion than the actual merits of the writer’s suggestion. Essentially, Mr. Tabor is saying English teachers should “develop career awareness and an understanding of the world of work” by teaching English. The writer’s suggestion to use a work based focus in teaching assignments is perfectly reasonable within the context of this assignment – it both teaches English AND (as the assignment requires) makes the students aware of career requirements and how the subject matter . Mr. Tabor’s “stick to the basics” obviously does the first part, but completely fails to even address the second.

There was no clear plan to teach English skills. Contending that the writer “failed to show how this would be done,” and then lauding them for a suggestion to “use a work based [sic] focus in teaching assignments” is illogical. Had the teacher described a lesson, even in general terms, that used an element of English curriculum to explore careers, I’d have reacted more positively.

Mr. Tabor follows up this criticism with an attack on the writer’s suggestion of student led activities. Mr. Tabor feels that the teacher – not the student – is best qualified to determine the skills necessary for success beyond school. Mr. Tabor also believes that the writer is using these methods to entertain the students.

This teacher is as equally unqualified to lead the activity as the students are, but that’s a detail. I don’t think that the writer uses these methods as entertainment nearly as much as I believe he/she relies on them because he/she isn’t capable of generating and delivering the content. That wasn’t stated explicitly in the essay – it’s just my read of the situation.

While the writer does acknowledge that he is engaging the motivation of the students, he is in no way suggesting that this it the prime goal as Mr. Tabor believes.

Correct – the writer would [or should?] be too ashamed to admit what I just wrote above.

Mr. Tabor is insisting on instructor led learning even though he does not say how this actually accomplishes the goal the assignment asks the writer to address. Mr. Tabor simply favors an instructor led approach (even though the instructor will NOT be there to “lead” the student in his actual career pursuits or work related duties – independence, self motivation and individual preference are simply left unaddressed). In essence, he is grading the writer down here because their opinions don’t match.

Unfortunately, I’m not an unwavering relativist. Though I don’t profess to be right always, there are good approaches and bad ones. The author suggests a bad one and I explained why. The education field would do well to rely less on opinion and diversity for diversity’s sake, especially when justifying methods of instruction that will have a profound impact on their students’ lives.

That the instructor won’t be there on the job floor is a puzzling, irrelevant point. Because instructors won’t stand beside students in future pursuits, an instructor-led approach is sub-optimal? After considering the logic of that, I look forward to an essay that decries instructor-led sex education and proposes either a student-centered, constructivist sex ed curriculum or – even better – advocates the instructor’s physical presence and guidance when the fruits of sex education bear out.

Now there is always an element of subjectivity in the grading of any essay, but a grader should at least TRY to base his grades on the standards set forth ahead of time in the assignment. Mr. Tabor does make some excellent points in general about the subject. He writes very effectively to justify his points (although for someone who is so adamant about the importance of writing and how it is a reflection of thinking, he would do better to try to keep his singular and plural cases consistent). However, he is NOT grading this assignment effectively or, to put it bluntly, honestly.

Again, I didn’t base my analysis on the grading standards given. I found little value in grading the answer to a bad question by equally bad standards.

As for the singular/plural cases, you’ve probably got me. I write content on this site once with seldom more than a 60-second edit and mistakes do creep in. Keeping number consistent will be in the back of my mind from now on.

Vermont Students Want to End Women’s Suffrage

Vermont isn’t a hotbed of misogyny – indeed, it’s one of the more progressive parts of the country, as evidenced by the recent movement to secede from the Union [and no, the movement isn't even that recent].

The University of Vermont’s student body is, however, largely ignorant when it comes to basic knowledge. Watch this brief video from UVMtv that asks female UVMers how they feel about women’s suffrage: [RSS readers click here for video, opens in new window]

Many of these undergraduates confuse “suffrage,” the right to vote, with “suffering.” They’re different things.

These budding scholars say:

  • “I think it should be taken away.”
  • “That it’s bad and should never happen.”
  • “… guess that’s not really a good thing.”

Sure, some of them know what suffrage is and that equality and rights are a good thing – they’ve mastered a 7th grade curriculum. But isn’t there something charmingly sad, like watching a three-legged, one-eyed dog try to keep up with the neighborhood pack, about a ~21 year old girl who says about the victims of suffrage:

“I feel for them, ya know… as a woman myself, um… and hopefully they have good families and stuff to back them up and if they don’t then hopefully they have places they can go… shelters or whatever to help them out?”

UVM isn’t a bad school and, as far as public universities go, it provides a quality education at a reasonable price.

Having said that, I hope that more people understand after seeing this video why I’m not automatically impressed by a BA/BS [or any degree program]. It most certainly isn’t a certification of even the most basic knowledge that a product of higher education should command.

The larger question here: if a student at a decent school doesn’t have an understanding of one of the most basic social/political developments of 20th century America, how can they possibly tackle some of the complex issues facing the West?

May God bless the victims of women’s suffrage, but also those precious, tragically-ignorant darlings in the video.

[courtesy of the ever-vigilant phi beta cons]

UPDATE at 8.01.07, 3.33pm:

Thomas C. Reeves wrote on the National Association of Scholars Online Forum a brief essay on graduation days. In it he says, with all emphasis mine:

While a professor, I never attended a graduation exercise. I sought not only to avoid the hot air from the podium, but also because I knew that so few of the graduates had sought and been given a rigorous, intellectually demanding, and broad education for their money. Yes, there had been individual achievement in all areas; three cheers for the few. But who in those robes with the silly hats was committed to a life of learning and thought? How many would elevate their cultural tastes? How many among the graduates had even a vague interest in anything beyond making money, having fun, and being politically correct? Many of them had already sold their books. Seniors often told me how delightful life would soon be when they no longer had to study.

An appropriate comment on these UVMers, though the last line might express too much hope that those seniors have studied at all.

Delays, Delays, Delays.

answer the monkeyphone!

I’m trying desperately to come up with the data I need to flesh out Part 3 of this essay series. The NYSED hasn’t been able to co-operate efficiently [I spent 57 combined minutes on hold after asking how many examinees took a given test in a calendar year], so I’ve been forced to look elsewhere. I was hoping to have it done yesterday.

For now, I’d like to call your attention to two new articles:

1. Is homework overrated? Bell Work Online wants to know. “So, why do teachers assign homework? Do kids really need it? Does homework truly teach anything? I feel pretty strongly about this, but I’d like to see what other teachers and people in education think.” He’s got survey results from his school, his students and is ready for a flood of comparative opinion.

2. Grading the Grader: A Tangent on Grading the Essay. Daniel at Key Words wrote a lengthy treatment of Grading the Essay Part 2 – give it a read. He disagrees with every bit of my analysis. And, when I say every, I mean every; I even got my own name wrong and he was kind enough to show me that it’s actually Michael.

Commenter Julia pointed out the flaw and called it “baffling.” I’m likely to agree – most of the negative e-mail I get includes some reference to vanity on my site. My name’s everywhere. Daniel responded to her charge:

Not baffling at all – I don’t know the guy and have no previous exposure to his name. I paid little attention to his name since the SUBSTANCE of the article was my main concern. I found his name in the title less than easy on the eyes (bunched together in a fringe font isn’t very user friendly). I copied the title with a right click on the tab instead of bothering to read it and I wrote the whole thing between phone calls at work. He’s lucky I got the initial right.

Lucky indeed.

I’d love to respond in full to his analysis, but the prospect of shoveling the Augean Stables with a teaspoon on a Friday afternoon doesn’t appeal. We’ll see.

Writing, Technology and 15 Quick Fixes

writing matters

I’ve kicked around in my mind the topic of writing since I read Joanne Jacobs’ advice on KitchenTableMath. She lays out six solid tips on how to write effectively, then recommends on her own site an excellent book. I am by no means an expert writer [on this blog I mimic my speech with asides that are brackets, hyphens that are pauses/clauses, and other unconventional elements], but I’d like to weigh in.

Writing skills are on the decline – if you haven’t already, gloss over this essay written by a prospective English educator. And we can see it in the private sector, which may be the best indicator of how specific skills are valued. Those who write well have a leg up in the job market; if you’ve seen half as many incomprehensible cover letters as I have – or struggled to write one – you understand.

When young people are given only one shot at communicating, they fail at an alarming rate. Can you blame them? They aren’t used to “high-stakes” writing – that is, the way it always used to be. As a young writer and educator, I can’t claim enough experience to bemoan the modern state of writing and wax nostalgic over better days. I can, however, explain the emergence of some glaring problems and how we might go about fixing them.

The primary culprit responsible for the degradation of writing skills – aside from problems in our education system, which is a separate issue – is the proliferation of the internet and its lack of accountability. This isn’t a condemnation of the internet or technology. The reality is that students and young adults are used to fast-paced give-and-take communication, just like a spoken conversation, that makes saying the right thing irrelevant. There’s no need to write a clear, succinct sentence when you can correct an interpretation instantly or detail as needed any facet of your statement. The kids are used to this convenience – they expect it – and have trouble with communication that follows a more traditional format.

They’re Casey in the 9th and they need to be Reggie in Game 6.

We can also blame the machine behind the madness. Students are using computers as they IM, Twitter, or exchange messages on Facebook. There’s no need to think about which word to use or how to structure a sentence when you can backspace your way out of any mess. Spelling has suffered, too; the auto-correct and spell-check features have rendered a great deal of thought – including classic skills necessary for quick, effective writing – useless.

Unfortunately for the younger generations, they can’t always engage in such a familiar, conversational method of communicating. Much communication still goes one way – from you to the reader via a static medium – with feedback that’s far from immediate. Timed writing, like the SAT or school exams, are handwritten and leave little room for error; others, like job applications, can be typed and edited but not explained after submission.

The good news? There’s hope for writing. There are things big and small that can improve writing skills, including harnessing the same technology that’s done harm.

The Big Ones:

1. Ask for help. You probably haven’t stopped to notice, but there are lots of talented writers in your life. They might be teachers, friends, co-workers or neighbors – it really doesn’t matter who they are. Most good writers will be more than willing to help you develop your skills.

2. Write often. Writing is one of those things that takes practice. Treat all communication as writing: e-mails, IMs, notes on the kitchen table. Think about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, how you’re going to do it and then do it.

3. Step back.
Consider your audience every time you write. After all, they’re the ones reading. Think of writing not so much as the exposition of your own thoughts, but as relaying a message to someone else. Reading your writing aloud (or having others read it to you) will help you understand how well you’re communicating and what you need to work on.

The Little Ones:

1. Treat IMs and e-mails as real writing. Capitalize, punctuate properly and choose the right word. Pretend like you can’t take back anything you’ve said and you’ll get better quickly.

2. Read good writing. You’re only as good as what you read. Read quality writing and you’ll get better; read subpar writing and you won’t. It’s that simple.

3. Write for a large audience.
It’s easy to write exclusively for yourself. Write a short letter to the editor of your local paper to reach an audience.

4. Write letters. You know, those things that came before e-mails? Write to your grandparents, your cousins, or to an old friend. And when you do it…

5. Write by hand. Typing saves time, but nothing forces quality like writing by hand. Not being able to delete or spell-check automatically makes you think harder about what you’re writing.

6. Relax. No one is inherently good at writing. If you’ve yet to win a Nobel or Pulitzer, don’t worry – you’ll get better.

7. Relax. Seriously.

8. Write for different audiences.
Would you write the same way to your boyfriend as you do to your boss or teacher? Practice writing to men, women, older people, younger people, strangers, friends, family and co-workers. You need to master several different styles.

9. Write some fiction. Even if your stories are terrible – mine certainly are – write some fiction here and there. Practicing creative writing will make you a more versatile non-fiction writer.

10. Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips. It’s free, it’s concise, it’s interesting. Once a day you’ll get an easy-to-understand, relevant tip that will help your writing.

11. Subscribe to Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing podcast. Or you can read it on her site. She’s a gem.

12. Mix up reading, writing and speaking. Read what you write. Write about what you read. Say aloud what you write and what you read. Listen to music and transcribe the lyrics. Make these three different uses of words interact. They’re natural roommates, not just in communication, but also in practice. The sooner your mind gets used to these three skills working together, the sooner your facility with language and its uses will impress.

Anyone Hiring? Ward Churchill Needs a Job

ward churchill, warrior scholar

Shamed pseudoscholar Ward Churchill – that charming mix of self-proclaimed Native American, left-wing militant, radical feminist, 9/11 Truther, and every other oppressed subgroup fashionable in identity politics – has finally been terminated.

Remember – though his politics are distasteful to most, the impetus for his discipline came from scholarly plagiarism and fabrication. I don’t care how inflammatory or mundane your politics are, there’s no place in scholarship for cheating.

There’s no need for me to parse Churchill’s circumstances [I highlighted Anne D. Neal's take on it a few weeks ago]. That one’s been around the Victrola more than a few times. There is, however, an excellent – and, at times, troubling – discussion in the comments of InsideHigherEd.com’s coverage of the firing. One need not be a particularly interested party to find value in the exchange.

Robert at Casting Out Nines threw his hat into that comment ring and gives his opinion, as well as some reasoning for his comment on IHE, on his own site.

UPDATE at 7.26.07, 4.18pm: Want to know why UC President Hank Brown terminated Churchill? Read his explanation called “Why I Fired Professor Ward Churchill” on the Wall Street Journal Online, no subscription required.

And, since I’m feeling slightly pedomorphic and snarky this afternoon, I can’t help but post the following video – it’s not unlike Ward Churchill’s wake-up call when the ruling came down from the Board of Regents. [If you're reading this in an RSS reader, just give a click here]

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