What are we actually grading?

I have spent a lot of time this semester, and while preparing to teach freshman writing composition this semester, thinking about assessment. I’m experimenting with not grading essays, “ungrading,” and questioning the feedback I provide to students about their writing. I also am trying to figure out ways to make the students’ essays feel more public to them, creating an audience of actual readers for them to write for, and wondering how other people do this in their classes. I’ll report back later on what I’ve found out in this experimental semester.

Meanwhile, outside my own classroom bubble, a lot of people have been prompted to discuss assessment in the wake of Professor Asao B. Inoue’s recent speech at the CCCC conference in Pittsburgh. I’ve been re-reading that speech, and don’t want to comment on that here. But after reading it, I came across a post on a grad-school friend’s Facebook wall, asking how we grade students’ vernacular. Like, do we take off points if a student doesn’t use proper Standard American English?

I think my response encapsulated my current feelings on this matter, and I just want to preserve it here for posterity:

Ah! I have been wondering this as well for a while and have spent the past year realizing there is a whole field of people who study this stuff deeply. First, check out Asao Inoue’s Presidential speech from this year’s CCCC conference (the MLA of Rhet-Comp world). It was an indictment: https://docs.google.com/…/11ACklcUmqGvTzCMPlETC…/edit…. Next, you can read his book “Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies,” which goes into depth about this: https://wac.colostate.edu/books/inoue/ecologies.pdf. There are other people who talk about this stuff really well. Alfie Kohn (https://www.alfiekohn.org/) is a good place to start.

Here’s the short of it: I hear a lot of people say: “You have to teach them how to write SAE in order to give them access to blahblahblah cultural capital blahblahblah.” First, this is racist because it presupposes that people don’t know how to register switch. Second, no, that’s not true. Third, good writing is about communication and meaning. Frankly, I’d take Cardi B on politics any day over Trump. She’s a former stripper from Highbridge and Trump has his Ivy League credibility, yet her ad hoc political statements have more substance than he’s capable of regurgitating from a teleprompter. People are surprised by her depth because we are racist: we’re conditioned to look down on people like her. So what are we looking for in communication? Substance? or things that tag a speaker as having “cultural capital” aka “white”? I like to take a direct approach in the classroom about this: we discuss register switching, the whiteness of academic English, and racism. My experience is that my students have already internalized a lot of racist rhetoric about their vernaculars and are relieved to discuss these things openly.

I would also like to state, for the record, that there technically is no “Standard American English.” Some countries do have an official language of record (France, for instance), which is why it is noteworthy that we do not have one. I try to muster the courage to say this once in a while in official settings, but I’m often met with disbelief and frustration. If we are to accept that there is no standard, then what, in fact, are we experts of after all? And how do we maintain our hierarchical position above students if we have no “standard” on which we lean to support our claims of superiority? (Bad mixed metaphor, I know.)

I did not spend ten years as a graduate student just learning about grammar, after all. I did study a lot of history, and most of it (history) is a record of a world without dictionaries. Even Shakespeare himself spelled his name differently on different occasions.

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