Higher Education

Grading and Telepathy

I was talking about this the other day in my graduate class, which is mostly high school English teachers. What is it that we believe we are doing when we are grading?

Let me give an example. Let’s say an intro to poetry course reads "Ode to a Grecian Urn." In class, the instructor gives a brief lecture, does some group work, and then has a classwide discussion about the poem: standard pedagogy. At the end of class, an assignment to write three pages on the poem is given.  A week or so later, the papers come back. The instructor reads them, comments on them, and gives them each a grade.

What does the grade represent?

1. We know that interpretation is multiple. If it weren’t there would be no need for our profession. We even know that grading is multiple and subjective, which is why we do norming sessions for high-stakes grading (we can talk about how well that works another time).

2. We also hold onto the "intentional fallacy" as a primary ethic in interpretation. We cannot claim our interpretations to be the intentions of the author…. unless of course that author is a student, because that’s exactly what we do when we grade, right? We attribute our reading of a student’s paper to the student, and, for good or bad, we assign the student a grade.

Of course the grade is just a mark of broader assessment. We assume that by reading student texts we can know whether or not studens are learning.

Now we generally believe that intentions "exist," even if only as cultural-ideological fictions or after-the-fact justifications for our unconsciously-driven behaviors. I have an intention in writing this: its Saturday morning and I’m going to get working on my book soon, so I want to warm up a little bit first.

Obviously my intention has nothing to do with the apparent content of the text. Nor is what I am writing now something I planned to write when I wrote the first sentence of the text. And later I might go back and revise with a new intention that will be woven into text that was produced with a different intention. If I wait a few days and come back and rewrite something, I probably won’t even remember what my specific original intention was. I’ll have to interpret the text the same way as anyone else.

Getting back to the students in my example, what intentions might they have? To get an "A" (or maybe just a C)? To just get the damn thing done? To write something interesting? To get away with cheating? Who knows? But their intentions really have little to do with the grade and even less to do with the more amorphous "demonstration of learning."

It’s easier to explain all this in terms of Marxist analysis, as a markeplace exchange. Conventionally, as a teacher, I’m like a consumer. I want to buy a good paper. I don’t care what the writer thinks about it or how long s/he spent working on it. I will exchange a grade for a piece of writing.

That’s transactional writing, as we know.

But we don’t do that anymore. We do not buy the product; we buy the labor, the process. This is a capitalization of writing labor. What does that mean? It means that we are not managing goods, but managing behaviors and perhaps even desires. We are trying to produce subjects who will embody certain labor/writing/literacy practices. In short, we are attaching students to an ideological process, or more specifically we are reifying existing attachments.

That’s our (disciplinary) intention.

So, when we grade, it has nothing to do with "what the student is thinking;" it doesn’t have anything to do with the "meaning" of the text, with interpretation as we carry it out in relation to literature or our other objects of study.

A grade isn’t a reading/interpretation of the mind; it is an interpolation of the subject. A hailing of the A or B or C student.


2 replies on “Grading and Telepathy”

I like the idea that the move from product to process “means that we are not managing goods, but managing behaviors and perhaps even desires.”


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