SUNYwide assessment and the failure of composition

As previously mentioned, SUNY is undergoing systemwide assessment of general education, including writing. You can see the rubric if you want, but I assure you, you will find nothing surprising. There is an assessment of the final product, the revision process, and the research done/integrated. I could spend the better part of an hour taking about the whole thing, but basically the problem comes down to the following three (OK, four) problems: the assessment of writing presumes that

  1. the goal of writing instruction should be mastery, which is ultimately demonstrated in a "masterful" product;
  2. revision is a process by which texts are perfected and hence the revising process provides evidence of increasing mastery;
  3. writing is a formal skill, of which one’s knowledge/mastery can be evaluated separately from one’s knowledge/mastery of the content of the text;
  4. and, most problematically, texts (or more precisely readings of texts) can serve as evidence of "original" thinking, which exists in a state that is separable from other "unoriginal" thoughts (i.e. the kind one gets from reading other texts, which contain someone else’s original thoughts).

Given the existing rubric, these problems, and assuming I wanted my college to do well on the assessment, I would probably do something like the following. First, I would assign a research paper that required no research on the students’ part. That is, I would not want them to have to deal with any new ideas, information, or concepts that might cause their demonstration of writing mastery to suffer. Second, I would make sure the assignment fit well into the five-paragraph logical model (even if it wasn’t five paragraphs per se). This would make it easy for the students to meet the rubric’s goal of having paragraphs linked by logical, structuring transistions. Third, I would give a limited number of possible subjects, maybe three, and discuss them extensively in class so that students were used to talking and writing about them. Fourth, I would provide them line-by-line editing/proofreading of their drafts, so that the process of revision was a detailed, step-by-step process of "fixing errors."

However, I don’t think any of these practices reflect a contemporary understanding of writing instruction. They barely acknowledge the existence of a process, and then only a process of correction. Somehow though this is based upon the assessment practices established by CCCC and WPA? Or so the document claims, if so, this is a clear failure of the discipline of composition.

So what would I do otherwise?

Glad you asked. You’ve got to deal with a couple angles. First, you need to recognize writing as a post-humanistic, non-subjective techno-material practice. Second, you must acknowledge the ideological purposes to which higher education puts writing, with which composition as a discipline bears an ambivalent relationship. On the one hand, composition speaks of student empowerment.  On the other hand, it desires to prove its service to the academy through its "rigorousness." Putting these things together, you need to articulate an alternate goal for composition than the production of a "masterful text."

So here are the new goals for composition:

  1. Create encounters between student bodies and writing practices. I.e., students write in composition. It’s really amazing how much time they usually spend doing other things related to proving their mastery.
  2. Provide students the opportunity to develop singular ongoing writing practices. That is, the is no "writing process;" there are writing processes. In composition students have the opportunity to develop a practice in which they write on an ongoing basis.
  3. Students investigate writing practices as knowledge/information production/processing. Rather than writing as mastery of knowledge, writing as the itineracy of knowledge. It’s not about the points one makes, but the movement.
  4. Students investigate writing processes as a means of communal/social organization (rhetoric). This is an advanced goal, I think. Once students have developed a writing practice and have explored the relationship between writing, information, and thought, they are in a position to consider the social-discursive-ideological purposes of writing.

So how do you assess this? Well, for one thing, you don’t assess it by sitting around in a room reading stacks of papers and giving them a number between 1 and 6. You would actually have to study student writing practices. You would actually have to devise some means to see if, over time, students developed writing practices that helped them in their lives. Of course such longitudinal studies are suspect at best–too many variables.

If you just wanted to focus on products, as the current assessment really does, then you would need to consider the fourth goal and examine whether a text acheived its purpose. In this case, grading would be all the assessment that you need. A student who gets an A has demonstrated the ability to meet his/her social purpose. The rubric simply assumes that there exist generalizable qualities that make the "essence" of a good paper. This is not the case. An A paper in some classes may simply be one that spouts back to the professor his/her own lectures and ideas. In other classes, doing that will earn you a C or worse.

Of course, the greatest irony of the whole thing is that the characteristics described by the rubric reflect a total misunderstanding of what makes a text effective. It assumes that good writing is equal to a set of objective, technical criteria. To the contrary, good writing is simply writing that is interesting and informative. But these are subjective you decry? Well it just so happens that most texts are read by subjects not objects (excluding, of course, those machine-read essays, assuming the machines haven’t developed subjectivities yet).

You know, it would probably be far better if instead of assessing writing we simply assessed correctness. That’s easy, and just as useful, which is to say not useful at all.

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