Process Gives Way to Product: A Theory of Grading

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This is an (early) unpublished early version of a monograph under construction. The authors are Dan Royer, Roger Gilles, and Kelly Kinney.

From the introduction . . .

These quotations reveal our profession’s ambivalence not just toward grading, but toward the relationship between process and product, school and “real life,” student and teacher, ideology and bureaucracy, and even our own authority and expertise. Richard Boyd remarks that “few other disciplines in the academy have struggled so long and so creatively to develop strategies to combat the pernicious influence of grades on students and on ourselves as educators” (56-57). Yet apparently we have not struggled long or creatively enough, for our field is far from consensus on how and why to grade soundly and fairly. Even as our assessment and outcomes literatures multiply, we continue to dismiss grading as a necessary evil, something we cannot seriously engage without compromising our pedagogical values and professional commitments. Pat Belanoff calls grading “the dirty thing we have to do in the dark of our own offices” (“Myths” 61), while David Bleich declares, “A great deal can be done about grading by simply not doing it” (32). Apparently, this is the closest we get to agreement: as a symbol of bureaucratic evil, grading is something we’d rather not do, so let’s just keep it private. Each of us is encouraged to become what Peter Elbow calls a “conscientious objector to grading” (Elbow and Bernard-Donals 71). It’s a safe kind of resistance—as long as we fill out the grade sheets.

But these attitudes are not helping advance college composition. Weaver’s explicit lack of concern for quality, grounded in an allegiance to process, confirms public perceptions that college writing teachers are failing to help students achieve rigorous goals. Bauman’s contract-grading, a common alternative to traditional systems, amounts to a piece-work approach—the more you write, the better your grade—that sidesteps issues of quality. Belanoff’s assertion of an instructor right to unchallenged grades over a student right to fair, meaningful grades, combined with Tchudi’s frank admission that, after decades in the field, he is still paralyzingly conflicted about how to grade, affirm the negative public perceptions that 1) we care more about ourselves than our students, and 2) we really don’t know what we’re doing.