Having worked in higher education for six years,
I have noticed what Stephanie Vanderslice calls “the rise of program assessment
as part of institutional accreditation over the last decade or two” (Day, 2011). I am beginning this paper with the assumption
that most instructors must give grades.
As Mary Cantrell (2012) has pointed out, “assessment… is a matter of
accountability: we must give grades, and
to receive accreditation and funding, we must produce other evidence of student
learning–‘measurable’ objectives, learning outcomes, goals with results that
can be ‘demonstrated.’” But I also
believe, with Cantrell that “the evidence we supply to our accrediting institutions,
much like the grades we assign, tells only part of what happens in our classes”
(158). The paper will examine the potential
benefits of assessment, the limitations of assigning grades and using rubrics
to assess creative writing, and it will suggest a variety of assessment
Creative Writing faculty members are often either slow to accept or openly
resist assessment for a variety of reasons.
Some instructors may resist assessment because they are intimidated by
jargon like “outcomes” and “matrices.” This
may be a legitimate concern as administrators do not always take time to prepare
faculty for this new language of assessment.
Others resist assessment because they believe it cannot be done
objectively enough or because they believe it can inhibit students’
growth. However, scholars like Cathy Day
(2011) have noted that assessment can
lead to greater transparency:
Assessment has been good for creative writing
programs, because it’s forced what I’ll call
first-generation writers in academia to talk openly about what they’re doing in
the classroom and why… Once you get past the jargon–learning goals,
outcomes, rubrics, and matrices–you discover commonalities among colleagues and
develop a shared sense of purpose. My students appreciate this transparency,
and it’s allowed for a better learning environment in which they can thrive.
Other writers, such as Anna Leahy,
have noted that because the catalog and syllabus are legally binding documents,
assessment is necessary in order to ensure that courses are fulfilling their
obligations to students. Leahy writes, “When
being formed a couple of decades ago, conversations about how it all adds up
must have occurred, but discussion fell off, or wasn’t carried on across
institutions, and a great deal became taken for granted. Assessment
reinvigorates that conversation about pedagogy and the profession” (Day 2011). Therefore, in the best case scenarios,
assessment can lead not only to more transparency but also to more
accountability in Creative Writing classrooms.
spite of the potential benefits of assessment, many scholars have pointed out
the potential problems of assigning grades to creative work which may include
issues of authority, limitation of experimentation and revision, and focus on
product rather than process. Perhaps the biggest potential problem with
assigning grades to creative work is about who
decides what grade is given. As many
writers in the field have noted, Creative Writing teachers should not act as
gatekeepers of literary excellence, and any standards they may decide upon are
somewhat subjective. Stephen O’Connor
(2012) discusses some of these limitations:
If the merits of a piece
of writing cannot be determined by reference to a set of clearly definable
standards, and if there is no way of eliminating the subjectivity of our
judgments regarding the most important elements in literary work, and if the
writing a student produces within the confines of a single course does not
necessarily reflect that student’s effort, talent, or future success, and if,
finally, Creative Writing programs do not even function as gatekeepers to their
profession, does the ranking of student writing according to merit have any
pedagogical or practical justification?
Very little that I can see. (p. 162)
G. Myers (2012) reiterates this concern, arguing that “even the most rigorous attempts to uncover
the shared disciplinary conceptions of Creative Writing, reflecting writers’
collective literary ambitions and methods, are doomed to end in a restatement
of subjective expressionism” (30). The
ultimate subjectivity of standards may put Creative Writing teachers who choose
to assign letter grades in a problematic position of authority.
A second potential problem in assigning grades
to creative work is that it may affect both the beginning and the end of the
writing process by limiting the amount of experimentation and/or revision a
student is willing to do. If a student
becomes overly concerned about meeting the criteria of a rubric, he or she may
not take as many risks. Mary Cantrell
(2012) discusses how the lack of risk-taking and experimentation has caused much
criticism around so-called “workshop writing:”
“Privileging knowledge over talent, craft over art may, of course, send
the wrong message to mediocre students.
In recent years, editors and writers alike have complained about
‘workshop stories’ or ‘workshop poems’, the technically sound but emotionally
bereft writing that emerges from many Creative Writing programs…” (p. 159).
Along with potentially inhibiting
experimentation, grade assignment may also limit the amount of revision a
student is willing to do. Anna Leahy shows
how a student’s willingness to revise may be affected by both high and low
. . if a student has the opportunity to revise a piece, why assign a grade to
that individual poem, story, or even batch of poems? For one thing, a grade
might determine how much revision the student does. A high grade could
undermine the student’s ability to push beyond what she can already accomplish,
and a low grade could leave the student with the sense that something isn’t
worth working on. (Vanderslice & Ritter, 2007, p. 90)
A final potential
problem of assigning grades, and particularly using rubrics, for creative work
is that it seems to focus on product
rather than process. Some instructors
see rubrics as focusing too much on the negative aspects of a given work,
rather than focusing on the positive aspects of the process which created the
work. Vanderslice criticizes rubrics
because “they can be overly
fault-finding, which doesn’t help writers at any level. The writers who are doing
well don’t really find out why and even what they, individually, could be doing
better, and the writers who are having problems don’t get those individual
problems addressed” (Day, 2011).
the potential problems of some kinds of assessment, such as assigning grades to
creative work, Creative Writing teachers should strive for the
transparency and accountability that good assessments foster. Fortunately, alternatives for assessment
exist including quizzes and exams, cover letters and journal assignments, peer
critiques and portfolios.
Quizzes and exams are one alternative to grading
creative work. Quizzes can be very helpful
for creative writing students who are learning new terminology. As Leahy explains, “Beginning students need
some common language to discuss their work, so I sometimes give a quiz on
poetic terms. That way, students have a sense of how ready they are to discuss
writerly concepts” (Vanderslice & Ritter 2007, p. 90). Similarly, Kelly Ritter uses a mid-term exam
to test her students’ knowledge of key literary terms and the reading of
literary models. Quizzes and exams based
on knowledge of poetic terms and literary models creates objective criteria
that instructors can grade fairly (Vanderslice & Ritter 2007, p. 80–81).
Meta-cognitive writing assignments such as
journals and cover letters are another alternative to grading creative
writing. Assignments such as these can
require students to reflect on their writing processes, including obstacles
they faced, strengths and weaknesses of their work, and what sort of feedback
helps them most. Vanderslice’s cover
letter assignment requires students to anticipate what the class will have
trouble understanding in their work, what revisions will need to be made, and
to reflect on how the piece compares to their previous work in the class. She explains, “Writing about their own work,
moreover, gives novice writers necessary and ample practice in reading and
analyzing it, nudging them ever closer to becoming their own best readers” (Vanderslice
& Ritter, 2007, p. 82).
Like cover letters and journal assignments, peer
critiques are another alternative assessment and can further enhance students’
abilities as careful and critical readers.
Students’ own writing can benefit from learning to identify elements
like setting, point of view, and tension in other students’ work. Peer critiques should be rigorous, requiring
close attention to specific literary elements.
Over the course of the semester, peer critiques can amount to a
substantial part of the grade. In
Vanderslice’s class, “the average of roughly
twenty response papers (a lot of work, when you think about it in the
aggregate) equals almost one third of the student’s grade that semester”
(Vanderslice & Ritter, 2007, p.83). Like exams and cover letters, it seems
that peer critiques can be assessed more objectively than creative
A final alternative to grading creative writing
is the writing portfolio. Writing
portfolios seem to privilege process rather than product because they are
graded based on both the revisions the student makes and a reflective essay the
student writes about his or her progress during the semester. Vanderslice and Ritter (2007) note “Such a portfolio, with both its meta-cognitive
qualities that ask students to reflect upon their development as writers, and
its representation of a semester’s growth and development, is an ideal way to
achieve this kind of process-centered environment” (p. 84).
Although they may resist assessment, Creative Writing teachers have options
when it comes to the assignments and grades they give students. Grading creative writing, including the use
of rubrics to assess creative work, may involve too many potential problems
including questions of
authority, discouragement of risk-taking and revision, and an over-emphasis on
product rather than process. However the
limitations of grading creative writing should not dissuade instructors from
pursuing alternatives such as quizzes and exams, cover letters and journal
assignments, peer critiques and portfolios.
The best assessments will encourage transparency and accountability
between teachers and students while preserving creative writing’s unique
attention to process and experimentation.
• • •
Cantrell, M. (2012).
Assessment as empowerment: Grading entry-level creative writing
students. In Heather Beck (Ed.), Teaching Creative Writing
(156–159). New York: Palgrave McMillan.
Day, C., Anna Leahy, and
Stephanie Vanderslice. (2011). Where are
We Going Next? A Conversation About
Creative Writing Pedagogy. Fiction
Writers Review. Retrieved from http://fictionwritersreview.com/essay/where-are-we-going-next-a-conversation-about-creative-writing-pedagogy-pt-1/.
Myers, D.G. (2012). On the reform of creative writing. In Heather Beck (Ed.), Teaching Creative
Writing (25–32). New York: Palgrave McMillan.
O’Connor, S. (2012). Ranking student writing as bad pedagogy and a
bogus pretense of objectivity. In Heather
Beck (Ed.), Teaching Creative Writing
(160–165). New York: Palgrave McMillan.
Vanderslice, S. and
Ritter, K. (2007). The ‘a’ word: Assessing and responding to creative
writing. In Kelly Ritter and Stephanie
Vanderslice (Eds.), Can It Really Be Taught?: Resisting Lore in the
Teaching of Creative Writing. (pp. 79–91).
Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.
• • •
is a writing instructor at Eastern University near Philadelphia. She
received her M.A. in Creative Writing from West Chester University and is
pursuing her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her
poetry has appeared in Nimrod International Journal of Poetry and Prose
and Off the Coast.