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Thursday

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
alter­na­tives.  

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.
(Day, 2011)

 

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
cre­ative
writ­ing
pro­grams
were
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. 

In
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)

 

David
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
grades alike:

.
. . 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).

Despite
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
writ­ing. 

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 q
uizzes 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. 
  

 

• • •

Ref­er­ences

 

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.

• • •

Author’s Note 


KatHayes.jpg

Kat Hayes
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.

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