By Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein
[Adapted from a talk presented at a session on “Standardization and Democratization in College Writing Programs” at the NCTE Conference on College Composition and Communication, April 7, 2016, in Houston Texas.]
After a rocky start, higher education has come to embrace outcomes assessment. When Gerald was President of MLA in 2008 he caught a lot of flak for a pro-assessment column in the MLA Newsletter entitled “Assessment Changes Everything.” Now, eight years later, the outrage has largely dissipated. As Chris Gallagher suggests in a 2012 College English article, “OA now seems like educational common sense. Define goals for student learning, evaluate how well students are achieving those goals, and use the results to improve the academic experience. Who could argue with that?” Gallagher does go on to argue with Outcomes Assessment, citing some dangers that he sees in it. But he accepts the need for outcomes assessment in principle, as do most of us.
For the two of us this acceptance of outcomes assessment is long overdue. But there’s one major problem. The way outcomes assessment is being envisioned and implemented both in K-12 schools and colleges is virtually guaranteed to undermine its potential benefits. And at the heart of the problem is an issue central to this session: standardization. To put the problem succinctly, to do outcomes assessment correctly, teaching practices need a high degree of standardization. But this standardization is precisely what faculties balk at.
Yes, you heard us right. The dreaded “S” word—standardization—is essential to outcomes assessment, a point that is actually implicit in outcomes statements themselves. For example, when the authors of the 2000 “WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition” say:
To some extent, we seek to regularize what can be expected to be taught in first-year composition….
they are calling for writing courses that are more “regular” or similar than existing ones—that is, more standardized. Similarly, when Chris Gallagher in the above mentioned article affirms the need for “greater program coherence,” he implicitly calls for courses that have more in common and are thus more standardized. And this makes sense, since a major point of the outcomes assessment movement is to correct an irresponsibly non-standardized system in which course goals, instead of being collectively defined, are left to isolated individual teachers, which ultimately means students are left on their own to sort out the mixed messages that inevitably result.
Though we cannot stop to argue the point here, this kind of inconsistency has disastrous consequences on student writing. We believe that much weak student writing stems not from any lack of good writing advice that students receive, but from the confusing overload of often disparate and even contradictory advice about writing that students receive as they go from course to course, teacher to teacher, and discipline to discipline. Learning a challenging and unfamiliar skill like academic writing requires a large amount of repetition and redundancy; but repetition and redundancy of fundamental skills is precisely what our current curriculum denies students from K-12 to college. Students often have to start all over from scratch whenever they move to a new instructor even in the same discipline. And it’s hard to learn anything when you’re always having to unlearn it.
Again, today’s assessment movement implicitly agrees. But despite this theoretical agreement on the need for standardization, no college or K-12 assessment document we have ever seen calls for anywhere near the degree of standardization that would make outcomes assessment meaningful. Indeed, if anything these documents actively undermine the very standardization—i.e., “program coherence” and “regularity”—they say they want. And the reason, we suspect, is that outcomes committees are afraid that this degree of standardization would curtail faculty freedoms.
Consider, for example, the list of outcomes provided by the 2000 WPA Outcomes Statement.
This list is typical of those we find in outcomes statements. And it’s not just that the list is too long, though it certainly is. Even more important, as Peter Elbow points out in an essay on the WPA Statement, the list fails to identify its “priorities”—“the one or two things” that matter most—relative to the many other things it tries to cover. Faced with such a miscellaneous jumble, instructors will inevitably cherry pick the outcomes that are a priority to them and ignore the rest, leaving us back where we started with the problem that outcomes assessment was designed to correct: a curriculum in which outcomes are individually rather than collectively defined.
But is there a way to institute common priorities and avoid what we’re here calling “Everything-but-the-Kitchen-Sink Assessment” without curtailing faculty freedom? We think so. And in our view a good place to start is by returning to the year 2000 WPA Statement itself, particularly to its stipulation that student writers should be able to “integrate their own ideas with those of others.”
As it appears here, this stipulation is merely one item among so many seemingly equal ones that it is easy to ignore. But what if we were to revise the statement so that students’ need to “integrate their own ideas with those of others” becomes the central rubric and the others are either clearly subordinated to it or eliminated altogether on the grounds that they are needlessly repetitive?
After all, in order to effectively “integrate their own ideas with those of others,” student writers would have to perform most if not all of the other listed operations in the WPA Statement. For example, they would naturally have to be able to
* Focus on a purpose
* Respond to the needs of different audiences
* [Learn] the expectations of readers in their fields
* Respond appropriately to different kinds of rhetorical situations
* Use conventions of format and structure appropriate to the rhetorical situation
* Be aware that it usually takes multiple drafts to create and complete a successful text
* Control such surface features as syntax, grammar, punctuation, and spelling
All these skills—and others in the statement that could be listed—are already well covered by the comprehensive rubric of “integrating [one’s] own ideas with those of others.” Listing them all as if they were co-equal only confuses students and fogs over the answer to the student question that motivates such statements: “What do my teachers want?”
But why should this particular rubric be the central one to stand above all the others? Two reasons. First, because “integrating [our] ideas with those of others” is the essence of the famous Burkean parlor, which imagines academic writing as a matter of entering into conversation with the ideas of others:
You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. . . . You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you. . . . The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form
And second, because the Burkean parlor passage offers what is arguably the most widely celebrated description in the field of rhetoric and composition of what effective writers do and is therefore more likely than any other to be accepted by faculty as the most important competence. Given its widespread acceptance, it’s hard to see how privileging the Burkean parlor would be a serious threat to faculty autonomy.
Nevertheless, we have no illusions that all faculty will embrace the Burkean parlor model, and forcing them to do so won’t work. But not all faculty need to get on board. After all, if we’re right that a critical mass of faculty already does embrace this Burkean model, this critical mass should be enough to produce the increased curricular consistency and coherence needed to significantly improve student writing. And as for Chris Gallagher’s argument in his CE article that any outcomes that are fixed in advance will inherently be too rigid and inflexible, we think it’s hard to apply this criticism to the Burkean parlor, since students’ own ideas, the ideas of others, and the way the two are integrated are so inherently open-ended and open to so many endless possibilities that they resist rigidity.
In closing, we’d like to point out that a revised version of the WPA Outcomes Statement was issued in 2014, and if the cognitive overload induced by the 2000 Statement was a problem, the revised Statement is even worse. For example, the rubric we’ve singled out, that “by the end of first year composition students should [be able to]… integrate their own ideas with those of others,” has been replaced in 2014 by the far more cumbersome:
By the end of first year composition students should [be able to]… use strategies—such as interpretation, synthesis, response, critique, and design/redesign—to compose texts that integrate the writer’s ideas with those from appropriate sources.
The habit of fogging matters over—out of fear, we suspect, of sounding reductive and imposing too much uniformity on faculties—has only become stronger since 2000, so much so that what had been the most succinct and helpful piece of writing advice has now been almost entirely negated.
In short, then, if you accept the premises of outcomes assessment, you’re accepting standardization. Unfortunately, the outcomes movement has run away from standardization by producing statements that are so long, diffuse, and unfocused that they obscure rather than define what is fundamental to writing and what is tangential. When students ask us teachers what we want, we’re not helping them by giving them a list.