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A Profile of an Emergent Minority

When I began to personally assess what is going on the academic arena regarding writing assessment I immediately recalled Wendy Bishop’s clever title “Going up the Creek without a Canoe.” The phrase seemed to neatly sum up my general observations about the dilemma we face. We are a small, largely unrecognized group moving in a newly charted area. We enjoy general, almost universal approbation on one level. After all, the need is obvious. Everyone, whether parent, legislator, or academic seems to agree that improved student excellence in writing is one of our greatest needs. Yet I have come to realize through a variety of readings and interviews about writing assessment, that devising and implementing a new writing program entails obstacles and dangers that threaten all along the way. From this perspective I found Bishop’s title paradoxical. It seems to combine the potential thrill, and the possibility of victory and success, with the desperation that we face as unsung “innovators.” Yet, as Bishop’s title might imply, the venture itself can carry us through, given our sheer persistence, convictions and idealism.

In this regard I am amazed at the peculiar way assessors have had an impact on the education system. As I reflected upon administrative interviews, writing assessment seemed to be initiated on the individual level, by some single renegade in a department. It can and has achieved a respected and productive place when someone was willing to address, define, and press the issues, taking the initiative for innovative implementation. My interview with Professor Kennedy at the College of William & Mary, concretely illustrates this point. She designed a summer seminar for William & Mary faculty and successfully presented it to funding agencies. Her work was almost wholly single-handed. Through individuals like this, portfolios, folders, and terms like “holistic judging” have become common on campuses.

Unfortunately private funding is not readily available, few instructors are familiar with the subject of writing assessment, and infiltrating the system is a slow and tedious process. Additionally, writing assessors seem to be caught in a conservative academic environment. The general public has grown skeptical, often regarding our public school systems as complete failures. Assessors are thus faced with the problem of creating a positive image. How do they convince administrators and taxpayers that “peer evaluation,” “collaborative writing,” “holistic judging,” and portfolios are viable methods in writing development? How are they going to create some kind of forum to even define these terms? How do they avoid the labels associated with the collapsing “new” programs condemned as failures in our current school systems? How do they convince instructors that writing assessment does not mean more work?

Given this framework, assessors seem to be placed in an environment inhospitable to change. Although there seems to be a movement toward change in theories about writing and how to teach writing, overcoming these obstacles, which involves convincing administrators, teachers, parents, and taxpayers to take a leap of faith is difficult. It gets loosely interpreted as “Guess what? we want to conduct another experiment on that illiterate generation we created...and it will hardly cost you.” Quite frankly this reluctance is not wholly unjustified. I must admit, peer evaluation frightfully resembles those now defunct open-classroom/creative-writing programs I had the misfortune of experiencing in mid-school. In retrospect those sessions could more accurately be characterized as rapping recess. In this respect returning to traditional values and methods (grammar/structure/drill) seems to be the current mode. Ironically, it was those very traditional methods that created the clamor for change. They obviously result in certain kinds of performance levels, particularly ones that can be reported, quantified, and declared “successful.” But is this truly learning? Can such skills transfer into truly creative and innovative situations? The growing attitude that it couldn’t get any worse has ironically created an atmosphere that is favorable to transition. This is the moment we seize.

My interviews with assessors reinforced my sense that despite obstacles we face a potentially opportune environment. The students I interviewed appeared to be frustrated with the subjectivity of grades, humbled by their writing and genuinely interested in learning. Instructors seemed to approach the subject of writing and their professions seriously, while remaining committed to fairly and sensitively judging their students. Here is where we must begin. This is clearly our chink in the administrative armor. After all, even administrators feel the public and legislative pressure. And some of them remain committed to learning. Despite their host of concurrent balancing acts, they want results. If they appear Machiavellian, it comes with their position and offers an opening for those of us willing to see a way through. Their job demands that they concentrate on the functional, the economic, the ever practical, yet in their heart of hearts most of them still long to be catchers in the rye.

This has to ultimately be our solution. We are dealing with a complicated mix of interests and perceptions, public and professional, but all share a basic human desire for finding the best way to improve. This alone gives us hope. The key catalysts are the writing assessors themselves, who like underground revolutionaries adapt and shape their new methods for both students and instructors. Their energy and convictions are contagious; they are transformed into their own canoes through sheer effort and determination.