Joseph Williams’s “The Phenomenology of Error” isn’t about grading so much as it is about finding error. It’s by now a history piece, but should be revisited. The idea is that readers, graders, teachers are predisposed to look for certain things they can and do call errors and to ignore or miss other issues that might be and are called errors by others. There appears to be no universal scorecard, no biblical rubric. The etiquette of golf is more rigorous and precise than the rules of writing and reading. And with regard to the etiquette of reading, marking, and scoring papers, as Beckett said, you’ve only to listen to any conversation for five minutes to note inherent chaos.
That’s not to say there have not been efforts to tidy up the mess. Picked at random, the University of Maryland’s grading guidelines seem reasonable. But note the general rubric for an “A” paper: “It not only fulfills the assignment but does so in a fresh and mature way. The paper is exciting to read; it accommodates itself well to its intended audience.” The intended audience of course is no doubt an adjunct instructor sitting over a laptop, drinking coffee at the boisterous Bipartisan Cafe. But how can a paper be “exciting to read”? Excitement is something that registers in the reader’s mind, and what excites one reader may put another into a coma. But perhaps the mystery is solved by the semicolon; for if a paper does “accommodate itself well to its intended audience,” it may, by definition, be exciting? But even if we resolve what is or is not exciting, how are we to determine if something is “fresh and mature”? Isn’t this oxymoronic? Fresh suggests something the reader has never seen before, yet mature suggests it’s nevertheless something the reader recognizes. Perhaps there is some sense to that. But fresh and mature excitement, wrapping snugly around its audience, is not the only requisite of the “A” paper at the U of M: the paper must also reference “citations [that] are used effectively where appropriate and are formatted correctly.” Ah, formatting! But what is incorrect formatting? Incorrect formatting is like the microphone that descends like an unsightly strap slipping from the shoulder of the top of the screen, distracting the audience from the verisimilitude and pretension strutting across the stage. But let’s move on. Also in the “A” paper, we find “paragraphs that are fully developed,” like firm, ripe tomatoes. Now that’s exciting. Yet the “A” paper requires that the prose be only “occasionally memorable.” And note that this disallows the reader justifying a failing mark because he can not remember the paper, yet his remembering it might be because he’s seen it before.
We may also learn from the “F” paper rubric at the U of M. The “F” paper “is off the assignment. The thesis is unclear; the paper moves confusedly in several directions. It may even fall seriously short of minimum length requirements.” But wait, doesn’t this sound fresh and exciting, if not mature? Were we in a math class, seriously might be defined as, perhaps, 60% of minimum – just a guess. Whatever serious is, “there is virtually no evidence, or the attribution of evidence is problematic or has been neglected.” Now that sounds serious, but perhaps the audience is the same as that for television news shows? Yeah, but “the organization seems to a significant degree haphazard or arbitrary.” That’s bad, like the front page of today’s newspaper. And not only that, but “some sentences are incomprehensible.” Imagine, but do they mean incomprehensible, or inconceivable?
Moral of the story? Etiquette is prescription where nature is found wanting.