Grading Etiquette

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.

Kicking E. B. White When He’s Down

To a neighborly inquiry, yes, we saw the vicious attack on the venerable E. B. White, first in the Chronicle, then, with several bystanders jumping on for a kick or two, in the Times. We first became aware of Pullum at Emdashes, where, we thought, Martin Schneider – omitting needless words – handled the matter clearly and concisely and to a close, but we like following links, so from Emdashes, we followed a link to Levi Stahl’s discussion; without explaining too much, he dismisses the academic Pullum to move on to a more tasteful topic, E. B. White’s letters.

We are aware of the shortcomings of Elements, having on our own often tried to tackle the issue of what’s correct when. Pullum posts his own follow-up, fed up with the commenters (we have added his blog to our feeds). In his follow-up, he heads off going to his book, but it seems fair to ask if not White then what. Pullum’s book is a descriptive grammar, so it “…will not…make recommendations about how you should speak or write” (p. 3). It should come as no surprise to anyone that there are disagreements and conflicting opinions. For example, and as we’ve pointed out, White said to write with nouns and verbs; Erskine said to write with modifiers. Of course, the answer is to write with words, and good luck choosing the right ones, putting them in the right order, and separating them with the right punctuation.

In the June 28, 2004 New Yorker, we enjoyed Menand’s dissing of Truss, and he helps explain why we prefer White to the standard grammar text. Menand (like White before him) writes as a generalist, not a specialist. Menand argues, and we agree, and we think that White also agreed, that the rules don’t really have much to do with effective writing. If they did, most academic writing would not be nearly so anemic. Pullum complains in his Chronicle piece that “Some of the recommendations are vapid, like ‘Be clear’ (how could one disagree?).” Yet much academic writing would improve if the writer would only make some attempt at following this obvious, White tenet. In Menand’s piece, titled “Bad Comma,” he has something more to say than corrections of Truss. We don’t find that Pullum has much more to say, at least not on the evidence of the two pieces we see here.

We’ll ask White to help us with a close, from the March 4, 1944, New Yorker: “A good deal depends on the aims of a publication. The more devious the motives of his employer, the more difficult for a writer to write as he pleases. As far as we have been able to discover, the keepers of this house have two aims: the first is to make money, the second is to make sense”; two aims that academic writers are not usually saddled with. 

None of which directly answers Pullum’s argument. Pullum has two points: one, that Elements is flawed; two, that the flaws have afflicted generations of students who as a result of their immersion in Elements cannot now write. Pullum provides support for his first point; his second is insupportable. There might be scores of students unable to write, but it doesn’t follow that it’s the fault of Elements. But what about our point that the argument is somehow embroiled in academic versus commercial ends, that Pullum’s secret thesis is the advancement of the purpose of his text – a poor advertisement if he wants to compete with the incredible ethos surrounding White, an ethos based not on Elements, but on his actual writing success. That point is irrelevant to Pullum’s argument. But we have two claims too: first, students can’t write because they’ve been taught writing from grammar handbooks and textbooks, wrong from the start; second, that the textbooks are unnecessarily academic and rarely involve the kinds of reading experience necessary for students to improve their writing skills (the textbook industry’s commercial success is driven in large part from forced new editions, captive student readers, and exorbitant pricing). 

At the same time, there are academic efforts that have made both money and sense: for example, Zinsser’s On Writing Well; Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams (whose “The Phenomenology of Error” is must reading for anyone seriously interested in this argument); and Notes Toward a New Rhetoric, by Francis Christensen. We never said Elements was the only book to read, just that it is a worthwhile book to read and carry. And we are grateful to Mr. Pullum for updating its errors – his analysis will add fuel to the discussion of the choices suggested in Elements.