Blurred Boundaries: Some recent moments on blog and off

Hands Writing in Class

This is the most challenging course I have ever taught because I’m asking my students–right from their first days as undergraduates– in large part to unlearn how they have been taught to read, to write, to connect with the measure of their own work. (Of course I say that–I hope I can say that–every time I teach.) I am asking them to dare move beyond anything they have ever written–to reconnect with deep creativity as they put every word they write on trial for its life. It is one hard course. But man oh man, their writing is beginning to sing with voice and passion and urgency. They have something to say. Yes, their creative nonfiction essays are by no means finished or polished, but they represent something far more important than respectable college writing–they signal authentic attempts at communicating something they are trying to understand for themselves.


And now they will explore multimedia creative nonfiction writing. I can’t wait to travel this part of the course with them and see how leaving language, or pushing language up against image and sound, will affect their text-based writing when they return to it at the end of the semester. I am sure they are apprehensive, excited and hopeful in almost equal measure.


One interesting observation–We’ve wrestled over blogging, and they haven’t yet broken through to a place where blogging helps them develop voice and perspective and interest–in fact, they really haven’t been blogging much at all (they will try their hands at frequent blogging in the next unit). But the blogs have served an invaluable purpose of bringing them together to read one another’s work, to be inspired by it, and to find community with one another. They are one tight group. We’ll see what blogging itself does to their sense of writing, community and collaboration.

So yes, a hard course, but–at least for me–an intensely rewarding one.

I set out this morning, actually, to write a detailed blogpost about grading, a post that has been simmering for weeks, but I find myself so resenting the entire notion of grading and what it so often does to learning and growth, to learners taking risks and daring to go beyond the safe, known routes they’ve been treading for years upon years–

–that the whole topic puts me into an ugly mood and makes me do anything but talk about it here. In fact it has kept me off blog for three weeks. Which is too bad. Both because being off blog as much as I have recently is bad for the flow of my blogging, and because I can deal with grades in my classes, having with my students transformed course grading into a collaborative process that works. So here’s a preview of that post:

Over the course of several in-class conversations, some looks at student writing and other people’s rubrics, the class pulls together a grading rubric for individual class projects and then the full course; each student carries on an ongoing narrative reflection of the course (posted to the blog), converses with workshop groups about the writing, grades him/herself on writing projects according to the rubrics (handed to me), and at the end of the course, proposes and defends a grade in a one-on-one conference with me, in which I have an equal say in the grade, as their outside evaluator. It works. Yes, it takes more time than conventional forms of grading, but the grades mean something quite valuable to the students at the end. And more importantly, the students gain real understanding of and take responsibility for their own writing journey.


And so I am inching my way through a grading post in which I discuss the book The Theory and Practice of Grading Writing (eds. Frances Zak and Christopher C. Weaver) as well as link to the rubrics from my course. I will say for now that my class is making good progress creating a grading rubric for a specific writing project (next we move to creating a rubric for the entire course), and it has proven an excellent exercise for them to define and then weigh the elements of a writing project and how to describe the relative effectiveness of the finished results.

What has them rightfully perplexed and concerned and divided is the whole notion of progress, growth and risk-taking. Should they count in the grade at all? And if so, how? Indeed. Good questions.

gradingelements grading (from our recent class discussion)

How many times do we really grapple with these questions alongside our students, reading the course as contributors, learning–from the inside– about how we evaluate learning outcomes? How many teachers actually show and discuss models of student writing in their classes? Have the students hold up their own work alongside those models, learning to read their results within a continuum of scholars and writers engaging with these very questions–but at the level of first-year or senior rather than professional expert? Instead we often play games with our students, inadvertently perhaps, keeping them guessing as to what will be on exams and why, as to how we will read their papers, and as to why a teacher counts numbers of posts and assignments rather than looking at the depth of those entries, how they represent creative thinking and active collaboration? Students actually prefer teachers to do the grading. They like grades–they’re something measurable, something they understand—but then ask students what they measure exactly, why, and how fairly, and to what effect?


Instead of requiring a certain number of posts, for example, I show my students exemplary comments and thoughtful posts and creative thinking in action. I show them how every writing situation has its own demands, its own forms and conventions and needs and opportunities and rewards–dependent in part on the writer’s background, personality, perspective, etc etc. Students want me to prescribe–this is how you do it. This is how many posts you need to make to get an “A”; this is how many sources you must include in your creative nonfiction essays, and so on. And I tell them that I have no idea–they are the only ones who know what they need to do to work with the elements of writing to make something sing, to make it grab us by the scruff of the neck and say, “Think about this….think about it deeply.”

Going to college is complex and complicated, but life outside these walls is ever so much more so. I aim to blur the boundaries, help them become comfortable and then excited about putting their own voices out into the world, and in entering contact zones, in active citizenship based on collaborating and communicating and doing rather than passively waiting for instructions or feeling powerless in the face of the world’s problems. Right now the students are bumping up against the challenges of writing in the world, in this world–how do they write authentically and yet respectfully, mindfully and yet boldly? How do they recognize and confront their own biases, their “little darlings” and retain a sense of humor? Ah, it’s not easy, but six weeks into it, we’re beginning, really beginning to break out into some work they want to stand for them well beyond any course, any semester, any teacher.


And that’s pretty exciting. And far far more meaningful than any grade will ever be.


6 Responses

  1. Barbara – does the rubric help them to read the writing of the other students? The pro argument is that it could instill a discipline that aids in their own analysis. The con is that it can block reception of interesting ideas but that don’t fit the rubric.

    And what about re-reading a piece, with a certain delay betwen those? I know for my own processing I’ve got to let things simmer for a while, so they reveal themselves while they cook.

  2. Lanny,

    If they can come up with an effective rubric, then I know that they are on the road to understanding, really understanding the elements of writing: narrative distance and arc, voice, structure, diction, etc. and that they paying attention to them in their own writing and in the writing of their peers. Yes, the feedback they give one another becomes much more useful once they really understand the role of narrative distance, for instance. They can put their finger on what is or isn’t working instead of making vague generalizations.

    We try to make room for the unexpected to occur–which is why they wanted to include “creativity” as one of the elements to evaluate, as well as “risk-taking.” It will be interesting to see how they grade themselves…

    I agree, letting a piece lie fallow–both as writer and as reader–is indeed essential, especially for the writer, which is why we will return to revise two pieces at the end of the semester, pieces they have put on the shelf for a few weeks. They will also come back and reread their peers’ work after all the weeks of learning. Workshopping their writing in small groups of 3-5 also gives them the opportunity to hear how others have read the writing—and often they change one another’s minds… We’ve talked a lot about taste versus admiration.

  3. I am an Educational Technology assistant at Carleton University in Canada – we just started a blog ( I recently graduated from an undergraduate degree in Art History. In my various wanderings in research across the web, I came across your work. I really admire the conscious thought you put into the grading process, and getting students involved with this. I think it makes a lot of sense. But I was most impressed with the course concept behind Multimedia Creative Non-Fiction. I have just started blogging myself and am noticing how different it is from other writing that I do in my daily life (I am a poet and writer as well). Anyway, just a little note to say that I’m reading and keep up the great work! 🙂 I look forward to continuing to read.

  4. I’ve never been a huge fan of grades and even more so recently I have become annoyed with the whole grading, you say it so well
    “I find myself so resenting the entire notion of grading and what it so often does to learning and growth, to learners taking risks and daring to go beyond the safe, known routes they’ve been treading for years upon years…”
    I know for a fact I have become a better and more dedicated learner in the past couple months. My whole view of learning has shifted drastically, but somehow my grades don’t necessarily reflect that. I still go to some classes feeling I am stuck in a box.
    Personally, I’ve always had problems with structured environments and if I had more control over my education I would not be sitting in class as much as I do, I learn best when I’m actively involved. More and more I am convinced I am not a student for the current structure of higher education, but I know I am student. Pardon my ranting, your posts tend to rile me up (in a good way of course).

  5. Thanks, Valerie and Shannon, for your comments. I’m glad to hear that a recent graduate is so interested in thinking about how the read/write Web differs from other kinds of writing. My students are really extending their sense of how image and sound can be a part of their scholarly and creative expression. It is proving to be quite a wonderful revelation, though a bit overwhelming, too, as very few of them have had any experience with multimedia writing. And unfortunately, few will have much opportunity to write with images and sound across their formal learning experience. Thanks, Valerie, for the link to your edc blog. I’ll follow along with interest.

    Shannon, it’s a pleasure to have you back on bgblogging. I’m not at all surprised to hear that you, too, have little use for grading or confining learning. From what I read on your blog and on Twitter, you are struggling to stay true to your own vision of your learning journey while being open to the gifts of the classroom, whatever classroom that may be. That’s brave.

    Yesterday I sent one of my students to your blog because she’s really noticing the bubble of college and wants to keep the windows and doors open to the outside world, something you seem to do very well indeed, . You might be interested in her post:

  6. Thank you for a well-developed blog that incorporates important educational articles, student comments, teacher reflection, and an attention to grammar and good writing. As high school teachers begin “getting their feet wet” with blogs, this blog becomes an important model. Thank you for your adventurous spirit and efforts with this technology. You inspire the rest of us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: