Just an EdD from a State University

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Emily Dickinson

Several years ago I was on a panel for a public forum held on my university’s campus. At the Q&A ending the panel talk, a colleague from another discipline asked a detailed question grounded in their discipline.

I watched their face and eyes as I navigated not only the arcane and somewhat navel-gazing elements of the question (we academics love to hold forth with questions that are thinly veiled opportunities to hear ourselves talk) but also that this conversation between the two of us was almost entirely alienating for 75% of the audience, which included several of my students.

Referencing key scholars from my colleague’s field, I did a bit better than hold my own—although I just have an EdD from a state university.

Because of the lingering Jill Biden controversy—using “Dr.” with people holding doctorates and working as professors—the public has been exposed to the ugliness surrounding and within the academy that includes classism (one detractor of Jill Biden clearly also disrespects community college students), sexism (the original swipe at Jill Biden that isn’t even thinly veiled misogyny), and degree stigmas (even in this excellent rebuttal of all the nonsense tossed at Jill Biden, the EdD is framed as a lesser degree).

My journey to academia and an advanced, terminal degree (EdD in Curriculum and Instruction) began in junior college after I left high school an avid math/science student set on majoring in physics (one of the most prestigious disciplines in academia).

However, while in junior college where I spent an inordinate amount of time playing pick-up basketball and drinking, I was approached by a Dean who taught my British lit intro course. Dean Carter asked me to tutor English in the college’s academic assistance office.

A bit disoriented, I asked why, and he said I was the best student in the class. At that point, a first-year student who had made almost all his As in high school in math and science (although my favorite teacher was Mr. Harrill, my English teacher), I never considered myself a literary person—and certainly had never entertained any proclivity for teaching (I laughed in high school, in fact, when Mr. Harrill one day suggested I consider teaching).

That moment with Dean Carter changed my life.

I soon fell in love with tutoring, and by the spring of my first year of college, I had fallen in love with poetry (thanks to my speech class taught by Mr. Steve Brannon) and discovered that I am a writer (having written my first “real” poems that spring after immersing myself in the poetry of e.e. cummings).

From 1983 until 1998, I completed three (shitty, in seems) degrees in education—a BA in secondary English education, an MEd in secondary English education, and an EdD in Curriculum and Instruction—all from (shitty, it seems) the state system where I live.

I am well aware that K-12 teaching isn’t very highly regarded, that many people see teachers as academically weak themselves (the Urban Legend about education majors having the lowest SATs, GPAs, etc.). I am also well aware that my education degrees are viewed as pre-professional and not academically rigorous.

As I noted above, even an impassioned and detailed defense of Jill Biden using “Dr.” included a swipe at the EdD degree:

Jill Biden does not have a PhD. She has an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership. It’s an applied doctorate, designed to certify rising administrators in the field of education….

At the outset I mentioned that Biden has “an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership” and not a PhD. The Department’s website provides a handy summary of the difference at Delaware.

Dan Nexon

That “handy summary,” however, is not a definition of EdDs, but of that particular degree and program, but even as there is an emphasis on being a practitioner, the summary ends with this: “The Doctor of Education represents the highest level of scholarly attainment in the professional field of education.”

Now honestly, there is a lot of coded language here that links “scholarly” with “professional field” and speaks into a cultural and disciplinary marginalizing of education as a pre-professional and not academic field.

Here is a significant distinction that many do not acknowledge about education as a discipline. Much of education in the academy is grounded in teacher certification (an area in which I work and strongly criticize), but education as a discipline is a social science, a cousin to psychology.

My graduate degrees (MEd and EdD) included many advanced courses in statistics and qualitative/quantitative research, educational philosophy, and educational psychology. I am willing to concede that education as a field is a hybrid of other disciplines, but I can hold my own among researchers regardless of the field, among complex discussions of philosophy and psychology (not just education), and among debates about the challenges of realizing theory/philosophy in day-to-day practice.

But many have also criticized Jill Biden for her dissertation, again the implication being that EdDs are less academically rigorous:

Some critics have honed in on the fact that Biden’s dissertation is not a PhD thesis but an “Executive Position Paper.”…

For that matter, we can argue, as Volokh does, that a PhD thesis “is generally a dissertation that constitutes a substantial original work of scholarship,” but it should be pretty clear that “generally” is doing a lot of work here. This is why writing a crappy thesis doesn’t mean that Gorka can’t call himself “Dr. Gorka.” It means his PhD doesn’t certify him as an expert on terrorism or in political science. Biden isn’t trying to pass herself off as a leading expert on educational reform or whatever….

For that matter, we can argue, as Volokh does, that a PhD thesis “is generally a dissertation that constitutes a substantial original work of scholarship,” but it should be pretty clear that “generally” is doing a lot of work here. This is why writing a crappy thesis doesn’t mean that Gorka can’t call himself “Dr. Gorka.” It means his PhD doesn’t certify him as an expert on terrorism or in political science. Biden isn’t trying to pass herself off as a leading expert on educational reform or whatever.

Dan Nexon

This defense, you see, of Jill Biden is grounded in the argument that she did in fact meet the requirements of her EdD, which is a doctoral degree, and therefore, assigning “Dr.” to her name while she is a professor is entirely reasonable.

This defense glides right past making any concession that EdD programs may in fact have rigorous dissertation requirements that result in a “a substantial original work of scholarship.”

My own experience with graduate school was not like my colleagues’ programs since I completed my MEd at a satellite campus (degree was based in the main campus, however) and then completed the EdD with very lenient residency requirements (I did not quit my teaching job or live on campus, meeting residency by taking a certain number of main-campus listed courses over several consecutive semesters).

And my dissertation does meet the threshold of being “a substantial original work of scholarship,” but it is an educational biography—a qualitative research paradigm and a sub-genre of history, both of which are stigmatized in academia (once again, shitty and shitty).

Tracing the life and career of Lou LaBrant through much of the twentieth century required my completing a literature review of biography/educational biography grounded in feminism and critical pedagogy (that grounding, you guessed it, shitty and shitty), reading dozens of works by LaBrant and about LaBrant that form the skeleton of my field of literacy and English education, and then writing a book-length biography (which has since been published).

I was well equipped during my years in graduate education to have written a traditional dissertation driven by a quantitative study (I found none of that compelling and chose my program specifically because it included a key figure in education biography, Craig Kridel, and because I could write a biography).

My work on LaBrant, as Kridel declared at my dissertation defense, is a unique contribution to the field of education (as a social science), rich in history as well as robust debates about philosophy, theory, and practice.

My challenge is that I wonder how many economists, political scientists, psychologists, and almost all the other disciplines awash in PhDs could have done the type of work I did, academically advanced writing (not to a dissertation temple) that grounded a prominent figure over almost a century of thought in that field.

I suspect few of the academic snobs pontificating on Jill Biden could have done the work I did, and part of their condescension is a way to avoid that fact.

It’s not, then, that my terminal degree is just an EdD from a state university; it’s all the layers of shitty I have trafficked in along the way—just the field of education, just a biography.

The Jill Biden debate is mostly about sexism and misogyny; it is unwarranted and petty.

I know from first-hand witnessing that there are plenty of charlatans in all the disciplines—small-minded and weak thinkers about even mundane topics. I have to stand in proximity to their PhDs as if I don’t count because of the simple difference in letters.

We call them “Dr.” and don’t bat an eye.

These hierarchies and professional/personal pettiness are embarrassing among people who are supposed to be well educated.

But there is no place for any of that in our public debates either. I know that despite my shitty degree.

Writing as an Academic and Scholar

My transition to being an academic and scholar occurred in the mid-1990s after I had been a public school English teacher for more than a decade and a writer for almost two decades.

Looking back, one of the most pivotal moments of that transition was when Craig Kridel, a leading scholar of educational biography who would become the anchor on my doctoral committee, stood at the first organizing meeting of new doctoral students and announced the importance of being able to write well. He introduced me to Joseph Williams’s Style and forever changed me as a writer and a teacher.

I was in my mid- to late 30s when I completed that doctoral program, and I chose the degree primarily because I had the opportunity to write an educational biography (a non-traditional dissertation form and an under-appreciated research type, qualitative) and work with Kridel. You see, I wanted to write a real book and not a formulaic doctoral dissertation.

Of course, entering the doctoral program, I had yet to experience or fully understand just what writing a dissertation entailed—or what it would mean to be an academic and scholar.

At this writing, I am 19 years into a career in higher education and have been teaching 37 years as well as publishing for over 30 years.

Despite the recent public criticisms of academics—and specifically those of us with EdDs and not PhDs—I have witnessed some problems within the academy that often go unaddressed, notably the assumption that someone with a terminal degree can teach and write with little or no preparation in either.

Writing as an academic and scholar, I think, receives even less attention than teaching in higher education; people with doctorates have almost all completed book-length studies and then continue to write and publish as a key component of their careers as professors.

As I have noted often, there seems to be a flawed assumption, in fact, that professors can not only all write well but can teach writing.

At the end of this fall semester, I completed an editorial review of a policy brief and was immediately struck with how my comments in many ways matched much of what I emphasized for my first-year writing students.

The brief was written by a very bright scholar and the content was excellent. However, this experience pushed me to interrogate for myself that writing by academics and scholars often exhibits an intense focus on being careful and meticulous with the content and ideas of the text while falling quite short on the art and craft of writing at the sentence and paragraph levels as well as not fully keeping the audience in mind.

Academics and scholars can find themselves writing in a wide variety of contexts—to a specialized audience, often their peers in their discipline; to an informed and educated audience outside their field of specialization; or to a public audience, possibly not well informed or highly educated.

Yet, academic and scholarly writing tends to remain in the first register, to a specialized audience, and includes highly structured (and stilted) organizational features, specialized terminology and academic language, long and complex sentences and paragraphs, and somewhat traditional expectations to depersonalize the text (as if the academic and the audience do not exist).

When I am working with first-year students, I spend a great deal of time and energy helping them unlearn practices that tarnish their writing, and their credibility.

A lesson those beginning writers (and potential scholars) and seasoned academic and scholars need to learn is that how we write and how we engage our audiences are essential elements of our authority and credibility.

One of the paradoxes of writing by academics and scholars is that the focus on fidelity to the content and ideas at the exclusion of accessible and engaging expression serves to discredit and devalue that content and those ideas.

Here, then, are some entry points for academics and scholars to re-imagine themselves as writers:

  • Rethink the structures of writing, particularly the essay as a form. Traditional approaches to introduction, direct thesis sentences, and conclusions are not only weak writing but also harmful to the goal of any piece of writing—to engage and persuade or inform the reader. Openings and closings often have profound influence over whether or not the reader actual reads as well as what that audience takes from the text. Academics and scholars need to add to their goals as writers being engaging and vivid instead of simply complying with templates.
  • Reject de-personalizing writing by fore-fronting real people (including “I,” the academic/scholar) doing real things. Traditional scholarly writing still avoids first person as well as anecdotes and narrative. These expectations come out of a (simplistic) concession to objectivity and a valid concern for representing accurately research and evidence (acknowledging, for example, that anecdotes may be outliers or cherry picking). Pursuing objectivity is a trap; instead academics and scholars can improve their writing by seeking to be transparent and adding context (both of which make writing richer and more engaging). Also, simply because anecdote and narrative can be distorting doesn’t mean that they must be distorting; writing as an academic and scholar includes an ethical expectation that the anecdote is representative, not that the writing cannot be vivid and engaging.
  • Start any text with the audience, not the content or ideas. Keep in mind that the final text of writing need not look the same as the early drafts; in other words, many academics and scholars likely should start their drafting with their content and ideas, shaping them and wrestling with them in ways that allow a later draft to forefront the audience and write in ways that are engaging and vivid.
  • Begin to interrogate your writing at the word (diction), sentence, and paragraph levels. One of the greatest challenges of writing as an academic and scholar is that the content of specialized fields often includes arcane terms and sophisticated ideas that are so complex they resist simple writing. None the less, making academic and scholarly writing accessible as well as credibly accurate is part of the authority in that writing. When academic and scholarly writing is too dense, inaccessible, and overwhelming, it is likely either misunderstood or outright ignored. One writing strategy that can improve academic and scholarly writing is revising sentences and paragraphs for length (shorter is better than longer) and variety.
  • Cultivate a peer group of readers that can provide feedback during drafting that includes people who are themselves writers and people both a part of and outside the intended audience of the text being drafted. Here is a simply tip: Don’t write in isolation. Meaning derived from reading a text is a communal experience (reader, writer, and text interact to create meaning); therefore, creating meaning through text should also be communal.

In several of my classes, I have students prepare two different but related assignments—one is scholarly (an informed audience and using academic citation) and the other is a public text (general audience and using hyperlinks for citation). Students often are required to address the same topic in these pieces, and thus, must begin to investigate how to express themselves well while adapting their diction, tone, and style to different audiences and in different writing formats.

This is the domain of being a writer.

I have always thought that we ask far too little of students as writers, doing most the writer’s work for them when we provide detailed writing prompts, intricate rubrics, and essay templates.

Many if not most academics and scholars carry that baggage into their professional writing. I also think we ask far too little of academics and scholars as writers.

Writing well, being engaging and vivid, should not be some afterthought, or simply no thought at all. Writing as an academic and scholar can only serve their content and research well if they invite in and engage an audience.

If an academic/scholar writes an essay and no one reads it, does it make a sound?

Normality in Sayaka Murata

What is normal? Are you normal? Am I normal?

“Normality was contagious, and exposure to the infection was necessary to keep up with it,” explains Natsuki in Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings.

Earthlings: A Novel: Murata, Sayaka, Takemori, Ginny Tapley: 9780802157003:  Amazon.com: Books

If we accept that “normal” describes what is typical, and thus, what we may expect in any circumstance, then the novels of Murata are themselves not normal.

And the central characters in both Earthlings and Convenience Store Woman are certainly not normal either.

Amazon.com: Convenience Store Woman: A Novel (9780802128256): Murata,  Sayaka, Tapley Takemori, Ginny: Books

Having focused for the last couple of years on fiction in translation (see links below)—prompted in part by my scholarly and personal interest in Haruki Murakami—I think part of the appeal of fiction from other cultures, crafter originally in languages other than my native English, is that the works confront and challenge my perceptions of normal, even though my critical ideology always calls on me to question, to step back, and to reconsider the assumptions of being human.

However, Murata’s work has shaken me to the core, although in a different way than my recent journey through three novels by Ryu Murakami (below); both authors leave me confused about my responses to their graphic violence and matter-of-fact explorations of the decidedly taboo (child sexual assault, incest, and cannibalism, for example, in Murata).

But while Ryu Murakami crafts tension around both horrific violence by serial murderers and the ever-present threat of violence (readers can likely never again ignore the possibility of severed feet), Murata’s tensions are existential, and while far more dramatic than day-to-day human anxiety, any reader who lives with the existential dread of simply being alive must interrogate their empathy for Keiko (Convenience Store Woman) and Natsuki.

I read Earthlings first, mesmerized by the first third of the novel focusing on Natsuki at 11 years old and in the early stages of puberty. However, this opening is no coming-of-age narrative seeking to reach some sort of universal appeal.

Yes, some of the first two chapters is somewhat quirky explorations of what almost everyone understands about being an adolescent—especially Natsuki’s feeling alienated from her family, particularly her antagonistic mother—but Natsuki being the victim of sexual assault (far too common for young women throughout the world) turns even more disturbing because her confession of the abuse is callously dismissed by her mother and ultimately because Natsuki at 11 enacts a surrealistic revenge that leaves the reader, again, conflicted.

The rest of the novel is Natsuki as an adult, in her 30s, and here we see many of the same powerful motifs found in Convenience Store Woman, where Keiko is also a woman in her 30s.

Murata offers readers characters explicitly aware that they are not normal, but who are along a spectrum of navigating their world-views against either the urge to become normal or finding a way to exist in the so-called normal world as an alien (with sufficient ambiguity about whether that is literal, delusional, or metaphorical).

From casual interest in incest and gleeful cannibalism to choosing a single life as a career part-time convenience store worker, the plot elements of Murata’s novels shatter expectations about tone as well as anyone’s confidence in their own sense of normality.

It isn’t enough to say that Murata seems to show that there really is no such thing as “normal”—except for the power of normalization to seem real.

Murata pushes even further, toward the implication of normal as entirely arbitrary; “normal,” if we dare to be critical, becomes most harmful in human experiences when it becomes “right.”

Normal people marry and have children. Normal people seek out careers and center the focus of their lives on those careers.

And since these are the right things to do, this is how anyone can be fully human.

The harm, of course, is that those who choose not to marry, have children, and center their lives on their careers are choosing the wrong path—and are in effect not fully human.

This brings me to the ultimate overwhelming weight of Murata’s novels—the burden of normal on children and women as well as the role of normal in the sexual and physical violence pervading the lives of children and women.

Yes, there are cartoonishly surreal moments in Murata that prod a smile, but everything in her worlds is tinted by the inevitability of the disease of normality and the futility of a single human’s desire simply to be herself, her true and full self.

See Also

Found in Translation

The Diving Pool: Three Novellas, Ogawa, Yoko

The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa

Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales, Ogawa, Yoko

Hotel Iris: A Novel, Yoko Ogawa

The Memory Police: A Novel, Ogawa, Yoko

Breasts and Eggs, Kawakami, Mieko

Piercing, Murakami, Ryu

Audition, Murakami, Ryu

In the Miso Soup, Murakami, Ryu

Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata

Earthlings, Sayaka Murata

A Man, Hirano, Keiichiro

The Naked Eye, Tawada, Yoko

The Lower Realities of Higher Education

I posted a fairly tame Tweet about the Wall Street Journal‘s recent Op-Ed attacking Jill Biden using “Dr.” and editorial doubling-down on negative responses to the Op-Ed (none of which I will link here):

The Tweet attracted conservatives with ten’s of followers, most of them misreading the Tweet and many of them attacking me for being an academic/professor (the typical snarky references to Marx, etc.) as well as being in the field of education (my university affiliation and doctorate, an EdD, are part of my Twitter bio and handle—although several Twits thought they were outing me in some way for these public facts).

While I am enormously privileged, I share with Jill Biden the paradox of holding a doctorate in an often marginalized field, education; when I attained my EdD in the mid-1990s, it was still a much lesser degree than a PhD—and remains well down the hierarchy of academic credentials since education is often discounted as a pre-professional field.

Over 37 years as an educators, I spent the first 18 as a public high school English teacher. K-12 teachers are disproportionately women, and being a K-12 teacher is a profession rarely recognized as such—mostly, I contend, because it is perceived as mere women’s work.

Like babysitting.

Now in the middle of my nineteenth year as a professor, having moved through the ranks to full professor and received tenure, I am part of a male-dominated field (especially at the higher ranks) that often warrants far more prestige than K-12 teachers but also receives a fair amount of public shaming and ridicule (notably from conservatives, as my Twitter experience illustrates).

That ridicule is based in large part on cartoonish stereotypes of the Ivory Tower (academic knowledge not being realistic or practical) and a mischaracterization of professors as radical Leftists.

What popular and conservative attacks of higher education often miss is that academia is incredibly traditional, especially in terms of policies and practices that are sexist, racist, classist, and (often) petty.

Higher education, like K-12 education, more often reflects society—the good, the bad, and the ugly—than not.

The Jill Biden debate prompted by the conservative WSJ is an opportunity to confront the gendered inequity of academia that is replicated in the racism, classism, and other inequities that permeate disciplinary hierarchies, the tenure and promotion process (along with faculty evaluation such as student evaluations of teaching [SET]), and numerous unspoken norms.

That higher education fails to be the Ivory Tower of equity is not the only paradox of academia. Many would assume, for example, that academics practice research-based policies and procedures, but one of the greatest inequities of being a professor is the use of SETs for annual evaluations and the tenure/promotion process (see here).

From 2019, Kristen Doerer reported:

“Having a female instructor is correlated with higher student achievement,” Wu said, but female instructors received systematically lower course evaluations. In looking at prerequisite courses, the two researchers found a negative correlation between students’ evaluations and learning. “If you took the prerequisite class from a professor with high student teaching evaluations,” Harbaugh said, “you were likely, everything else equal, to do worse in the second class.”…

Studies since the 1980s have found gender bias in student evaluations and, since the early 2000s, have found racial bias as well. A 2016 study of data from the United States and France found that students’ teaching evaluations “measure students’ gender biases better than they measure the instructor’s teaching effectiveness,” and that more-effective instructors got lower ratings than others did….

Despite the data, at many colleges, particularly research-based institutions, student evaluations are still the main measure, if not the only one, of teaching effectiveness in promotion-and-tenure decisions.

Just as the WSJ editorial staff doubled down on a grossly incompetent and even laughably weak Op-Ed by a classic mediocre white man, academia repeatedly doubles down on SETs, arguing that colleges must have something to evaluate teaching and casually flaunting the research base.

But even the college classroom remains inequitable for women; Lee and McCabe have found that gender inequity in the college classroom hasn’t improved over the past 40 years, as they observed:

Men students are more likely to take the floor to talk while women students are more likely to wait for their turns. Across all nine courses observed, men students talk 1.6 times as often as women. In addition, men are also more likely to speak out without raising their hands, interrupt other speakers in the classroom, and engage in prolonged conversations with the professor during class….

Despite great gains in women’s access to and achievements in higher education, contemporary college classrooms seem to have remained “chilly.” Our observations suggest that men students continue to occupy advantaged positions while women students are largely hesitant to take up space in classrooms. These differences occur regardless of students’ or professors’ awareness of these inequalities. 

A key point here is that women for many years have surpassed men in attending and achieving success in higher education. And the nonsensical WSJ Op-Ed seems to reflect anther disturbing finding about gender and higher education by Levanon, England, and Allison:

Occupations with a greater share of females pay less than those with a lower share, controlling for education and skill. This association is explained by two dominant views: devaluation and queuing. The former views the pay offered in an occupation to affect its female proportion, due to employers’ preference for men—a gendered labor queue. The latter argues that the proportion of females in an occupation affects pay, owing to devaluation of work done by women. Only a few past studies used longitudinal data, which is needed to test the theories. We use fixed-effects models, thus controlling for stable characteristics of occupations, and U.S. Census data from 1950 through 2000. We find substantial evidence for the devaluation view, but only scant evidence for the queuing view.

As women surpass men in doctorates, the prestige of that credential has diminished.

Once again, however, we need only to listen to women themselves, of course, to recognize the lower realities of higher education that have nothing to do with cancel culture, Marxism/socialism, or diversity/equity/inclusion initiatives.

Those lower realities are mostly good old American sexism.

“Contrary to what one might have expected,” Allison Miller explains while unpacking the Jill Biden controversy, “I have found that the further away from higher education I’ve gotten, the more respect for my degree colleagues have shown.”

Miller continues:

Where I have encountered most disrespect for my doctorate is actually from academics. It’s not just that all Ph.D.s are not created equal — some schools still dominate hiring and will continue to do so as the academic-job market shrinks….

[T]he fetishization of hazing hasn’t disappeared from inside academe….

Once you have a Ph.D. … you learn the lessons of academic hierarchy all over again. What’s called “collegiality” is actually deference, a willingness to get along by going along, to put up with corridor microaggressions, to smile through Professor X’s department-meeting BS — but like a whack-a-mole, there’s always another Professor X. The rules of deference are unwritten because most of them would probably be illegal. “Wait until you get tenure” is not in the faculty handbook….

The demands for deference speak to gatekeeping and a general clubbiness that is hard to penetrate without a background that includes close proximity to upper-middle-class white people. 

Three key points must be acknowledged here in order to recognize the lower realities of higher education: “hazing,” “gatekeeping,” and “clubbiness” all confront that higher education is a highly insular and sexist system that, like most formal organizations, is more concerned with conserving its structure than changing for the good of all.

Higher education is often a good ol’ boys club with more credentialing and a more arcane vocabulary.

Attaining a doctorate—PhD or EdD (JD or MD)—is a relatively rare achievement, but those credentials do not guarantee that people are better humans after they earn the opportunity to be called “Dr.”

Dr. X and Dr. Y are no less likely to be selfish and arrogant, and we have no guarantee that anyone in any field, academic or medical, wasn’t last in their class—or isn’t a charlatan, a hack.

But when medical doctors gained the label of “Dr.” (after academics) and when academic doctors were mostly men, society rarely balked at the possibility that “Dr.” didn’t make any of those guarantees.

If anyone is ready for a reckoning in the U.S. (and I doubt many are), we would be better served to question the outsized role of mediocre white men, like the recent scribe of a WSJ Op-Ed, both inside and outside the academy.

In the mean time, it’s Dr. Jill Biden who will be the next FLOTUS, and along with Kamal Harris being the vice president, there is much to celebrate about women and simply no room for adolescent Op-Eds in the WSJ that can’t rise above Ayn Rand basement level pseudo-thinking.

Grades Tarnish Teaching as well as Learning

Recently on social media, a professor asked if others used rubrics with graduate students. Since rejecting rubrics has been a central component of my career-long efforts to de-grade and de-test teaching and learning, I chimed in.

My posts in the comments explaining why I don’t use rubrics were significant outliers because the thread of comments was overwhelmingly endorsing rubrics, almost entirely in terms of making grading easier or more transparent as well as providing teachers/professors protection against (hypothetical) students challenging their grades.

One immediate response to my comments is also worth highlighting since a person who doesn’t know me made fairly nasty assumptions about me being like the professors they had in grad school, the “gotcha” professors who use grades to ambush and punish students.

While most of my public (see here and here, for example) and scholarly work rejecting the use of rubrics—especially when teaching writing—has focused on their negative impact, along with grades, on students and learning (see this example), the recent social media thread highlights that grades also tarnish teaching.

Early into my first 18 years as a high school English teacher, I stopped giving tests; a bit later in that position, I also stopped grading assignments (although I had to assign students quarter and course grades). Over my on-going 19 years as a college professor, I have always delayed grades (feedback but not grades on assignments but course grades assigned) and never given traditional tests (midterms are often class discussions, projects, or reflections; and final exams are always portfolios of the work over the entire course).

My syllabi have no grade scales or policies, no weights for calculating grades, and no late policy even; I do have an explanation of my no grades/no tests approach to teaching, and I do share with students some broad patterns often correlated with course grades. [1]

While reading the thread on social media, I recognized a pattern of fear and a need among teachers/professors to justify grades but also to guard against a hypothetical complaining student.

This pattern struck me as a non-grader because over the 19 years I have been teaching in higher education full time, I have zero official complaints by students about grades. And only one student has ever confronted me about a course grade, a student who failed their FYW seminar for not participating in the minimum requirements (the student submitted all four essays once at the end of the course without submitting them throughout the semester and fulfilling the drafting and conferencing requirements).

That student left our meeting with the understanding that they in fact earned the F by not meeting the minimum requirements and expectations listed on our syllabus, and never pursued any official complaint.

While I remain deeply concerned about the negative consequences of grades, tests, and prescriptive structures such as rubrics on students and learning, I am also convinced more than ever that grades, tests, and rubrics detract significantly from effective teaching and actually create the problems many teachers/professors seem to be inordinately worried can occur in the hypothetical.

Rubrics as a subset of the traditional grading culture are often justified in terms of transparency as well—a very compelling argument.

As I have examined before in terms of the backwards design movement associated with Wiggins and McTighe, I have taught for almost 40 years while the focus on teachers and students has shifted from learning objectives to student assessment, and I do recognize that the shift to backwards design was in part an acknowledgement that students deserve transparency in expectations and goals for learning and student behaviors (artifacts of learning such as essays, projects, or performances).

Grade policies, rubrics, and templates are one type of transparency, prescriptive and authoritarian, but they all prove to be teacher/authoritarian-centered and to be mechanisms that reduce student autonomy and engagement in their own learning. Codified transparency is demanding compliance over student agency.

Despite the assumptions of at least one person commenting on social media, I am not a “gotcha” professor, and I am transparent about learning goals and student behaviors. However, I see transparency as a conversation in a learning community and an evolving, not static, state of any course bound by the limits of the academic calendar. That transparency must support my authoritative role as a teacher (as opposed to authoritarian).

I have posted many times that my transparency is in the form of minimum requirements (see below) and providing for students a wealth of resources that include detailed models of their assignments with instructional comments and checklists for preparing and revising their work.

By not grading assignments, I provide students low-risk environments that remove the “gotcha” element entirely since students are required and allowed to revise their work as well as engage with me in an ongoing conversation (conferences, feedback provided on the assignments) that helps them construct their own learning (individualized rubrics, in other words).

And since course grades are linked to a final portfolio of their work, assigning a grade occurs after students have had the entire course to learn, and considering the amount of feedback and conferences students have experienced along with class sessions grounded in their artifacts of learning (I teach based on the strengths and needs their assignments reveal), neither students nor I are surprised by the final course grade assigned.

I must emphasize again that I have been de-grading and de-testing my teaching since 1984 (the first year) and that these practices have been implemented in a rural public high school as well as a selective university. I developed and practiced not grading assignments and not giving traditional tests while teaching public school in a right-to-work (non-union) state and during my non-tenure years as I began my career in higher education.

I fully acknowledge and have worked in the so-called “real world” of traditional schooling that requires grades. Therefore, I have conceded that at best I am delaying grades, but I must emphasize that I also forefront significantly student learning and my teaching while complying with assessment, evaluation, and grades last, as a mandate that must not negatively impede student learning or my teaching.

Many justifications of rubrics are placing grades first, sacrificing learning and teaching.

Once we prioritize student learning/agency and teacher professionalism as well as teaching, structures such as rubrics can be recognized as traps that center the authority for a course in those structures (rubrics, templates, grading policies) instead of in the teacher/professor.

A syllabus is a legal contract, and once we codify how grades are determined, we as teachers/professors are bound to those codes regardless of how valid they prove to be for each student.

Well designed rubrics must be highly prescriptive (see Popham, Chapter 7), and thus, they do much of the work for students, choices and experiments that would better serve the students as learners; poorly designed rubrics (open-ended, vague, etc.) are neither fulfilling the goals of using a rubric or satisfying the standard justifications for using rubrics.

In rejecting rubrics, I am not rejecting transparency or fairness.

I am advocating for teachers and professors to step outside those traps and to make commitments to transparency and fairness grounded in student learning and teaching, not assessment, evaluation, and grades.


Notes

[1] [First-year writing seminar example; detail vary by course]

Student Participation in a Course without Grades or Tests

While you will receive a grade for this course per university policy, I do not grade individual assignments, and I do not administer traditional tests in any course I teach. We will comply with university expectations for midterm and final exams (see the assignments in the course overview), and I will submit either an S (satisfactory) or I (incomplete) for the midterm grade to designate whether or not you have fulfilled assignments as required through midterm.

Instead of traditional grades, I expect students to meet minimum requirements; in this course minimum requirements include completing all assignments (see the final portfolio sheet) fully and on time, and submitting, conferencing, and resubmitting all four required essays (a first full submission and a revision after receiving feedback and/or conferencing).

Assignments in my courses are not designed primarily for assessment (grading), but are designed as learning experiences. By completing and revising assignments, you are learning, and thus, you should expect to receive challenging feedback, and should also embrace the opportunity to revise work when allowed.

If you could complete an assignment perfectly the first time submitted, then there would be no reason for me assigning the work. All academic work can (and should) be improved through multiple efforts and feedback.

Since I require all work must be completed, and even though the expectation is that students meet due date deadlines, I must accept late work if and when students are unable to turn in work when due (see More Thoughts on Feedback, Grades, and Late Work). However, students should strive to be punctual with work unless circumstances beyond their control interfere (note that there are reasonable excuses for work being late, and I appreciate honest and upfront communication when students are unable to meet deadlines, even if the excuse isn’t urgent).

All four required essays must be revised at least once, but you are allowed and encouraged to revise as often as you wish to produce a high-quality essay.

At the end of the course, once you have been given ample opportunities to learn and can do so while taking risks and not worrying about your grade, I evaluate the entire portfolio of course work to assign a grade for the course.

Completing all work and submitting that work in the portfolio are mandatory (incomplete portfolios will be assigned an “F” for the course) and your course grade will be impacted by completing work fully and on time as well as the quality of the assignments (notably the four required essays). Proper citation (APA), quality of references, diligence in revising, and the sophistication of the writing and thinking in your assignments ultimately inform that final grade.

I recommend you read some or all of the following to understand my approach to grades and tests:

Minus 5: How a Culture of Grades Degrades Learning

Delaying Grades, Increasing Feedback: Adventures from the Real-World Classroom

More Thoughts on Feedback, Grades, and Late Work

Grades Fail Student Engagement with Learning

Note:

When I think about final grades, here are some guiding principles:

  • A work: Participating by choice in multiple drafts and conferences beyond the minimum requirements; essay form and content that is nuanced, sophisticated, and well developed (typically more narrow than broad); a high level demonstrated for selecting and incorporating source material in a wide variety of citation formats; submitting work as assigned and meeting due dates (except for illness, etc.); attending and participating in class-based discussion, lessons, and workshops; completing assigned and choice reading of course texts and mentor texts in ways that contribute to class discussions and original writing.
  • B work: Submitting drafts and attending conferences as detailed by the minimum requirements; essay form and content that is solid and distinct from high school writing (typically more narrow than broad); a basic college level demonstrated for selecting and incorporating source material in a wide variety of citation formats; submitting work as assigned and meeting most due dates; attending and participating in class-based discussion, lessons, and workshops; completing assigned and choice reading of texts and mentor texts in ways that contribute to class discussions and original writing.

Who Is Doing the Work in the Teaching/Learning Dynamic?

The end of a course often challenges my fundamental beliefs as a teacher.

Once again, in the final days of my courses when students are allowed and encouraged to revise their major essays as often as possible, I have returned several without responding because the resubmitted essays are mostly the same as the last draft I marked or the student is merely dutifully addressing only what I have marked.

Many years ago when I was teaching high school English, my classroom was directly across the courtyard from a math teacher. We could see each other’s desks through our windows.

Part joking and part shade, that math teacher occasionally prodded me with “I wish I could teach while sitting at my desk.”

Some of the tension here is the essential nature of teaching math versus teaching writing as an English teacher, but there is also the more pronounced tension of what it means to teach. [1]

This math teacher ran a very quiet classroom with students focused on the teacher’s instruction—what I would call a teacher-centered environment. I see this often when I walk the hallways of my university where professors are apt to be lecturing from notes.

As a teacher of reading and writing, I organized my classes as workshops, a commitment to student-centered learning in which (to address the question titling this post) students were tasked with doing most of the work in the teaching/learning dynamic.

My instruction, often conducted at my desk, in fact, was individualized and in the form of providing students feedback on their essay drafts. Each of my 100+ students each year produced 30-40-plus full drafts of essays, about four essays per quarter which they were required to revise at least once.

At the college level, my first-year writing students submit and must revise at least once four major essays, and they also must conference with me at least once per essay after the first submission and before they can submit their required revision.

One of the significant problems with the workshop approach to teaching writing that is grounded in student revision prompted with teacher feedback is how to shift the burden of revising and editing from the teacher to the student.

The primary reason I reject writing rubrics, writing prompts, and template writing (five-paragraph essays) is that these approaches are centering the work of the writing in the teacher and not in the student-writer.

Requiring a four-sentence introduction is relieving (denying) students the needed experience of coming to understand paragraphing as a skill that reinforces meaning, instead of a number to fulfill, for example.

A tradition of teaching writing among English teachers that is incredibly flawed teaching and at the core of why so many teachers dread or even avoid teaching writing is meticulously marking every “error” on every student essay—a time-consuming act of futility.

In my life as a student, we received heavily marked essays (on the rare occasion that we wrote essays) in red ink and a grade—but there was no revising or rewriting. What that teacher had done is sheer martyrdom, marking for hours and hours to prove some sort of monk-like dedication to laboring as a teacher.

You can imagine (and you likely have done this) that almost all of us looked at the grade and promptly discarded the essays (never interacting in any way with all that read ink).

A more recent and slightly different version of this is the heavily marked essay that students are required to “fix”; however, in this scenario, once again, teachers are actually doing all the work and the students are simply working at the lowest levels of addressing those marks.

Teacher martyrdom and student compliance are not the only options, however. To combat these flaws with teaching students to write in a workshop setting, I have implemented the following:

  • Replacing grades with minimum requirements. In a writing-intensive course, students must submit a first full draft of each essay (with proof of their own drafting and in a final form as if they are not allowed to revise), must participate in a conference with their peers and the teacher, and must submit at least one acceptable revise essay (“acceptable” includes the student addressing all feedback and submitting a clean file copy).
  • Marking student drafts as little as possible, typically marking the first third (using highlighting and copy editing) while also prompting students to “revise/edit this throughout the essay” so that they are applying the revision instead of me prompting them to all areas needing attention. Highlighting is particularly effective for addressing surface features (grammar, mechanics, and usage) so that students begin to read their own work more carefully. I also use highlighting to address careless sentence formation (starting many sentences with “it” constructions, using “thing” or “get” verbs repeatedly) and careless paragraphing (starting consecutive or several paragraphs with the same words, phrasing).
  • Not accepting or proving feedback on drafts that students either submit with track changes, etc., still active or with most of my feedback left unrevised or unedited. When teaching high school I marked these submissions with “N/G” for “no grade,” but at the college level, I simply return the draft submitted and the last draft I marked, noting that I cannot provide further feedback until the student addresses what I have already marked before.

At the end of the course, however, many of these practices grounded in my beliefs about how to teach well so that students do the work instead of me are challenged.

Two patterns frustrate me—(1) students resubmitting and not addressing what I have already marked, and (2) that overzealous student who simply resubmits over and over while only addressing what I have marked.

Students are provided extensive support material so that they can come to revise and edit their own work; therefore, especially toward the end of the semester, I return essays without marking them yet again and nudge students to those materials, stressing that they need to do the work and not me.

While I haven’t yet found the magic formula for shifting the work from me to my students in a way that feels satisfying, I am resolute in practicing my craft as a teacher that honors the need for students to do the work of learning and to resist substituting instead what many people would perceive as teaching (marking, marking, marking essays) but is mere martyrdom that does more to inhibit than encourage student learning.


Note

[1] As a teacher educator, I also have confronted this tension when conducting teaching observations of teacher candidates. Certification rubrics and traditional practices tend to focus on teacher candidate behaviors as proxies for student learning. Teacher candidates, then, see teaching observations as a time for them to perform. I caution my candidates, however, that I mostly observe their students for evidence of learning being fostered and not simply that the teacher is “teaching” in a way that conforms to the rubric.

How to Assign Writing When You Don’t Teach Writing

Over a decade ago, my university transitioned from an English Department-based composition sequence (often designated as ENG 101 and ENG 102 in many universities) to a first-year seminar format that would be staffed across all departments. This change, of course, meant that many professors with no background or training in how to teach writing were now teaching first-year writing.

The university fumbled this move quite a bit, but gradually the significance of that hurdle was recognized. We continue to find ways to support professors new and still learning to teaching writing.

Two of the foundational concepts repeated by those of us helping support these professors have been that teaching writing is not an inoculation (one course, or even a few courses, cannot produce students who need no more writing instruction) and that assigning writing is not teaching writing.

For many years, I have been posting my thoughts and strategies for anyone who is tasked with teaching writing or who must teach a writing-intensive course, even though they have no experience or background in formal writing instruction (much of that became this book).

But I received an email from Heather Thiessen recently who framed her contacting me this way: “I don’t teach writing; I teach religious studies. However, I also ask students to write. Sometimes that feels like a bad idea.”

What she is confronting, I think, is incredibly important because students develop beliefs and practices about writing from all of their schooling experiences, regardless of whether or not the teacher/professor is actively teaching writing.

Heather ended her email by gently requesting that I examine “how teachers who are in the ‘writing across the curriculum’ position can, could, should use writing assignments in a helpful, as opposed to harmful, way I would be grateful.”

Here, then, I want to discuss how to assign writing when you do not teach writing—while adhering to the dictum “First, do no harm.” I also include some suggestions for how to make assigning writing and managing the paper load more efficient and manageable when you aren’t a writing teacher/professor.

This discussion and principles, I think, are applicable K-16, but I do tend to target in my examinations of teaching writing high school and undergraduate student writing.

In the do no harm category, I strongly recommend not requiring students follow a five-paragraph essay [1] or any template/essay rubric that does much of the work for the student.

The five-paragraph essay is equally weak writing and overly simplistic thinking (few topics fit neatly into a central thesis/argument that needs only three supporting points, especially at the college level). Templates and essay rubrics also place most of the writing decision making (organization, paragraphing, etc.) on the teacher/professor instead of the student.

Instead, I suggest finding authentic published examples of essays that model the qualities you want students to include in their essays; here, as I will stress often for teachers who assign but do not teach writing, less is more. What are a handful of elements important for you, your learning objective(s), and the reason you are assigning as essay?

One of the greatest gifts you can provide your students and teachers of writing is to use your role as a content teacher to expose students to the wide variety of ways writing exists across disciplines [2]. If you teach history, help students explore and mimic how historians write, for example.

One of the more harmful cycles in formal schooling is that teachers have mostly themselves written when they were students only school essays (formulaic and for the teacher), and then as teachers, ask the same of their students. Students need and deserve authentic writing experiences throughout their schooling.

Also in the do no harm category is an opportunity to reconsider your own attitudes toward writing, essays, and surface features of language (grammar, mechanics, and usage) as well as what messages you are sending to students about each of these.

At the core of this is making a shift from demanding correctness to encouraging students to have healthy and positive attitudes toward expression. A few strategies to follow include:

  • Require and allow students to submit essays in a drafting process, providing them opportunities to receive feedback (targeted) from you and their peers.
  • Stress that all writing is improved by drafting, but do not ask students to “correct” their essays and avoid framing the use of language as right or wrong. Instead, ask student to revise their writing (focusing on content, organization, and style) and to edit surface features (grammar, citation, formatting). A simple change is the language you use has an important positive impact on students.

This second point is certainly challenging, even for veterans of writing instruction, but students are better served when they are invited to understand language in descriptive (how language is used in different contexts) and not prescriptive ways (punitive approaches that perpetuate inequity) [3].

Related, a third do no harm category is not announcing to students “I won’t grade this like your English teacher” or “This isn’t English class.” Students need to understand that essay writing is common across disciplines, especially as they move to college and beyond.

Avoid framing your assignment and grading (better yet, your feedback [4]) in the negative, and instead, provide students narrow (less is more) but detailed guidelines for what you will be assessing (and then allow yourself to provide feedback on aspects of the writing that will not impact their grades).

In other words, you are doing everyone a service if you provide an assessment rubric that identifies specific content, organization, and a few key surface features that will be assessed since it relieves you of “marking everything” (never do that) and provides accountability if a student or parent raises questions about grades on essays.

Once teachers/professors who are not writing teachers move past some of the suggestions noted above what tends to remain is an existential dread about grammar [5], the urge to correct student writing.

Anyone offering feedback on or assessing student writing should target first and weigh most significantly content, organization, and style (sentence and paragraph formation). To be blunt here, if a piece of writing isn’t making valid and compelling points in cohesive ways, matters of spelling, commas, and such are of no relevance [6].

A sexist claim, a lie, or a baseless claim gains no credibility from the words being spelled or the grammar being in a so-called standard form.

If you have the time, respond to the elements students need to revise (content, organization, and style) on the first submission, and then, highlight areas needing editing (grammar, mechanics, usage) when a final submission is warranted.

Especially as a content teacher, and not a writing teacher, you must narrow significantly your concerns about surface features so that you address only a few status marking concerns; typically, for example, in the real world, there are consequences for carelessly shifting verb tense, subject/verb agreement issues, and verb forms.

Since there is a great deal here to digest, several don’t’s and then do instead’s, let me end by stressing that assigning writing well when you do not teach writing can be implemented by doing no harm as well as not overburdening your workload as a teacher of content; in fact, assigning writing should reinforce your content instruction and tour students’ content learning.

You are, I am sure, shaking your head about the paper load.

When you assign writing as a content teacher, your job is not to do everything, but to do some targeted things well (to paraphrase Thoreau); consider the following:

  • Design writing assignments that have only a few clearly detailed learning goals; provide those for students in an assessment rubric.
  • Read and respond to those essays only focusing on those few goals (again, do not read for or mark everything). I recommend sending home a statement to parents explaining that when you assign grades to student writing that you are purposefully not assessing everything, but that each assignment has clearly stated elements that will impact the essay/assignment grade.
  • If students are not going to be allowed or required to revise and resubmit, do not spend time marking the essay; instead have a brief checklist identifying what aspects of the essay impact the grade assigned. (Marking essays extensively that students do not have to address is a form of martyrdom that no teacher can afford.)
  • Seek out a technology platform (as simple as Word, or any word processor, or something similar to Google docs) that supports quicker feedback from you and easier revision/editing by students.
  • Find and use (when there is consent) materials already created by teachers of writing (I typically make my support materials for students accessible to anyone, such as these).

Assigning essays across all content areas, I think, is not only essential but one the best ways to teach and foster learning in students. Students, however, as well as teaching and learning are best served if teachers send and students receive consistent and authentic messages about writing, essays, and language.


Recommended

RECOMMENDED: John Warner’s “The Writer’s Practice”

Making the Transition from Writing in High School to Writing in College


Notes

[1] See John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write and the following:

How the 5-Paragraph Essay Fails as Warranted Practice

Adventures in Nonsense: Teaching Writing in the Accountability Era

John Warner Swears Off Essays, and Students? (Yes, And So Should Everyone)

[2] See the following:

Writing as a Discipline and in the Disciplines

Reading Like a Writer (Scholar): Kingsolver’s “Making Peace”

Intersections and Disjunctures: Scholars, Teachers, and Writers

Helping Students Navigate Disciplinary Writing: The Quote Problem

[3] See To “Be” or Not To “Be”: Moving Beyond Correctness and Stigmatized Language

[4] See the following:

Rethinking Grading as Instruction: Rejecting the Error Hunt and Deficit Practices

Not How to Enjoy Grading But Why to Stop Grading

Reformed to Death: Discipline and Control Eclipse Education

The Nearly Impossible: Teaching Writing in a Culture of Grades, Averages

Delaying Grades, Increasing Feedback: Adventures from the Real-World Classroom

More Thoughts on Feedback, Grades, and Late Work

[5] See the following:

Lost in Translation: More from a Stranger in Academia

Teaching Literacy, Not Literacy Skills

Fostering Convention Awareness in Students: Eschewing a Rules-Based View of Language

Diagramming Sentences and the Art of Misguided Nostalgia

Not If, But When: The Role of Direct Instruction in Teaching Writing

Teaching Literacy in Pursuit of “a Wholesome Use of Language”

On Common Terminology and Teaching Writing: Once Again, the Grammar Debate

[6] See Rethinking Grading as Instruction: Rejecting the Error Hunt and Deficit Practices