Thursday, September 28, 2006

Quantifying greatness

I ran into a student yesterday. I had given her an 83% on her first critical reading response, worth 5% of her mark in the fourth-year seminar (there are eight of them). She's a very good student, obviously - she got the highest grade on that first batch of responses, and contributes very thoughtfully.

She said, "Oh, I'm glad I ran into you. I wanted to talk to you about my response paper."

I thought, "??" And said, "You did very well. It was great."

And she replied, "Yeah, I wanted to know how I can improve."

So I told her I couldn't remember her response paper off the top of my head, and that she should email it to me, which she has now done.

But the thing is, how do you explain what distinguishes a 90% from an 83%? This is difficult work, much more difficult than explaining what distinguishes a 70 from a 90, or whatever. Part of it, I have always maintained, is ineffable - it is about originality and boldness of thought. (When, as a TA, I once said this ata workshop - that there inevitably remains something subjective and unquantifiable about grading - I was given dagger eyes by the facilitators.) I do try to quantify and clarify for students as best I can - I use a marking matrix for larger assignments. And I have indicated at some length in my syllabus what distinguishes the best critical responses - I have quantified it as much as I can. I don't know how to explain the thing about sparks of genius that I find in that very rare A+ paper. Which she indeed might have the capacity to give me - I don't know yet.

I have looked over her paper and told her that there were a couple of places where she had given herself short shrift - she could have expanded her argument so that I could really see her original ideas and critiques.

But still. How to explain originality?


negativecapability said...

This drives me insane; my students are all very smart, very hardworking. Sometimes, they're not so original, and they don't get it. And I don't get how to explain it to them.

I agree that there is an ineffability factor about grading that we can't hammer out of it without killing the very thing we're looking for.

What Now? said...

Oh, exactly. I've for years said about myself as a teacher that I can get any student willing to work up to a B level (which is maybe a bit of hubris on my part, but is largely true), but the trip from B+ to A I find almost impossible to teach, since it's largely about insight, originality, creativity, and the like. And how do you teach those? But how frustrating for students to hear, "I'm looking for original thinking," because exactly how are they supposed to respond to that? Sometimes pushing the B student with questions about relevance and implication ("So, given what you've just said, how does this affect the author's argument?" or whatever) helps them catch on to what is an interesting question and prompts some of them to embrace original thinking, but there aren't exactly skills you can teach at this point, just opportunities for further growth to offer.