Baloney Prevention

Anyone who has graded essay exams knows that not just educators are capable of baloney[1]. Our own dear students sometimes lay it on with a trowel.  We might pass off baloney as a bit of survivalist exuberance except that we rely on essays, or should rely on them, to help us gauge what our students have learned. How, then, shall we insure that our students do not write it?

We begin with the inculcation of the belief that writing, like all communication, is for an audience and that the audience must be satisfied with our production in order to credit it. In the case of an essay, students should have in mind a teacher or some other respected or admired person as the audience. The respect helps propel students in productive directions; they should thus come to a writing task experienced in respecting teachers so that it doesn’t feel like an irksome pose struck awkwardly on special occasions. It is more difficult to produce baloney for someone we respect than for someone to whom we are indifferent or whom we despise.

(I suspect that one reason for the horrifying content of some material written for or posted on the Internet is that it has been detached from a sense of particular audience and the reaction such an audience might have. A converse problem is with the writer who has three audiences and doesn’t keep them straight: the person the posting is about, a claque of admirers, and  the entire wired world. It therefore helps not just to have respect for a particular audience but to ground writing in a sense of decorum before a general audience too.)

Also essential is the belief that it matters whether or not the teacher is satisfied. Indifference aborts good writing until a student has become so proficient in both writing and respect that he can do without the affective assistance of a particular reader before his mind’s eye. I have said in earlier postings that the use of pointed and particular comments is a very good way of showing that we are engaged by a student’s work: that show of engagement encourages the student to work harder at writing. A test therefore seeds improvement in its successors if the teacher has reacted to it properly: it stops being just a test and becomes another lesson.

When the teacher’s satisfaction comes from a student’s good understanding and grip on factual detail as displayed in good writing, we have an ideal setup for the evaluation of an essay. This threesome should be the basis of evaluation of any answer, and a good essay should show all three. Nonetheless, though we may break writing down into its components for analysis, satisfaction is unitary and should result in one grade, not separate ones for “content” and “writing.” Good writing does not just ornament or frame what is said; good writing is what is said. It is not just that “writing is an act of courtesy”—though writing is certainly that—but also that writing is an act of realization. Our satisfaction as teachers comes from seeing that our students have gained knowledge and understanding and that they can communicate that understanding skillfully.

If we have done so, we will fulfill another essential condition, for we will not be bamboozled as was a “section man” at Harvard by the essay of the Abominable Mr. Metzger, who larked an exam in a course he hadn’t taken and got an A- on the essay. Though Mr. Metzger was clearly an accomplished thinker and writer of a kind, his “section man” could have—and should have—smoked out the imposture by insisting that he make his understanding operate on real, particular, factual stuff, and should not have been satisfied with airborne generalities.

William G. Perry, reporting on Mr. Metzger, called the story an “amoral fabliau,” and that characterization points us in the direction of how to regard baloney. I would go a little farther and call Mr. Metzger immoral, for writing baloney is a kind of fraud: the writer is pretending to the appearance of understanding, knowing very well that he does not have the real thing. Though Mr. Metzger’s sin was venial—he was not writing in order to gain official credit for a body of knowledge he did not possess, the scandal was a passing phenomenon not permanently destructive, and, as Perry points out, Mr. Metzger brought to the question a considerable mitigating nimbleness and power of expression that we are unlikely to find in garden-variety high-school baloney—it was wrong for him to have done it. For us and for our students the rule should also be that it is wrong to produce such essays.

I have spoken before about the need for some kind of emotional or affective tie between student and teacher as enabling certain kinds of understanding[2]. Among the most important is the understanding of the need for satisfactory work. I think this virtue is taught in part by the kind of personal connection—and by this I don’t necessarily mean a connection of friendship— a good teacher and a good student can establish. If the good teacher has somehow made it clear that he enjoys reading good essays and dislikes reading baloney, the student has one more motive for producing them. Eventually students who have produced good essays for teachers they like will be able to produce good essays for teachers who leave them cold or inspire dislike. I tell my students that I’d like an evening or a weekend of good reading—who wouldn’t?—with the result that I don’t get too much nonsense, at least not after they get to know me. The one or two padded horrors produced from bad motives are far outnumbered by the better productions of students who start by wanting to please their teacher and learn thereby to express themselves well.

If the right preliminary beliefs and feelings are in place, students can then begin to gain an understanding of what a good—and a bad—essay is. High-school students are ready to see and learn from exemplary work, and by that I mean examples of both good and bad writing. One piece I used with great effect was an article from The Economist in the early 1990’s about the effort to eradicate the Guinea worm. It began with horror  and ended with hope, proceeding along the way to discuss clearly and intelligently how the worm propagates and how it might be fought. Another, for advanced students, is the paragraph from A.C. Bradley’s lectures on Macbeth that begins, “Darkness, we may even say blackness, broods over this tragedy.”  Other good examples can be found without much effort, but examples of baloney are regrettably too easy to get—some even from teachers! And the examples can come from students themselves (I mean good examples here). I had a bulletin board marked GOOD WRITING! where I placed fine essays. Students were usually delighted to get their work posted there because they knew I didn’t put up poor work; and everyone would leaf through them to see “what so-and-so did.” I found a stamp of a fist with thumb up and would put “two thumbs up” on posted essays, a mark that some students came to desire too.

Finally, a teacher, in order to complete the lesson, must have a certain moral courage in order to say to a student, “This is not very good.” We must proceed from Dr. Johnson’s maxim that “he who praises everybody, praises nobody,” and in a clear but humane way let students know how their work falls short. It may even help to reprove sharply the author of a clearly careless nonsensical mess. I have occasionally drawn a red line across the page between two lines of a very bad essay and said, “I stopped reading here.” If a student expects a teacher to read an essay, then a teacher may expect a student to produce an essay that is readable: expectation must be reciprocal.

A great way, if time permits, to minimize baloney is to supplement a written examination with an oral. It is difficult to pass off baloney to a teacher’s face and impossible to prevent it from being questioned. If time doesn’t permit, another possibility is a post-essay conference with a student in which the teacher asks, for example, “What do you mean by ‘insights into the contingent possibility of structure’?” Few students will write nonsense if they think they might be called on it face to face. If one of them is an Irwin Corey, we may laugh, but not raise the grade.

[1] See my postings Baloney Bingo and The Devil Made Me Say It.

[2] See Understanding Understanding


Such Were Orwell’s Joys, and Ours

In his dark, bitter, and wonderful essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” George Orwell reports on his boyhood prep school[1], St. Cyprian’s, which he attended before and during World War I. His stories about bullying, poor food, shabby facilities, and overbearing administrators suggest a slight but disquieting kinship between his Edwardian school and the schools of our own time, yet in one respect they are close kin indeed.

That is in their teaching to what we now call high-stakes tests. In his day they were the entrance exams for Eton College and the Harrow School or the exam for the Harrow History Prize; in ours, proficiency exams mandated by No Child Left Behind and RAce to the Top. In both cases I think we may use Orwell’s excellent description: “a sort of preparation for a confidence trick.” The trick is that both Orwell and his modern counterparts are gorged like geese with “a series of unrelated, unintelligible but — in some way that was never explained to us — important facts” (Orwell’s words) that might, with some happy guesswork, lead to a satisfactory score on a test without regard to whether a coherent subject was actually being taught. The reason it is a confidence trick is to persuade the test marker that you know a coherent subject, when in fact you only know a bag of facts.

In the history chapter of The Paideia Program Professor Barzun proposes that in teaching history we start with “once upon a time” and “many years ago,” proceeding in the study of history until, at the age of 13 or 14, we start to draw on “casual noises from the big world and unite them into an increasingly coherent recital of their meaning, which is to say their origins and purposes.” At the same time, while keeping the element of the story in history, the course shifts to “the essence of genuine history,” which is continuity.

These qualities of history were ignored or undercut in the kind of preparation Orwell received, which consisted mainly of going over old exams and conning answers from them irrespective of storyline or continuity–in much the same way people “prepare” for high stakes tests today by learning shovel-loads of data. Orwell reports that the initials of the mnemonic “A black Negress was my aunt: there’s her house behind the barn” correspond to the initials of the battles of the War of the Roses (1455 – 1485). Does the study of detached mnemonics differ in any important respect from the discontinuities experienced by contemporary children studying test-preparation books? Not really. The main difference I see is in what courses are shortchanged in testing mania. In today’s climate it means that history, any history, is likely to be shortchanged in favor of English and math, the two playing surfaces on which the Three-card Monte of testing is now being rigged.

(That some subjects give way to others was the same in Orwell’s day and in ours. It is not just that the “black Negress” mnemonic would not be used today, but that we are throwing out history itself along with such mnemonics. In Orwell’s day science was thrown out—science! This in the youthful heyday of the Cavendish Laboratory. Changing fads of specialization suggest that the transfer effect is valid and that early specialization is not as necessary in education as some people and programs demanding it lead us to think. Let me therefore plug the idea, now increasingly alien in practice, of general or liberal education. Besides, if the kind of specialization implied in heavy “test preparation” worked, wouldn’t the U. S. have better results in English and math to show for it? If you think we do, look at PISA’s comparative results.)

Orwell, using his judgment to handle material he experienced directly, arrives at an insight generalized many years later by a social scientist. One of the “scandalous” facts reported by Donald Campbell in his paper “Assessing the Impacts of Planned Social Change,” which led him to formulate Campbell’s Law[2] in that paper, was that a private profit-making contractor, hired to administer a program of compensatory education in a public school system, gamed the system with a gamey program of test preparation (I discuss this in my posting ℞: Stone Tablets). The Texarkana schools couldn’t have known that they (or Orwell’s Flip and Sambo for that matter) were pioneers on the low road followed by the New York City Schools and other school districts of today in their efforts to “prove” student “achievement” in intellectually and morally suspect programs of testing-and-accountability.

A quick postscript on the accountability part of the terrible twosome. The Los Angeles Times has published lists of L.A. teachers found unsatisfactory in “their” efforts at “value-added learning[3],” and The New York Times is said to want to do the same for teachers in New York. One value that might be added to the consciousness, if not consciences, of people who want to give teachers such publicity, is a disdain for the kind of public shaming without trial that one associates with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Are published lists much different in their effects from yellow robes or dunce caps?

[1]That is, a grade school preparing its pupils for English public schools such as Harrow or Eton.

[2] “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

[3] Dealt with in my posting  “Added What?”


Time Out

I set essay midterms across the board this week and have been grading over much of the weekend. I had hoped to have a posting ready today, but it is not to be.

The first-quarter midterms always take more time than any other test: the students are relatively new and have comparatively a lot still to learn and still to absorb from comments made. It’s a good time for individual conferences with students while those not conferring are working on other things.

The silver lining of the workload is that for the next week or two it will lighten up, thereby enabling me to get back to my postings by next weekend.