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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

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