On Assumptions of (un)fairness in Writing Assessment

Auckland, New Zealand
I'm heading off tomorrow to Auckland, New Zealand to present at the Symposium on Second Language Writing conference at AUT University. My colleague, Kelvin Keown, and I will present an on-going study that we're doing that looks at the effects of the material conditions of multilingual writers in upper-division W-courses (writing in the major courses) on their use of feedback on their writing. Perhaps on my return, I'll give a bit of that presentation here and the feedback we received from those who participated in our session.

For the rest of this post, I'd like to pose a few pedagogical questions to writing teachers, questions I've been thinking about recently while doing workshops and talks at various places on antiracist classroom writing assessment practices. At such events, I urge writing teachers to consider ways to explicitly cultivate antiracist agendas in their writing assessments. I explain the two main assumptions a teacher might hold in regards to the writing assessment ecology already in place in the classroom and academia generally:
  • Assumption of fairness: When a teacher in her assessment practices assumes that her main job is to be fair (often translated as consistency -- treating everyone the same), which tends to assume that the default settings for the ecology are fair, that all people in it operate equally and have equal relations to power (which includes the dominant discourse and standards promoted). 
  • Assumption of unfairness: When a teacher in her assessment practices assumes that her main job is NOT to be unfair, which tends to assume that the default settings for the ecology are unfair or unequal, that various people in it come to it with different relations to power (which includes the dominant discourse and standards promoted).
As writing teachers at all levels, we talk a lot about treating our students fairly, treating them the same, which I equate to being socially just. One thread of social justice is antiracist practices. Since there's no doubt that racism exists in society, in the academic, in our standards for literacy and writing, teachers should be thinking about the assumptions we make concerning the systems of assessment we cultivate and maintain that produce grades and feedback, among other things. Whiteness and whitely ways surely are a part of this racism by the nature of the way they are deployed to create standards, and through the ways those standards are used against diverse groups of students. So one way to combat such racism in our writing classrooms is through our assessment practices, through the ways we create and maintain assessment ecologies, the systems that sustain and interrogate value itself. How might explicitly assuming unfairness in our assessment ecologies change our practices, thus help our students?

Yes, I suggest we create writing assessment ecologies in classrooms that work from the assumption of unfairness and let our practices be reactions or responses to that unfairness. What would this look like? Well, perhaps we rethink how to use so called "quality" and dominant white standards in the construction of grades, feedback, or even our course goals and outcomes. Perhaps we see the ways our own standards and ways of judging, our own dispositions to judge (despite our good intentions) participate in racist projects that are pervasive in our society and academia. Maybe we engage students themselves in the circulation of assessments and judgments in the classroom. Maybe we reconstruct our purposes for assessing student writing to be ways of critiquing the system of grade-giving, critiquing the dominant discursive standards, while simultaneously valuing in real ways student's languages. 

In important ways, doing these things will promote students' right to fail at learning to write, acknowledge the important practice of reaching too far and not getting what you strive for, not because you aren't good enough but because you are different and in flux, because suffering even in small ways is a part of life itself. I think, writing assessment ecologies that do these things are more sustainable and socially just, leading to more compassionate writing classrooms. If there is one solution to the racism we see all around us in the world, it's systemic compassion, compassion that is built into the system. To be a compassionate assessor of students' writing I think means that we must see the larger assessment ecologies, which includes our own classrooms ecologies, as ones that are fundamentally unfair to students of color, working class students, and multilingual students. Once we can accept this assumption, we can build a socially just future with our students through our writing assessments.