Regimentation, Part 3

I’ve just finished grading and handing back the first in-class writing. Among my West Point sections of first-year composition, the grades ran the gamut from F to A minus, with the average somewhere around 74%, just below a middle C. That’s about four percentage points lower than the first-assignment average in my FYC classes elsewhere, although those elsewhere grades were much more tightly clustered around the C plus / B minus range. Part of that I ascribe to the fact that this was an in-class one-shot rather than an out-of-class revised essay, so my slow composers were at a disadvantage: the overwhelming majority of essays were four or five paragraphs long, with quite a few clocking in at three paragraphs, and only two or three going longer with any substantial development.

And yes, I gave Fs on their first essays; essays which I likely would have given a C minus at my previous institution. Now, these were half-credit Fs rather than zeroes, but they were Fs nonetheless, and they were Fs for a single reason: the cadet failed to meet the requirements of the writing prompt. The prompt, in nuce, was this:

The Army has a number of very specific values to which it attaches rhetorical importance (West Point’s “Duty, Honor, Country”; the four Cs of courage, competence, candor, and commitment; the seven Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage). Come up with your own quality, one that people might not ordinarily associate with the Army, and define it at length and make an argument for its significance at West Point.

Some of the qualities cadets chose might surprise: there were essays on humor, on kindness, and more than a few on humility. But the essays that received Fs were universally a product of failure to read closely: in every case, the cadet who failed defined and argued for the importance of an already-extant Army value or quality, rather than coming up with one of his own. And that was the reason for the failing grade.

Tough? By the standards of my teacherly experience, yes.


I don’t think so.

Had I taught the assignment at another institution, I would have looked at the essays to which I just assigned Fs and said to myself: well, the student didn’t exactly address the task that I assigned, but the essay is beautifully developed, with insightful ideas, a careful and clearly thought out structure, precise logic, and a spare and elegant style — let’s call it a B minus and suggest in our end comments that the writer read the prompt more carefully for future assignments.

Here, I think matters are a little different, and I’ll share an anecdote from one of my military colleagues that I hope might indicate why, but I hope folks might call this into question or offer counterarguments:

Young Lieutenant P. was tasked by his commander with marking a convoy route for the tank battalion’s next morning’s movement with other elements to a projected battle site. Lieutenant P. was diligent and dedicated and did a fine job of marking the route, but when he got back to HQ, he discovered he’d marked the wrong route: on the map, he was off by fifty meters to the left. He protested to his commander that he’d done a beautiful, careful, diligent job in marking the wrong route, but his commander didn’t want to hear about it: not only did he have to go back out that night and mark the correct route, he had to also take down his original marks. Lieutenant P. thought this was grossly unfair, especially when he’d put so much effort into doing such a careful job the first time, even if he was off by 50 meters.

Consider our students and the process model: doesn’t effort count for something? Isn’t the work they put in significant in some way? Would we not have understood as educators that Lieutenant P. gained something from his error, and taken that into account in assigning his work a grade?

The Army takes a sterner view: Lieutenant P., by his commander’s reasoning, would likely have been responsible for the mis-placement and possible death of his tank battalion the following morning, as well as the mis-placement of the adjacent battalion that was supposed to follow the route that Lieutenant P. wrongly marked. Lieutenant P.’s failure, by such logic, was a failure, no matter how graceful, and no matter how much work he had put into it.

I’m torn. I believe in the process model, unabashedly and wholeheartedly. I believe in the value of formative work, no matter how polished or crappy the final draft looks. I believe in the work of Peter Elbow, Walker Gibson, and Donald Murray.

But the Army also makes an argument about the final product and getting things right that I find deeply compelling, and I’m not sure how to reconcile the two.

Regimentation, Part 3

18 thoughts on “Regimentation, Part 3

  • August 22, 2006 at 4:39 am

    A great example of how “writing in the disciplines” have to take on the conventions of that discipline in order to be truly meaningful.

  • August 22, 2006 at 6:37 pm

    I’m afraid I cannot play Devil’s Advocate on this one and offer any counter-arguments because I agree the importance of following instructions and it seems that in your current environment, as you made clear in the example, that is more crucial than perhaps in other environments.

    And you know, when I misread one of my essay questions on my comprehensive final examination, it received a zero, and I had to retake it even though everyone on the committee thought that the essay I wrote was great. (They used more specific adjectives but due to an uncharacteristic display of humility, I seem to have forgotten. ;))

    I personally would like the idea of giving students a second chance in a situation like that, but it’s not practical. They already have the question, so it would skew the assessment (if applicable) adn give them an unfair advantage over the other students, and ditto if you give them a new question.

  • August 23, 2006 at 5:29 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this for a day or so and I have to agree with Shelly. Some things just don’t or can’t reconcile, or, to put it another way, we often have to live with contradiction.

  • August 23, 2006 at 5:39 pm

    As you know I am no academic and thus inadequately qualified to critique anything you do. The one question I have though is this… In your post you made the following statement “essays which I likely would have given a C minus at my previous institution”. Out of curiosity why is this? Are you expected to be stricter in grading, or do you believe that cadets should be held to a higher standard? Or am I just reading your statement wrong.


  • August 23, 2006 at 6:00 pm

    Please disregard the previous post. I myself failed to read the second part of your post, which explains why the difference in grading was important. Sorry for the confusion. I have officially scored an “F” on this reading assignment.


  • August 23, 2006 at 10:02 pm

    Soldiers, I shudder to admit, are ultimately people. I submit to you that you should grade cadets the way you would grade other students… to a point.

    The Army has a process called the After Action Review (AAR)…I’m not sure what you’ve been exposed to in Armyspeak, so bear with me. It gives trainers an opportunity to let the trained offer their exceptions or excuses, in a non-abusive environment. I have been on the receiving end of many a “You should be dead right now” speech. I have never been chastised brutally in any such affair. (Strenuous chastisement does happen, but most notably in response to outright disobedience, disrespect, or mishandling of weapons, which have a very obvious death-due-to-error factor, even in training.)

    Indeed, training is where mistakes are desireable, precisely because they are inevitable, and deadly on the battlefield.

    Personally, I would ramp the difficulty. One failure to read the instructions is like forgetting a minor just one time…you’ll get by without a certain piece of equipment, someone else will note you messed up and square you away, and so on. For an honest first mistake, then, effort should be rewarded, with caveats.

    Multiple identical mistakes are bad habits, and those are what get people killed. It’s the guy who refuses to ever check his weapon twice, because he resents being second-guessed, that accidentally shoots his buddy, like as not. Habitual ignoring of instructions, therefore–in my opinion–are worthy of your vilest savagery.

  • August 23, 2006 at 11:36 pm

    It sounds like Justin is saying that with regards to following instructions, the lack of attention to instruction shouldn’t be grounds for such punitive measures. It’s only the repetitive offenders who cause problems.

    Hmm. I’ll have to think on that. Initially, I disagree. I personally think that sort of thinking is how cracks in the educational system are formed in the first place. (With the utmost respect to Justin’s service: sincerely bowing, and I mean it.)

    I’m still open to counterarguments though.

  • August 24, 2006 at 12:14 am

    Warranted, yes. I’ve done it and my grading criteria says I will do it if the assigned task is not completed, whether an in-class or revised writing. Maybe it might teach them to better read and follow directions. We don’t want them directing fire at their comrades because they didn’t pay attention to their orders/directions. Realistically though, a comp essay failing probably won’t get them to think better about whatever they are tasked to do militarily, but the standards are reasonable. If you are given a task and you complete a different task, what else but a failure on the assigned task can be expected? Me, though, I would have given a D- rather than an F for this sort of thing, but that’s nit-picking really. Good assignment by the way. It fits their context well but is a pretty standard fyc sort of thing to write on.

  • August 24, 2006 at 11:01 am

    It’s OK, Rob — that’s we called you “Specialist Second-Time Go.” 🙂

    And yes, Justin, mistakes get corrected the first time around; repeated mistakes get what’s called a COR, or Cadet Observation Report, that goes to the chain of command and their TAC officer, who will — as the saying goes — jack them up. I’ve been very impressed here: cadets are a little bit scared to ask questions, but they take in information very, very quickly.

    Shelly, I think I’d put it this way: a one-time mistake, especially in a learning environment, merits a swift correction. After that correction has been made and explained, making the same mistake again earns the unpleasant attentions of the company TAC officer.

    Bradley, I think there is considerable overlap: the Army is really big on what they call FFI, or Failure to Follow Instructions, which will get soldiers in trouble no matter what the task. As far as the grade goes, I was absolutely charmed yesterday when the cadets asked me, “Sir, is this an F plus or an F minus?” There are, in fact, two types of F on the grading scale: zero credit and half credit. I’ll save the zeroes for the cadets who turn nothing in — which I doubt will happen often, if at all.

  • August 24, 2006 at 12:14 pm

    I started reading your blog after hearing about it from my friend Jim from MSU. My boyfriend actually is one of the coaches for the women’s rugby team at West Point, though that is neither here nor there. At any rate, I wanted to let you know that I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog because I find your experiences at West Point to be fascinating, and helpful in my quest to understand a bit more about army life.

    Though I’m not quite in your field (I’m employed by a publishing company in NYC) I think in general, it makes sense for you to fail those students who did not reply to the prompt. To be honest, I would probably suggest that around the board, no matter if they’re West Point Cadets, Harvard first years, or state school students, but then, I’m in publishing and not a professor. Attention to detail is, I think, one of the qualities most laking in the professional environment, and should be something that West Point cadets especially should be attentive to.

    While Lieutenant P did a good job at marking the route, if the route was the wrong route, and if the situation were dire or dangerous, his mistake could potentially put his compatriots in harms way. While the stakes might not be as high in a composition assignment within a class, I don’t think it’s too hard for anyone to follow directions. But then, maybe I’m just a bit too draconian.

  • August 24, 2006 at 5:40 pm

    I thought about this post and your situation today when reading one of my student’s diagnostic essay. The assignment was to discuss your skill level as a writer, strengths, weaknesses, experiences, etc. What did I get? Long digressive paragraphs about the student’s relationship with God, dope-smoking habit and interest in sex. I find that just completely baffling.

  • August 24, 2006 at 5:45 pm

    Bravo. There’s also the role of the assignment as being the ‘first paper’ you’re grading. That grade sets up the expectations for the remainder of the course, and if you expect directions to be followed to the letter, then that F grade is the best way to communicate it. I find I’m always tough at the beginning of a term, to let students know they’ll have to work hard and try to improve, no matter how eloquent they are when they come to my class. That’s not to say I don’t give any As but I’m certainly less willing to give light grades to unacceptable work.

  • August 24, 2006 at 8:14 pm

    I was once happy for an F+ in grad school when the director of grad studies, an old Marine, beat the hell out of everyone on our first methods of scholarship assignment. Thankfully, the straight, white, middle class male in me knew how to respond to that sort of thing, unlike the one woman who dropped out of the program because of similar grades. And they call you “Sir”?

    Be all that as it may, there’s a lot invested in those cadets succeeding at every level, so I’m sure they get the help they need. I wish we could give our students the same level of support.

  • August 25, 2006 at 9:47 am

    I think part of the concerns about over- or under-harshness is about seeing the grade as a reflection on the person versus seeing the grade as a reflection on the performance of the task. Writing tasks that are closer to the writer’s person may complicate the line between the two, as may the amount of disciplinary investment (i.e., being in a grad school program versus being in a required course): a low grade in a course in a discipline that you view as being somehow important to you or a part of you is going to feel like a punch in the chest, but practically everybody has to take FYC. My cadets who blew the assignment simply came up to me after class and asked how they could redirect; what they needed to do to succeed the next time. But my next assignment, where I ask them for some narrative and expository reflection on the circumstances in their lives that were the causes of that quality in them, might be a little more close to the bone with them: we’ll see.

    And, yes, terms of respect are a big thing around here: they address me as “Sir” or “Professor” and I address them as “Cadet Smith” and never as just “Smith” — because the latter would indicate a lack of respect for the cadet’s rank and a lack of professionalism.

  • August 27, 2006 at 11:53 pm

    I think terms of respect have value. Someone asked me the other day if they could call me Michelle, and I turned directly around and said, NO. (That was a first.)

    I think I would *thrive* where you are.

  • September 2, 2006 at 6:01 am

    You shared the anecdote from your military colleague as justification for failing these cadets (when you would have giving low passing grades to civilian students). I am not sure the analogy works in full. After his error was detected, Lieutenant P. was ordered to repeat his assignment correctly and undo his mistakes. Lieutenant P.’s story works halfway–as an example of the performance expected from your students, but I am wondering why you didn’t hold yourself to the standard set by the commander in the story.

    Lieutenant P.’s commander did not accept failure, but instead, insisted the Lieutenant succeed. The safety of the anecdotal battalion seems to rest on the shoulders of not one, but two–the Lieutenant and his commander. It depends on neither party accepting failure, yet you did. You have explained that the Army also makes an argument about the final product and getting things right, yet you have not provided your cadets the opportunity to get things right, or adjust the final product ’til it meets spec.

    I’m wondering if there is not a middle ground, one in keeping with ideas expressed by the comment left by Justin.

  • September 2, 2006 at 10:31 am

    Good point.

    Part of the answer to your question, Cindy, lies in the nature of the syllabus I’m working with: while I have latitude in constructing my assignments, I’m required to assign 4 mandatory in-class writings and 5 out-of-class revised essays. This was an in-class writing, with part of its pedagogical rationale being preparation for the timed final exam, which cadets are required to take for all classes. (I’m not happy about that for a writing class, but that’s a discussion for a different day.) So: in terms of the syllabus, I couldn’t give the cadets a do-over.

    But that’s more of an excuse than a reason, and it doesn’t really answer the issue at the heart of your question. It seems to me that you’re asking: Lieutenant P. got a do-over; why didn’t the cadets who failed the assignment? My answer is this: they do get do-overs — three more in-class and four more out-of-class — and they have until the end of the semester to get it right. I wrote in-depth comments for all of the cadets’ in-class writings, giving them detailed feedback on how to best improve, and as I grade their first out-of-class essays this weekend, I’m already seeing impressive evidence that they are very careful readers of such feedback: in many ways, they’re much more accomplished at and committed to taking in some of that information than some of their civilian colleagues I’ve seen.

    So yes, the classroom — as my boss says — is an environment of grace, and the half-credit F for an in-class writing is the pedagogical equivalent of a “You should be dead right now” speech in an AAR. Somewhere down the line, there will be battlefield moments for cadets where real, actual soldiers’ lives will depend on getting communication right the first time (e.g. October 3 1993), and the pedagogical logic behind the in-class writings seems to be about getting students focused on achieving the “first-time go.”

  • September 11, 2006 at 12:40 pm

    I received an F on my first Plebe English paper and survived. While I understand your grading on one hand, these Plebes are at a university; they are not on the battlefield yet. You are supposed to be developing them academically. They learn map reading in their military leadership class, and will attend the Basic Course to further their military skills after graduation.
    There is also one other consideration. When cadets apply to graduate school, there is little understanding of their “lower” undergraduate grades due to higher standards at West Point. Even in physical education, the standards are higher! Other universities give out As and Bs like candy and grade for effort, while USMA grads serve their country in harm’s way after graduation (regardless of GPA)! If you experienced West Point as a grad or instructor, you would see that just about every cadet is motivated to give 100% effort and would receive all As — if that were the only standard. At the same time peers at universities get their As and Bs despite their inability to follow directions, they party every night, graduate with a 3.5, and go on to cushy jobs and graduate school. Yes, it’s a choice and reflects character. Let’s just keep all this in perspective beyond the grade of A, B, or F.

    As I am a professional educator now, I would say that perhaps you could improve as an instructor. Have you considered using a rubric? A rubric tells students how you will grade and assigns a percentage or points to each category of the grade. You can adjust the rubric and assign categories however you wish. The point is, it tells the student up front how you will grade, and there are no surprises for anyone. Also, it doesn’t put all the weight on one category. It is a writing class after all, isn’t it? Not a following directions class. . .

    Here is a good sample of a rubric for writing: (You can see that this rubric does not include a category for effort.)
    You assign points for each of the categories and they add up to a grade. You can add “Responds fully to assignment directions” as #10, but this is only one category, not the entire grade.
    Based on your grading of the student English papers, I would give you a grade of “C” as an English P at West Point, and that is generous, since you should be fully qualified to teach — and that includes assessment of learning. My formative counseling for you would include a suggestion for some lifelong learning, perhaps a course on pedagogy. But I will give you credit for your effort.

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