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.