English 506: Fall, 2008
(See also: Assignments and Updates )
(This page will be used for miscellaneous postings over the course of the quarter)
(The early entries here are materials I used in my most recent undergraduate intro to Critical Practice course. Gary and I include them here as ways to begin our conversations about teaching this material to undergrads. They may also help us generate what any class at any level needs: its own ongoing conversational themes and terms.)
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As you wrestle this quarter for control of issues that come up again and again in the critics and theorists we read, it may help if you think of our texts as each taking part in a centuries-long struggle for cultural position and authority. For poetry, or literary “making” (the Greek root for “poetry” is poiein, “to make”), is only one cultural enterprise among many, and as the enactors of a set of practices its partisans tend to do what the partisans of other cultural enterprises also do: look for ways to justify both the products of their energies, and, through those products, their own lives. But both because any culture’s material and intellectual resources are limited, and because one cultural enterprise’s claims may conflict with those of another enterprise, poetry’s partisans have also often defined themselves against other arts, arguing that they, and not philosophy, or history, or oratory (for example) can best offer the culture truth, or an understanding of nature, or wisdom, or pleasure.
You can see this intra-art competition already well formed as early as the first of the writers we read. For Plato (certainly NOT an advocate for poetry, but, as he saw it, for philosophy instead) implicitly argues that in his culture poetry already has too much cultural authority. He sees poetry as in contest with philosophy for control of truth, and he declares that poetry’s claim is finally invalid. Worse yet, Plato sees poetry as endowed with great power, and, because it is powerful, also (since in his view poets tell lies and create immoral models for action) harmful.
Aristotle, by contrast, develops the conversation by writing what is in many ways a defense of poetry against Plato’s attack--sometimes almost explicitly so. He offers a different understanding of truth, one within which poetry can both be morally and philosophically “true” without having to imitate reality with historical exactness. This in turn constitutes an argument on behalf of poetry, and is part of an allocation to the poet of a certain amount of power: the power to provide pleasure, to provide a certain moral edification, to effect the psychologically useful and satisfying process of catharsis. Poetry (or tragedy, more exactly, but traditionally the Poetics' talk of tragedy has been seen as a kind of synecdoche for poetry in general) for Aristotle is thus culturally beneficial and deserving of respect and authority.
Other things could be said here about how each writer
positions poetry in the on-going competition for cultural authority
and value. But it is clear in their works that that positioning is going
on, and that it is part of what has given their writings on poetry such
lasting interest. Indeed, these early texts set the terms of a debate
which is no less alive now than it was then. For poetry and the arts
are still in a contest for cultural value and authority. That debate
plays out in terms of respect (does the culture respect the writers,
the teachers, the performers, who practice the literary arts? does it
listen to what they say? does it take seriously the discourses they
offer the culture?) and materially as well (what resources does the
culture provide to the literary arts? do we value them by employing
them? buying their products, whether poems, novels and plays, or classes,
essays and theories?)
Oddly enough, as old as this argument is, for a good part of the 20th century many traditional literary critics more or less ignored theory. Some remained aware of and interested in its questions, but up until the mid 1960's theory was primarily a matter of critical practice and not of explicit discourse. Indeed, theory was so remote from consciousness in those days (even if theoretical constructs were still at work, undergirding and implicit in practice even if rarely explicitly addressed) that at its advent at midcentury many in the field felt as if theory had more or less just popped up out of nowhere and trashed the family home.
But obviously, and as much as some continue to resist the change, that wasn't true then, and it isn't true now. Sure, theory has had its upstart moments, but there are many, many continuities over the many centuries of reflections on the nature and cultural role of texts and writers. Indeed, as we've already suggested, the argument of this course will be that the issues over which the current contest about the cultural role of the arts is being fought have a long history. We have begun with two of the most productive of early voices, and we will see echoes of and allusions to their arguments all quarter long.
With these issues of poetry’s cultural authority as a context, then, in this course we will be asking of each of the works we read: what position does this work take on the question of poetry’s struggle for cultural power and authority? And that question leads in turn to sub-questions. Exactly how, for example, does each of these works define the powers and functions of literary studies? What does each think poetry/literature can do, positively or negatively? How extensive do they think its reach? How do they each explain the means by which literature has those powers?
(And having said all that, we will also need to pay attention
to the even more recent shift in the way many of us imagine the discipline
of literary study: the shift of power from writers to readers. Barthes
had his tongue at least somewhat in cheek when he annouced the death
of the author; what is extraordinary is the place to which the next
forty years of theoretical exploration have taken his argument. Stay
2. Towards a Concept Map of Western Critical Practice
We actually have two whole courses (303 and 304) surveying the history of Critical Theory. English 302 serves only an an introduction to the study of critical theory, so what we do here will necessarily be simplified. Still, we will supply basics enough to ensure that you will be able to make sense of what is really new and interesting about recent developments in theory, and be well prepared for upper division work of all sorts.
1. The old days: Key figures: Plato and Aristotle.
2. The age of National Literary History and Taste (late 1800's)
3. The New Criticism (the middle 1900's)
4. The New Age of Theory: post 1970. (Very abbreviated!)
And along with these developments in theory we’ll also include “Cultural Studies,” a special expansion of what we do when we do literature that draws from a number of different theoretical perspectives.
The job of filling out each of these entries on the map will occupy us through the first two thirds of this course.
3. Reading Difficult Texts: Five Principles
1. Patience: develop a capacity for suspending a thought until you’ve gotten enough to put it together. Correlative: insofar as possible, don’t let an inability to comprehend something stop you from plowing on through! Expect, too, to have to re-read in order to assemble the parts you've managed to unscramble.
2. Bracketing: break a tough sentence into its crucial parts, bracketing off as much of it as you already understand so you can work out the sense of the remaining bits.
3. Tolerate incompleteness: these are hard ideas, with a lot of allusiveness, and (truth to say) few readers can understand everything, especially on a first or second pass. So don’t worry too much if there are bits and pieces you don’t quite get. They may come into focus as you get the basic structure; they may never fully make sense for you. But you may still be able to get what is crucial to a given piece in any event.
4. One, Two, Three: Get one, then two, then three things straight. One step at a time.
5. Contextualize. Work to understand how this piece is a move in a larger conversation. You can think of this process as having three steps:
5. From: Aristotle’s Poetics (350BCE)
Translated by S. H. Butcher (online at http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.html)
... Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions....
These principles being established, let us now discuss the proper structure of the Plot, since this is the first and most important thing in Tragedy.
Now, according to our definition, Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.
Again, a beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or any whole composed of parts, must not only have an orderly arrangement of parts, but must also be of a certain magnitude; for beauty depends on magnitude and order. Hence a very small animal organism cannot be beautiful; for the view of it is confused, the object being seen in an almost imperceptible moment of time. Nor, again, can one of vast size be beautiful; for as the eye cannot take it all in at once, the unity and sense of the whole is lost for the spectator; as for instance if there were one a thousand miles long. As, therefore, in the case of animate bodies and organisms a certain magnitude is necessary, and a magnitude which may be easily embraced in one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary, and a length which can be easily embraced by the memory….
But tragedians still keep to real names, the reason being that what is possible is credible: what has not happened we do not at once feel sure to be possible: but what has happened is manifestly possible: otherwise it would not have happened. Still there are even some tragedies in which there are only one or two well known names, the rest being fictitious. In others, none are well known, as in Agathon’s Antheus, where incidents and names alike are fictitious, and yet they give none the less pleasure. We must not, therefore, at all costs keep to the received legends, which are the usual subjects of Tragedy. Indeed, it would be absurd to attempt it; for even subjects that are known are known only to a few, and yet give pleasure to all. It clearly follows that the poet or ‘maker’ should be the maker of plots rather than of verses; since he is a poet because he imitates, and what he imitates are actions. And even if he chances to take an historical subject, he is none the less a poet; for there is no reason why some events that have actually happened should not conform to the law of the probable and possible, and in virtue of that quality in them he is their poet or maker….
Let us then determine what are the circumstances which strike us as terrible or pitiful. Actions capable of this effect must happen between persons who are either friends or enemies or indifferent to one another. If an enemy kills an enemy, there is nothing to excite pity either in the act or the intention, --except so far as the suffering in itself is pitiful. So again with indifferent persons. But when the tragic incident occurs between those who are near or dear to one another—if, for example, a brother kills, or intends to kill, a brother, a son his father, a mother her son, a son his mother, or any other deed of the kind is done---these are the situations to be looked for by the poet. He may not indeed destroy the framework of the received legends—the fact, for instance, that Clytemnestra was slain by Orestes and Eriphyle by Alcmaeon but he ought to show invention of his own, and skilfully handle the traditional material….
As in the structure of the plot, so too in the portraiture of character, the poet should always aim either at the necessary or the probable. Thus a person of a given character should speak or act in a given way, by the rule either of necessity or of probability; just as this event should follow that by necessary or probable sequence. It is therefore evident that the unraveling of the plot, no less than the complication, must arise out of the plot itself, it must not be brought about by the ‘Deus ex Machina’—as in the Medea, or in the Return of the Greeks in the Iliad. The ‘Deus ex Machina’ should be employed only for events external to the drama—i.e., for antecedent or subsequent events, which lie beyond the range of human knowledge, and which require to be reported or foretold (for to the gods we ascribe the power of seeing all things). Within the action there must be nothing irrational. If the irrational cannot be excluded, it should be outside the scope of the tragedy. Such is the irrational element in the Oedipus of Sophocles.
Again, since Tragedy is an imitation of persons who are above the common level, the example of good portrait-painters should be followed. They, while reproducing the distinctive form of the original, make a likeness which is true to life and yet more beautiful. So too the poet, in representing men who are irascible or indolent, or have other defects of character, should preserve the type and yet ennoble it. In this way Achilles is portrayed by Agathon and Homer.
These then are rules the poet should observe. Nor should he neglect
those appeals to the senses, which, though not among the essentials, are
the concomitants of poetry; for here too there is much room for error.
But of this enough has been said in our published treatises....
6. Critical Practice Course Portfolio
A portfolio for an English class is like many other portfolios: a collection and display of the work you have done, together with a reflective essay describing your experience in the course. This project thus offers you a chance to review your quarter's work, as well as to put that work into some kind of narrative perspective. Your portfolio should include:
The Self-Reflective essay should be about your experience in this class. You should prepare for it by reviewing your writing for the quarter, but the actual essay may take a number of forms. It may, for example, discuss the writing you have done this quarter, describing what you take to be your work's strengths, how they may have changed over the course of the term, and anything you think you still might be able to improve. Or it may be a narrative of your experience in this course: why you took it, what problems it presented to you as it progressed, and what you did to address them. Or it may discuss how your attitudes about reading literature have developed, changed, or not changed during the quarter: what were you thinking when you came in, and how has that changed in the ten weeks since?
However you choose to set it out, the object of the exercise is to have you review your experience in the course, to think about that experience, and to do something towards evaluating and making sense of it.
The portfolio counts for 60 points of the course grade; I will evaluate the daily assignments included in the Portfolio on the basis of completeness and quality of involvement (30 points total). The essay I'll evaluate on the basis of responsiveness and thoughtfulness as follows (30 points total):
The Portfolio should be submitted in a large mailing envelope. Its presentation should be neat, ordered, and careful. And please INCLUDE A SECOND COPY OF YOUR SELF-REFLECTIVE ESSAY!! To have it returned, be sure to address it and to provide postage sufficient for the thirty pages or so you will have submitted!
Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”(1977)
1. [W]riting is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. 253
2. For him [Mallarmé], for us too, it is language which speaks, not the author; to write is, through a prerequisite impersonality... to reach that point where only language acts, “performs,” and not “me.” Mallarmé’s entire poetics consists in suppressing the author in the interests of writing (which is, as will be seen, to restore the place of the reader). 254
3. By a radical reversal, instead of putting his life into his novel, as is so often maintained, [Proust] made of his very life a work for which his own book was the model... . 254
4. [L]inguistically, the author is never more than the instance writing,
just as I is nothing other than the instance saying I. 255
6. We know now that a text is not of a line of words releasing a single
“theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God)
but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of
them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn
from the innumerable centers of culture. 256
8. [S]ucceeding the Author, the scriptor no longer bears within him passions, humors, feelings, impressions, but rather this immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt: life never does more than imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred. 256
9. Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. 256
10. [W]riting ceaselessly posit meaning ceaselessly to evaporate it, carrying out a systematic exemption of meaning. In precisely this way literature (it would be better from now on to say “writing”), by refusing to assign a “secret,” an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases—reason, science, law. 257
11. [A] text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted. 257
12. Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature…. [T]he birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author. 257
Talking Theoretically: Mid-Term Project
We’ve talked this quarter about the way reading any kind of theoretical discourse requires being aware of one or more ongoing conversations about key theoretical topics. Over the quarter’s first weeks we’ve focused on several of these topics, and a part of what we’ve done is follow the way different writers have taken turns in the ongoing conversation about those topics. The topics we’ve focused on include the canon, the status of the author and his or her intention as a goal for the interpretation of texts, the status of the reader, and what a reader is supposed to do when reading—and a few others besides.
But understanding the bases of a given conversation, along with the role-takings of a series of writings within that conversation, is just one goal of this course. A second goal is to help you to find a way to take a conversational role yourself. So that’s what this assignment will ask of you.
Our mid-quarter reading for this course is Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk about Books you Haven’t Read. We’ve looked at the opening two chapters and seen how this book, too, engages topics we’ve seen before. For this project we want you to read the rest of Bayard’s book, locate a chapter on which you want to work, and find a way to enter into the conversation he engages. This means you’ll begin by looking at his chapter to define its key subject, as you see it, to summarize his argument accurately and fully, and in doing so to explain the ways you see Bayard’s argument engaging conversations that have emerged in the critics we have already read. We then want you to go on to take a turn of your own.
We imagine that you’ll easily enough see that this is another version of a What, Why, So What paper; this time the So What isn’t just an estimate of how Bayard’s book has been or might be significant as a contribution to one or more of theory’s ongoing conversations. Rather it asks that you add something to the conversation yourself. Among the several strategies you can use in taking your turn, here are three:
As an example of extending, suppose this assignment had asked you to write on the piece by Janet Radway that we read last week. There you could extend her argument by taking one of her key points—the notion of “transubstantiation” as a pragmatic effect of reading middlebrow texts, say—and explaining how that might apply to a particular text you had read. Or you might take her description of her ambivalence about the canon and go on to explain as specifically as you could your own relation to such thinking in your own educational career.
If you chose to object to Radway’s argument, you might question the way she seems to be both for and against a canon, and therefore to be making an argument that in some important way was self-contradictory. She is trying to have her cake and eat it, too, you might argue, and then go on to explain and support that claim.
And if you chose to write self-reflectively about your own difficulties in understanding her argument, you might pick either of the subjects outlined in the preceding two paragraphs, but instead of making an argument about either, you might first outline what you do and what you do not understand about what she says, and then develop an explanation of where exactly your difficulties in making sense of the text come.
Or, to change examples to a text we will be reading next week, perhaps you’d want to reflect on your understanding of Said’s notion of “worldliness.” He seems to be creating an idea of the role of literature that is very much like that described by Englishman Matthew Arnold living 100 years earlier, and written in the heyday of the British Imperialist period. Given how surprising it seems that someone with Said’s ethnic and political identity could actually end up agreeing with Arnold this way, you might wonder if you actually were understanding this argument properly. Accordingly you would want to explain as fully as you could what you did see, and where you were not sure you were fully understanding his position.
The assignment will be done in two stages. Stage one asks you to submit a Full Proposal for the project on November 10. Stage two asks for a Final Full Draft to be submitted on November 23rd.
The Full Proposal: This will be a 3-4 page essay in which you give: 1) a brief summary of your chosen chapter's argument, 2) who among those writers we've read this term might be in conversation with it and how, and 3) a brief account of what your turn in the conversation will likely be.
You might fairly asked how a “Full Proposal” so described differs from a rough draft. The answer is that it will be shorter than a full draft for the paper, but it should be more than just a proposal. We want to see not just what you want to do, but how you are developing your thinking too. So yes, we are essentially asking for an early draft, but the point is that we don’t want a "first draft" so much as an early draft that will help you get your ideas out without feeling as though they have to be completely worked out or polished. We want you to have a strong working start on the paper, yet also something that you know will need substantial upgrading, whether in terms of expansion or of rethinking--something that can be thrown out entirely if need be--before it is to be submitted as a Full Final Draft on the 23rd.
The Full Final Draft:
Due: Thursday, November 23, 1:30pm.
Note: It is not necessary to understand Bayard fully to be successful with this assignment. Obviously it will help if you do understand him fully. But that isn’t the real goal of the turn-taking described above. If you opt for option c), however, it IS necessary for you to explain as fully as you can just what it is you don’t understand, why you think it is that you don’t understand it, and what you think you DO understand.
Finally, in working to understand Bayard, we highly recommend that you consult reviews of his book. It appeared in 2007, and was reviewed widely. You can find a list of links to reviews at:
9. Final Project
Precis Due Date: 24 hours before your presentation; to be e-mailed to everyone in class. Length: 1 single-spaced page
Final Paper Due Date: Wednesday, December 16, 5 PM (A-101 Padelford) Length: 7-8 double-spaced pages
The final project for this class has three components:
We've done our best this quarter to give you an array of tools for dealing with theory. We've asked you to write a precis, to engage the theoretical texts in dialogue one with another, to sort out the conversations and how each of these pieces we've read enters or resists or changes specific theoretical conversations.
The precis assignment you’ve done a trial run for already. We’re asking you to repeat the same task, only this time in collaboration with a fellow class-member, and with the specific audience of this class in mind—people who share many theoretical texts in common now, but who will not have read your essay. So locating its arguments in terms of some specific critical conversation(s) will be crucial, as will conciseness, thoroughness and clarity.
On your assigned day, you will then lead a class discussion of the issues raised by your essay, beginning with a presentation of no more than 15 minutes, followed by discussion of up to 30 minutes. You don’t need to repeat the precise; people should have read it in advance. But you’ll want to continue locating and assessing the implications and utility of your critical essay, and to figure out ways to draw your classmates into the discussion.
By December 16, you will submit an individual paper, also based on your critical essay. This paper can (indeed, should) incorporate some or all of the precis paper; it can also incorporate any of the ideas that may have come in class discussion.
Beyond the precis section, your paper also needs to position your critic (as represented in the essay you are writing about) in relation to two prior theorists from the class, one each from Set 1 (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud) and from Set 2 (Barthes, Foucault, Spivak).
Finally, this paper should discuss a literary or cultural text to which the critical essay’s theoretical approach might usefully be applied. Select a text on which this method would work well and explain why that might be the case. This is, given the space limitations, not anything close to a full reading of that text, but instead a prospective account of how this theoretical approach might open up that literary/cultural text in productive ways. Of your 7-8 pages, roughly 1/3 of the space would probably best be devoted to each of these three tasks. The final assignment asks you, in short, to synthesize the various analytical tasks we’ve been having you undertake (and have undertaken with you) this quarter.
10. Making it Public: Primary Trait Scoring and Grades
(I wrote this essay in 1992 when I was Director of Expository Writing for the English Department. Its audience then was teaching assistants in the Expository Writing Program. Since that time, EWP has refined the process described here extensively; my "Six Criteria" have been replaced by the Outcomes, and through them partial trait scoring has been effectively turned into a curricular organizational frame.
(But people looking to make grading a more enjoyable process (!) may still find useful this account of why I began using partial trait scores and of their value to teachers in negotiating the rhetorical and emotional complexities of grading.)
Though one could imagine many different grading systems, two dominate classroom practice in American education. The first is "holistic"--far and away the most common mode of grading. It assigns a single grade, either a number or a letter, to a given piece of work. The second, and much less commonly practiced, is "primary trait" grading. This mode defines a set of "primary traits" or characteristics to be graded, and then assigns a set of grades, one for each of the defined traits. I have come to use both systems in a way that seems to me to take advantage of the strengths of each.
Though I do not grade first drafts of work submitted, and though I give holistic number grades to revised drafts, for both I usually also give primary trait scores, using a set of criteria (see the "Six Criteria for Good College Writing" on page seven below) together with a numerical system in which I assign a rating of 1 to 4 to each of the six "characteristics" my sheet defines. One is low, four is high; for each criterion they correspond to the following descriptions:
(Note: I now use a 5 point scale--in part to give myself an extra rating category above 2 [it turns out I like to make a little more distinction now than I once did in how well students are succeeding], and in part to be sure students don't confuse partial trait scores with holistic grades. If 5 is the highest possible trait score, students are less likely to translate a trait score into a grade. A trait score of 4 is obviously not equivalent to a 4.0)
I find this system helpful in several ways, each of which saves me time, and yet also keeps my comments specific and practical. First, it allows me to avoid writing some things over and over, while it nevertheless keeps the central writing goals of the course constantly before the class. Second, the fact that I've already used the trait scores to give a skeletal evaluation of each of these different dimensions of the paper frees me to concentrate my written commentary on the paper's two or three most pressing problems. Having given at least a minimal opinion about each of the Six Criteria, I need not fear that I have neglected the whole. Third, the very brevity of my numbers will later give me a good way to begin a student conference, since I can ask students to respond to my estimation. If "Center" got a "1," for example, I can ask students if they can describe why; if it got a "4," I can still ask the same question. Since the mere number doesn't represent a complete description of how well their papers fulfilled each of the criteria, in responding to my question students can't be feeling as if they are merely giving my comments back to me. We can have a conversation instead.
The system's main usefulness, however, has been its capacity to make my grading process a more public procedure, and thereby establish a rhetorical relation between me and my students which is far more useful and productive than what more private grading systems create. Again, this is something I've learned from experience. In the past, I have often been frustrated in my assigning of grades by the development of a particular sort of "me" vs. "them" way of talking about grades. I don't think that sort of oppositional relationship was unique to my classes; indeed, I think it is probably the norm in writing classes. But it certainly didn't seem very productive. For once that dichotomy was established, students frequently stopped seeing me as a helpful resource. Instead I became an antagonist or, at the very least, a roadblock to students' success in the class, and much of my students' energies often then seemed to shift to the task of manipulating me in order to lobby for higher grades.
That was not fun, and neither was it good either for me or for the students. For I ended up either playing the tough guy and having to deal with the resentment and general unfriendliness of those students who had a passive aggressive streak, or yielding ground in ways which made me uncomfortable because I was assigning grades I knew to be too high, and only because I felt that I couldn't avoid damaging teacher-student relations unless I did so. In a word: I was not managing grades, grades were managing me.
My solution to this problem has been to break out of that "me-them" dynamic, and to replace it with a "criteria-them" dynamic, in which my chief role is that of referee between students on one hand, and a set of goals describing what my students are to be learning in my course on the other. Which is to say, in order to avoid my becoming the problem which students must solve to do well in the course, I now offer them the Six Criteria (or whatever set of criteria is appropriate for a given assignment or a given course) instead. Thus if students in my class want to lobby me for a better grade, I tell them that they don't have to work on me, because I'm not the problem. Rather, they have to deal with whichever of the criteria they are still weak in.
In this respect, my courses have (happily) become much more like courses in other disciplines. Few math teachers, for example, get lobbied in the way students used to work on me, because math students' work either shows they can do the problems, or it shows that they can't. To be sure, our subject is considerably less quantifiable than is math or chemistry—no doubt that's one reason we like to do it. But if our subject is hard to define, we can still come up with relatively specific goals. I don't claim that my Criteria are the only criteria a writing class could use, nor do I claim much originality for the list. But because they do define characteristics central to assignments I make, I work hard to make sure that every student understands both what those goals mean for the papers they write, and how well each student is doing in efforts to master them.
In short, the real benefit of public, external standards is that one's role as teacher becomes more clearly that of a third-person coach (the person who can help students make progress towards success at meeting general, public standards) and monitor (the person who supplies a disinterested but in fact terribly helpful progress report on how well students are doing in their working towards the acquisition of certain writing-thinking skills). In either case, the effect is to shift the usual writing class grading rhetoric away from that of student vs. teacher, to one in which the teacher is merely a third party whose job it is to help students see how they currently stand as writers in relation to the larger world around them.
Of course, simply setting the terms of your grading rhetoric isn't the end of the business. Even with the Six Criteria sheet at hand, some students will try to reorganize the conversation back into a "teacher vs. student" one, and that is a conversational move which you will need to recognize—and resist. You need students to see you as the messenger in this kingdom, not the ruler, and you should be sure to avail yourself of the various ways the course supports you in this role. Thus one reason for having students reading each other's papers, and for including exercises to make them better, more discerning critics, is precisely that doing so will help to make those Six Criteria more real to them. As the students' understanding of and confidence in externalized criteria develops, and with it the ability to recognize when a center does not develop, or where an idea needs further support, or when the essay switches topics (and thus loses focus), not only do they acquire a set of skills which will help them improve their writing, but they also are very much more likely to see you as the messenger and interpreter you want to be, and not just that manipulable (or iron-willed, should you resist) ruler which English teachers so often have been.
Finally, while it is easy to be cynical about how students view grades, in fact most students really do want a good and realistic education, even though they may be willing (often knowingly) to suspend their own sense of long-term educational benefit for a short-term grade profit. Given students' deeper reasons for study, I do not hesitate to avail myself of the moral imperative most students feel, but may be pushing aside for the moment. "Do you really want me only to give you the grade you want, and not the grade this work truly merits?" To such a question, few students will have the audacity to reply "Yes." The Criteria have helped me build from my students' underlying recognition of the reasonableness of basing their grades on clearly defined course goals. If I can help them see that their grades only reflect how well they are progressing in acquiring the skills which writing well asks from them, we all end up being a great deal more happy about the whole process.
Developing Grades from the Six Criteria
Although I explain to students that I see no exact correspondence between the Six Criteria numbers and the grades I assign, I do indeed use my numbers to establish the basic range for my grading. Indeed, I'd undermine my whole approach if I didn't. Since I claim that those criteria really do matter, if I were to lose track of how any student's paper stacks up against the writing goals I've set out for the course, I'd simply be sending the message that I don't mean what I say, and that those goals don't really matter after all.
So to establish a base range for my grade, I add my figures together and use the resulting total. That range set, I then feel free to adjust the grade up or down the odd tenth of a point or two in order to accommodate better my holistic sense of the paper (i.e., to account for the fact that the whole is sometimes more or less than the sum of its parts), or to accommodate other criteria which seem to me to be important at that point in the student's development. But again, although I do allow myself maneuvering room, it is nevertheless obvious that if I say that I value a paper which measures up well to the Six Criteria, then the grade I assign had better honor that claim.
A final note. Sometimes I will go through this process (which is quite rapid, by the way, once you've grown accustomed to it), and find myself with a lower or higher grade for a particular paper than my first, holistic take on the paper would have produced. But what does that really mean? Usually it means that for one reason or another my first reading of a paper has led me away from my goals altogether. I like the sentences, or the energetic listing of things, and so I tend not to notice that the paper has no center, no focus. Or, conversely, I DON'T like the surfaces, or even the particular argument the student is making. And so I think poorly of the paper until I'm forced by my criteria to think again, to grant that the student has done well with a center, has noticed lots of detail, and has actually argued at least well enough to make me quarrelsome. But whether my holistic instinct is higher or lower than my criteria-based scores, the discrepancy helps me guard against my being either seduced or offended by someone's prose. By keeping my criteria public and consistently present not just to my students but to myself, I've become a great deal more consistent and fair as a grader.