What’s a liberal arts, writing-focused nerd to do?
The readings for this week acknowledge a number of issues circling around the way we educate and assess that education after it occurs, up to and including the reality that we assess the things that we find valuable. By the wayside are other aspects of education (e.g. lifelong learning, professionalism, global context, etc). But one’s math ability and knowledge are not removed from these concepts (indeed, it seems quite the opposite) any more than lab report writing is removed from issues beyond the engineering context I’m currently grading in this semester.
I’m a GTA with a liberal arts/English background and I am not the lead instructor for the lab course I am grading for this semester. The lead instructor, an engineering professor, is present for my workshops, so I don’t want to rock the boat too much when I’m around to discuss writing lab reports. That is, I feel compelled to keep it basic and simple. In the 40 minutes I’m allotted for one writing workshop that’s supposed to impart on these students everything they need to know about about lab reporting writing, there’s a lot of ground to cover. We’re supposed to introduce the concept of science writing since this lab is their first major lab course in their engineering major and discuss how to write effective lab reports. And that’s it. The engineering instructor grades the technical aspects of the course. The grade I assign is averaged with his grade, and the student then has a graded lab report with technical engineering feedback and technical writing feedback.
With respect to assessment of student work and assigning grades, it’s hard to acknowledge that the system in place that I found so boring and ineffective as a child is still equally boring and ineffective (perhaps more so, seeing as we didn’t even know of the technologies that would eventually exist to distract us… or serve as tools, depending on your view) in 2017.
It certainly leaves me in a place where I wish I didn’t provide any grades, but instead could just give writing feedback. There are some who would argue writing assignments are better off within English departments where they belong, and I wouldn’t agree at all unless it meant we could somehow change up our grading system for our engineering communications program. But that’s not the case, and honestly I think in-house writing instruction is an amazing way to work with engineering students.
A Post Script
I’ve mulled over the next part of this long enough, so I have decided to include it since it highlights my agreement with the concept that our classes, however removed from current events, are not removed from social responsibility and political context. Specifically, with the Muslim ban weighing heavy on my mind, I found myself wanting to make clear to all my students that I am there to provide instruction (and grades too, for that matter) no matter where my students come from. I’m there for all of them, up to and including assessing them equally. Does that mean that I don’t have my own implicit biases to work against? No. I know this. But I’m trying.
In the end, I waited until the end of our class and made a simple enough statement:
“I just want you all to know that no matter who you are, where you’re from, or what you think your inherent writing ability is, I am here to work with all of you. And if you’re worried in these complicated political times if that’s a political statement, please know that it is. It absolutely is.”
Yes, I wanted to be (a tiny bit) political to prove a point, with that point being that while I’m there to try and grade them all as individual writers, I’ll do everything in my power to be equal in the kinds of feedback I provide students and the treatment I give them as people. I’ll do everything I can to assess them fairly and accurately, whether it’s grading a memo or a lab report.
We have a lot of work to do.