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Colleagues as Context: When Our Colleagues Read Our Students' Writing . . . and Our Teaching
Victoria Arthur, Washington State University

When I was asked to be a member of this panel that was to be, at least in part, about the impact of community on our teaching, I decided this was the perfect venue to explore a phenomenon that I had noticed in both a regional state university and community colleges. I was curious about the tensions I had noticed between teachers and how they manifest themselves in norming sessions and reading panels.

I had been involved in holistic readings at Western Washington University, but my experiences with the English 100 reading panel at Whatcom Community College really sharpened my interest in this happening. English 100 (the gateway to college credit 101 which many students placed into) is a pass/fail course; if students do all the work and two of their essays pass the reading panel (of English 100 instructors), they pass the course. If not, they get credit for English 99 and the chance to take it again. The black and white of pass/not pass was very difficult for teachers to accept, so a category of marginal pass was created so we could pass students but alert them that they needed to really work on certain areas to succeed in 101 and beyond. Two instructors read each essay.

My first quarter teaching 100, I spent a lot of class time explaining this process to me students and assuaging their fears. They were very concerned about strangers who didn’t know how hard they had worked judging their writing. I shared with them the list of criteria that the department had developed for evaluating 100 essays (over many meetings and much wrangling) and assuring them that if they focused on meeting the criteria they would not be penalized. In retrospect, perhaps they’re fears were more well-founded than I gave them credit for and I was the naive one.

The 100 program was in the midst of a shift in philosophy (or near the end of? its hard to tell where you are in the change curve while you’re still in the process of it), moving from counting grammatical errors to attempting to evaluate critical thinking. We had had lots of meetings discussing what critical thinking skills looked like and what we wanted to see in 100 essays. We had discussed sample student essays and why they would pass or not. But I learned, after my first quarter, that there were still comma-splice counters in the department. And they found my students. I was not at the zenith of my confidence in myself as a teacher when about half of my students received marginal passes.

But that meeting had an even more explicit example of what I’m talking about than just my wounded pride. The way it worked was that we would meet in a big group and the meeting leader would read out the names of the approximately two hundred 100 students that quarter. The two instructor/readers would respond with their evaluation: pass, marginal pass, or fail. If there was a disagreement between the two readers, they would either discuss and agree right then, or put it in a pile to be reviewed a third time. About half way through the meeting - John Smith. Pass. Pass...barely. The instructor could barely restrain himself, Barely? That’s my best student. I think that’s the best essay from my whole class. It is exactly what I’m looking for from my students. If that’s barely a pass, then I just don’t know what I’m teaching! The frustration was running high, and in retrospect, I realize it wasn’t just about one student’s essay; it was about a teacher’s entire philosophy of teaching composition.

I felt for that teacher because as I said, I wasn’t feeling so great about my students showing either. In the class room I had focused on what I thought was important: using writing to explore what one thinks and why. But not all of the panel readers viewed student essays the way I did. Many of my students were penalized by some readers for grammatical issues that I didn’t think were as important as thoughtful content. But my feelings were not about any particular student’s work, they were more about how I felt my colleagues were responding to my teaching. My teaching was what was being judged. It wasn’t only my students who were putting their writing on the line to be defined as passing or failing, but my teacherly identity was right there too, being reflected back at me from my colleagues perception of my students work. I could theoretically defend my teaching philosophy, but how did that help my students who were facing the pragmatic reality of receiving marginal passes?

After that first quarter, I began to feel the pressure of those other instructors in my 100 classroom. I knew that I considered critical thinking more important than grammatical correctness, but I felt forced to pay more attention to mechanical issues just out of plain fairness to my students who had to face readers other than myself. But in all honesty, my concern wasn’t purely about my students. I also wanted to control my colleagues’ perception of me as a teacher through my students’ work. In a way, I guess I developed a sort of double-consciousness when responding to student texts. I had to respond for myself based on my philosophy, and I also had to respond to help the student please readers with different values than mine. I wonder if that ended up being as schizophrenic in practice as it sounds as I describe it here?

The answer to this schizophrenia seems simple - develop a department or program wide consensus on what counts and what’s important so everybody reads the same, which is what norming is all about, after all. But that particular group never did get completely normed, at least not while I was there. I think perhaps some instructors never totally bought into the emerging discourse of critical thinking. And perhaps some accepted it theoretically, but found it difficult to put into practice. And I’m not sure that such a difference between individuals is always just from a change in department philosophy. Even people who agree theoretically sometimes read texts differently and every department in always going to have people with different theoretical and practical approaches.

But perhaps I am jumping to conclusions in assuming this is a problem. Is the imaginary presence of the various strands of thinking in the department looking over my shoulder in the classroom actually a good thing? A force keeping me on some sort of middle road and covering the main concerns of the department as a whole? But what does it mean if I feel I have to spend precious classroom time on issues I don’t particularly value? The basic question that this comes down to for me, and that Id like to leave you to ponder, is: how can I deal with the influence of my colleagues on my sense of myself as a teacher in a way that is most beneficial for my students?

To Patterson

Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA