Considering the Possibilities of a Cultural Rhetorics Assessment Framework

Gavin P. Johnson, Christian Brothers University

August 2020

 

When universities shifted instruction online amid the spread of COVID-19 last spring, the question of assessment emerged almost immediately. Calls for a Pass/Fail option circulated through social media (#PassFailNation), news articles, university listservs, and, eventually, administrative exchanges. Allison Stanger, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education in March, argued, “Faculty members could focus on engaging students for learning in demanding circumstances. Students would get a respite from direct competition with their peers to focus on both individual growth and doing their part in a common endeavor (a skill we are very much going to need in the months ahead).” To her critics, Stranger explained, “In normal times it makes sense to have individual faculty members determine fair assessment. But these are not normal times.”

And, certainly, these still are not normal times and, thus, normal modes of assessment are inadequate. However, we, as cultural rhetoricians and teachers, should ask, “If ‘normal assessment’ is inflexible, causes anxiety, distracts faculty, and forces students into competition, what is the use of ever going back to ‘normal assessment’?” Asao Inoue, Mya Poe, Matt Gomes, and Ellen Cushman, among others, remind us that classroom assessment traditionally harbors and reifies white cis-hetero-abled supremacist and colonial ideologies further entangling those dangerous logics with the ideals of higher education. Even as we make important moves toward cultural rhetorics pedagogies (Hutchinson Campos, episode 32), assessment, not pedagogy, is where we have to put up or shut up on our values and ethics as teachers[1].

In the remainder of this post, I engage the four defining pillars of cultural rhetorics, as defined by Phil Bratta and Malea Powell and recently discussed by Maria Novotny, to consider the possibilities of a cultural rhetorics assessment framework.

Story as Theory: Sharing Our Assessment Experiences

This is my story. Failing a 1st grade spelling test is one of my earliest school memories. After receiving my test, bloodied by the teacher’s red pen, I began to cry. Mrs. Judy, my teacher, consoled me by saying: “You’ll do better next time, if you try harder.” Mrs. Judy’s policy required every misspelled word written five times each as homework, and my mom had her own policy requiring me to write each misspelled word five additional times. I wrote the assigned words again and again…until my hand cramped. Alongside the manual punishment, there was an element of shame because the “top students” would receive praise with their names being posted on the board for everyone to see. I’m quite sure my name never made it on the board. This cycle of shame, anxiety, failure, and punishment continued throughout elementary school. I’m still a horrible speller.

When sharing this story with students I first ask them to consider their own histories of assessment and how they have affectively entangled learning and assessment. Do they feel like they understand the point of assessment? How do they respond when reviewing a teacher’s feedback? Has their relationship to assessment changed over time and across different curricula? Second, we talk frankly about the affordances and constraints of grades. And while grades should not be synonymous with assessment, they are powerful symbols that dominate many of our experiences. Sharing our stories, be it in person or through discussion boards, demystifies the normative disguise of colonial logics embedded in assessment and grading practices.

Engagement with Decoloniality: Delinking Grades and Assessment

Elsewhere, I write about grades as a technology of surveillance linked to colonial ideas about language, correctness, and social rank. Grades as a colonial system linked to the practice of assessment re-inscribes a pedagogy of policing where students are conditioned to be less concerned about building knowledges and more concerned about not meeting the stated normal. Current critical conversations like Inoue’s labor-based assessment and Jesse Stommel’s #ungrading offer ways for delinking grades from assessment and learning.

Decoloniality also helps us understand the importance of localizing and situating assessment practices as responses to the specific cultural knowledges being built in a classroom. In orienting my assessment practices, I have embraced both the labor model and the ungrading model in different courses, and both offer unique affordances and constraints. I believe what is important here is taking time in class to discuss these systems with students. Culturally reflective and sustaining assessment involves students in its creation as well as its implementation.

Constellating with Communities: Building Assessments Responsive to Coalitional Goals

The practice of constellating, Malea Powell explains, holds in tension the “impermanence, ambiguity, and subjectivity” that goes into making stories/knowledges that actively delink from western logics. Such a task cannot be done alone, and Queer and Feminist People of Color have made clear that our movements are only strong if our coalitions are diverse. In terms of assessment, we must take the many perspectives students bring into classrooms and hold them together. Students will have stories that echo each other as well as stories that are uniquely colored by local practices. Some stories may be devasting while others empowering. Constellating the various stories help us to acknowledge and respect each other’s lived experiences, which are so often blurred by our acceptance of assessment practices as objective and fair.

Teachers, for example, might practice constellating by building certain rhetorical moves into their formal and informal assessments. Building, with students, rubrics that outlines student goals alongside course goals and, simultaneously, removing numerical or judgmental categories in favor of discursive feedback documents the work of constellating the competing but equally important considerations we balance when responding to student work.

Acknowledging All of Our Relations: The Ongoing Work of Assessment

Assessments, under colonial logics, may aim for the same goals – disciplining students and reinforcing dominate structures – but they certainly take many approaches. Sharing your own story, as I do above, and making space for student reflections on their previous experiences acknowledges our different experiences with assessment and demonstrates the complex mechanisms that must be disrupted. In acknowledging our interconnectivity through frameworks that not only upend dangerously limiting practices but also offer all of our relations space to exist and thrive, we, students and teachers, learn how to develop coalition assessment frameworks that support our decolonial practices.

But this acknowledgment is not a one-time performance. Within a specific class, teachers should invite stories and reflections throughout the semester so that the assessment frameworks do not shift back toward the very logics we seek to upend. Furthermore, this work cannot exist in the vacuum of a single course. Since the product of classroom assessments are meant to circulate beyond the classroom, so too must our cultural rhetorics framework. Using my privileges[2] and making transparent the work I do in the classroom with students has encouraged other teachers to do the same. This blog, I hope, will encourage you to begin designing your own framework for assessing student work.

***

When I dismissed class on March 5, 2020, wishing students a fun and safe spring break, I didn’t realize it was my last time in an Ohio State classroom. Within a few weeks, the majority of universities across the United States closed campuses and shifted courses from face-to-face to online delivery in the wake of the global pandemic, COVID-19. Resource rich websites quickly went up so students could “keep learning” and instructors could “keep teaching” – note the mandate to keep doing. The spring semester gave way to a summer term that has rapidly moved into a new fall semester, and many of our institutions demand we keep doing the work of higher education, which includes classroom assessments. But what if we don’t keep doing that work and instead seize this coalitional moment?[3]

As I prep my courses – at a new university in a new city – I look to all my relations as I develop assessment strategies and work with students to honor the knowledges they are building under “unprecedented” circumstances. For example, Henry Giroux recently wrote, “The magnitude of the [coronavirus] crisis offers new possibilities in which people can begin to rethink what kind of society, world and future they want to inhabit.” And, pre-COVID, Sara Ahmed suggested, “Queer use might describe this potential for an explosion, how small deviations, a loosening of a requirement, the creation of an exit point, opening a door to allow something to escape, can lead to more and more coming out” (p. 215). In this particular moment, finding something queerly useful within assessment structures will be painful and frustrating as our institutions push us to keep doing what we have always done. But finding something, anything, in the pain we are feeling, the frustration we are carrying, the work we can/will no longer do illustrates what might be possible in the here and now. We should not and cannot keep following assessment practices animated by western logics, colonial exploitation, and white cis-hetero-abled supremacy. Instead, I urge us, as cultural rhetoricians and teachers, to consider the possibilities of a cultural rhetorics assessment framework.

Works Cited

Ahmed, S. (2019). What’s the use: On the uses of use. Duke University Press.

Bratta, P. and Powell, M. (2016). Introduction to the special issue: Entering the cultural rhetorics conversations. enculturation: a journal of rhetoric, writing, and culture 21. Retrieved from http://enculturation.net/entering-the-cultural-rhetorics-conversations

Burke, L. (2020, March 19). #PassFailNation. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/03/19/colleges-go-passfail-address-coronavirus

Chávez, K. R. (2013). Queer migration politics: Activist rhetoric and coalitional possibilities. University of Illinois Press.

Cushman, E. (2016). Decolonizing validity. The Journal of Writing Assessment, 9(1). Retrieved from http://journalofwritingassessment.org/article.php?article=92

Inoue, A. B. (2015). Antiracist writing assessment ecologies: Teaching and assessing writing for a socially just future. WAC Clearinghouse.

—. (2020, April 11). How do you do labor-based grading in pre-existing curricula? Asao B. Inoue’s Infrequent Words. Retrieved from http://asaobinoue.blogspot.com/2020/04/how-do-you-do-labor-based-grading-in.html

Giroux, H. A. (2020, April 7). The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the plague of neoliberalism. Truthout. Retrieved from https://truthout.org/articles/the-covid-19-pandemic-is-exposing-the-plague-of-neoliberalism/

Gomes, M. (2018). “Writing Assessment and Responsibility for Colonialism’.” In M. Poe, A. B. Inoue, and N. Elliot. Writing Assessment, Social Justice, and Advancement of Opportunity (pp. 203-227). Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse and University Press of Colorado.

Johnson, G.P. (2020). Grades as a technology of surveillance: Normalization, control, and big data in the teaching of writing. In E. Beck and L. Hutchinson (Eds.) Privacy matters: Surveillance in the classroom and beyond. Utah State University Press.

Keep Learning. (2020). Retrieved from https://keeplearning.osu.edu/

Keep Teaching. (2020). Retrieved from https://keepteaching.osu.edu/

Novotny, M. (2020, July 22). Cultural rhetorics in precarious times. Retrieved from https://www.writingandrhetoricmke.com/blog/cultural-rhetorics-in-precarious-times

Poe, M. (2013). Making digital writing assessment fair for diverse writers. In D. DeVoss and H. McKee (Eds.), Digital writing assessment and evaluation. Utah State UP Retrieved from: http://ccdigitalpress.org/dwae/01_poe.html

Powell, M. (2018). Interview – Malea Powell on story, survivance, & constellating as praxis. In L. Lane and D. Unger (Eds.) 4C4EQUALITY: Writing Networks for Social Justice. Retrieved from http://constell8cr.com/4c4e/interview_malea_powell

Stanger, A. (2020, March 19). Make all courses pass/fail now. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/Make-All-Courses-Pass-Fail-Now/248281

Stommel, J. (2018, March 18). How to ungrade. Retrieved from https://www.jessestommel.com/how-to-ungrade/

Wood, S. (Host). (2020). Les Hutchinson Campos [Audio podcast episode 32]. In Pedagogue. https://www.pedagoguepodcast.com/episodes.html

Notes

[1] Inoue (2015) makes this point much more graciously when he writes: “I assume that all writing pedagogy is driven by the writing assessment ecology of the classroom, no matter what a teacher has done or how she thinks about her pedagogy, no matter what readings are discussed. Classroom writing assessment is more important than pedagogy because it always trumps what you say or what you attempt to do with your students. And students know this. They feel it.” (p. 9)

[2] I am a white cis-man in a tenure-track faculty position, and I am a queer, first-generation graduate from a southern working-poor family. The risks I take when disrupting crystalized systems are not the same risks others will bear. These material realities highlight, for me, the importance of diverse (in every sense of the word) and intersectional coalitions.

[3] Karma Chávez (2013) explains that “a coalitional moment occurs when political issues coincide or merge in the public sphere in ways that create space to reenvision and potentially reconstruct rhetorical imaginaries” (p. 8)

About the Author

Dr. Gavin P. Johnson (he/him/his), Assistant Professor in the Department of Literature and Languages at Christian Brothers University, is a teacher-scholar specializing in multimodal composition, cultural and queer rhetorics, community-engaged writing, and digital activism. His scholarship is published or forthcoming in Composition Studies, College Literacy and Learning, Peitho: The Journal of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory, Computers and CompositionTeacher-Scholar-Activist, and various edited collections. He is a proud queer, first-generation college graduate from southeast Louisiana.

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