In Los Angeles for the Civic Debate Conference: Day 2 was on a Boat

A lot happened yesterday that involved good food and wine and a boat. I didn’t have the time last night (because I went immediately to sleep) to download and have a look at the videos I took of the boat but maybe I’ll do it tonight after the conference. 

Had an amazing dinner yesterday at a place called Sol in Newport Beach. Amazing food. There was a good conversation we had (it was happening on and off on the boat as well) about assessment.  

A big question to think about in assessment is how to be fair about evaluating student efforts. One of the difficult things to evaluate in rhetoric courses anyway, is how well students do with uncertainty or ambiguity. If we directly craft moments of ambiguity to help them deal with ambiguity, is that good? If we provide an ambiguous criteria for evaluation, is that helpful? There is an argument that one is often evaluated and judged on ambiguous criteria.  

I believe the rhetorical response here is to teach students how to cut through ambiguity and make a descriptive argument as to what should be judged and how. But by a descriptive argument, I mean they do not advocate for a change in an open and clear way. Instead, they place their advocacy as something that exists and is unrecognized. They point out that there’s a way to judge and evaluate right in front of us that is the normal and natural way to do it.  

Most students would have trouble with this since their school experience is 98% discipline and 2% creativity and ingenium. When we ask them to obey a rubric, even an ambiguous one, the impulse is to try to follow it to the best of their ability then prepare appeal-style arguments when the grade is bad. Trying one’s best is often a reason to increase a grade in the contemporary college environment.  

If one wanted to teach responses and handling of ambiguity, one would want to do it in cooperation with the students, not holding it over them or being someone in charge or something. We often forget that one of the roles of a teacher is to cooperate and help students. Thinking of the classroom as a site of encounter for everyone there - including the professor - helps us focus on this idea of cooperation and help as a central element in teaching practice. Too often professors believe their role is guard of some vault full of points (imagine Scrooge McDuck’s money bin) and they have to make sure that nobody steals any points or gets points they are not worthy of having. 

Instead of this metaphor the cooperation metaphor might increase performance in the course as the professor leads the class through different ways of approaching ambiguity and wrangling it. There is no correct answer but merely good approaches. There’s not much of a question of grading process or product here - what product would you grade? The process is the only thing on offer. This also addresses an old question of whether you grade performances or understanding in a course. What about those students who are brilliant public speakers yet understand none of the principles of the course? What about those who are terrible at speaking but understand the principles very clearly? This final question is the ultimate ambiguity that professors must wrangle as they attempt to create a fair and meaningful grading system for their course. 

In debate, we side with performance 100% of the time. There’s nothing else. But how would debate alter if we decided to judge debates on process rather than performance? This might be a question or idea that the civic debate conference I’m attending for the next two days could perhaps one day entertain.