Assessment in Progress

Theoretically, the finished product evaporated with the disappearance of the author; however, for practical pedagogical purposes, the final version has survived. It is the version students hand in for a grade. Approaches to the teaching of college writing vary from those that focus on composing personal narratives to those that concentrate on crafting research projects, those that prioritize locating and using hardcopy resources to those concerned with evaluation and citation of electronic sources, those that thematize course content to those that dispense with required reading altogether, those that occur in the classroom to those that are delivered online or at a field location, those that dedicate instructional time to computer literacy to those that do not. Yet, they all have this in common: at times during the semester, students must consider their work done; they must finalize their revisions and submit their written work to the teacher for evaluation. An individual teacher’s assessment practices might involve attending to students’ processes or taking students’ self-reflections into account when calculating grades. Primarily, though, grades represent a teacher’s judgment about the quality of students’ final products.

The experience I chronicled at the beginning of this piece does not report on my part in the creation of a final product, or my critique of a final product; rather, it describes my participation in an ongoing, public writing project. What I did on 24 May 2007, while not extraordinary, altered the nature of readers’ engagement with “Thermodynamics”; those who navigate to the entry now, read a text forever changed by both the obscenity and the editing process. Both are documented events and, therefore, part of the public history of this text’s construction. Since revision is not privatized, Wikipedia and other digital writing environments facilitate a form of text building – and knowledge making – that ineluctably binds an entry to its edit history: no version stands alone as the finished product for public consumption.

Consequently, readers of “Thermodynamics” must read acknowledging the incompleteness as well as the messy, nonlinear history of what they read; readers must also recognize that such a reading experience asks them to write, to contribute to entry and to textual history, not simply to consume. Finally, this form of writing presents writing as a conversation, not a (private) conversation in progress to a finished (public) product but always and forever a public conversation.

Writing process pedagogy evolved at a time when text production took place behind the scenes. Freewriting, journaling, drafting, revising, and rewriting all occurred as discrete activities, and each involved the production of separate hardcopy documents. An author might store, out of public view, or discard those preliminary documents once the final version is completed and published.  Contemporary college students, who have grown up with the Internet and Wikipedia, approach writing as an activity unmitigated by either a temporal or personal boundary between public and private. In addition, they have a broader, less predictable, more global, and less mannerly concept of audience than that which informed previous generations’ writing culture. These differences are significant and should inform aspects of writing pedagogy that not only relate to writing process but also serve assessment. In other words, why retain the fiction of the single-authored, final product in school, strictly for grading purposes, when public, collaborative processes increasingly comprise writing in other contexts? More specifically, what grade would editing the obscenity out of “Thermodynamics” receive?

I am not challenging the survival of the final product because it is a school-based writing genre; there are many other types of school work that, while pedagogically useful, fail to exactly reproduce the work students might be asked to produce outside of school. In this case though, I am concerned that the assignment has survived not because of its inherent value as a demonstration of student learning but because it best fits current assessment practices. In addition, the final product attaches to a theory and practice of writing instruction that has definitely been updated to address technological changes in the processes of writing and researching but that has not yet similarly reconceived its product in response to the changing shape of writing in digital environments (see Note 4).

Wikipedia provides only one example of electronic writing melding process and product. In this type of writing context, assessment of a text occurs publicly, as an ongoing part of the process, not as a discrete activity after the final version is handed in for a grade or the final product is published. My edit of “Thermodynamics,” in other words, functioned as assessment: it graded the entry. Assessment and processing of “Thermodynamics” has continued after my edit, and although the first few sentences of the second paragraph have not been re-edited since 6 June 2007, readers have actively edited other parts of the entry. My edit, therefore, reads and means differently than it did on 6 June 2007 because readers have collectively reshaped the language and content of the text that contains it.

Grading practices that focus on teachers evaluating writing features as they appear in final versions of students’ work cannot account for the significance of my edit, or of any writing like it that occurs as collaborative, digital writing process. Yet, this type of writing accomplishes writing and assessment objectives that students’ final versions, produced primarily for the teacher, cannot. For instance, this type of writing performs rhetorically, in the world: a global population reads and edits Wikipedia entries; the intellectual/cultural concerns of that global audience, which emerge through the collaborative writing process, become shared concerns; and any editor necessarily confronts the needs/sensitivities/literacies of that diverse audience. Editing grows out of active engagement with a text: editing transforms a text and, for the reading and potentially editing audience, informs individual and collective knowledge-making processes. Citation is critical: an editor’s name or computer/network identification is linked to the text he or she modifies; Wikipedia administrators insist that entries reference already published material and that editors cite their sources; a stable entry includes a list of sources, relevant links, and additional resources, which editors can continue to revise. Evaluation of writing occurs immediately and as an ongoing activity throughout the process of text construction; in addition, peer review, revision, and collaboration, by an engaged and global audience, are integral to the shared processes of editing and assessment. Finally, reading and editing activities require reflection on both the content of an entry and the effectiveness of the writing to convey that content.

© Carra Leah Hood