What distinguishes an A poem from a B poem? Should a student writer’s final portfolio be rewarded for revision and growth if the final product remains inadequate? Should a poem receive a high grade if the instructor thinks it demonstrates the potential for publication — or if it merely reflects the elements stressed within the coursework? Do we need to distinguish between students taking an errant creative writing course on the way toward a degree in physics versus students who plan on pursuing an MFA?
We so often debate if creative writing can be taught: that is a romantic question of inspiration versus training, and allows us to comfortably bicker while knowing that creative writing programs are not actually going to disappear. I propose a more practical, immediate debate: how should we grade the work of creative writing students in undergraduate creative writing programs? Despite the nightmarish state of the tenure-track market in the discipline, it is reasonable — and I would argue essential — that we consider the MFA a professional degree. That is another discussion. But what about our undergraduates? Are they being trained to become professional writers? Does that affect how we assess their work?
According to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), undergraduate students should be given grades “for most assignments.” Grades “for revised work should depend on how well students demonstrate that they have transformed their processes for composing and revising.” Many creative writing professors — including myself — have used such a method. A student submits a story early in the semester that is melodramatic and sentimental. They use tags like “shrieked” and “chortled.” The plot of the story goes nowhere — or it goes everywhere, without any control. The prose is as purple as a priest’s vestments during Lent. By the end of the term, the student’s dialogue has more punch. They write with a little more detail. A maudlin ending has become more ambiguous.
They are a better writer. Does that mean they get an A?
When I teach creative writing, I am always pulled in two directions. Part of me wants to let undergraduates roam free. We might start with the opening scene of Big Machine by Victor LaValle or “Royal Beatings” by Alice Munro before setting aside examples and precedents and taking a more mystical approach. Writing without grades. The other part of me — an ethos passed down by generations of my working-class family from the Bronx and Newark — wants my students to create works that others will read. To — God forbid — think they should make money from writing. I want them to stop being private writers and become public writers.
I think my best semesters as a teacher are a mixture of the two methods. Yet a teaching method doesn’t immediately translate into a grading method. Is competency in creative writing a C? Do students who take undergraduate creative writing courses expect those courses to be an easy A? Why does it feel like I am breaking some taboos in even asking these questions?
I want this short essay to start, not end, debate. I know most professors have tried and true approaches to grading. I am not suggesting unilateral grading standards for creative writing — a concept that is naïve, unrealistic, and probably not helpful for students. I am certainly not suggesting rubrics (20 points for exemplary dialogue; 15 points for adequate dialogue…). We don’t need to take this to the extreme, but we should have this conversation. If professors are serious about preparing our students to succeed as writers — and if you are not, you should get the hell out of a classroom — we need to be serious about our discipline. That includes how students are graded.
One grading approach that I’ve returned to is placing a value on sentences. I try to teach students to write the best sentences that they were meant to write. That means a lot of close reading of published and student work, some critical writing, and a significant amount of line-focused revision. The least we can do as creative writing professors is to teach students how to write for an audience: the audience of their professors, their peers, and the often invisible audience of literary magazine editors and readers. Sure, a story can often be made better — but if we always think of creative writing as a sequence of works-in-progress, we avoid the tough decisions that are necessary to grow, and to publish.
Yes, to publish. Undergraduate creative writing students should know the difference between work that has the potential to be published, and work that is nowhere near reaching an audience. We should not only give an A to publication-ready work, but I fear that we are so afraid of talking too much about publication with young writers that we delay the inevitable.
Some might say these debates are better left to intra-department squabbles. But so often those debates are intellectual exercises, and forgotten before the next semester’s syllabus is distributed. We can do better. Grading has a practical purpose, but in this context, it is a measure of when writing is successful, and when it is not. We should give creative writing — this weird, beautiful art that has the power to stir souls — the academic respect it deserves. We owe it to our students.
Image Credit: Flickr/Rhoni McFarlane.