How Should We Grade Creative Writing?

January 25, 2017 | 1 book mentioned 13 4 min read

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?

coverWhen 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.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He has written for Rolling Stone, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Kenyon Review. His newest book is Ember Days, a collection of stories. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and twin daughters. Follow him @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at www.nickripatrazone.com.

13 comments:

  1. Interesting article, thank you. As a writing teacher, I confront many of these same issues frequently. The one place I really differ is thinking that we should be readying students for publication. Maybe Nick’s students are more advanced than mine, but I feel good about just getting a fully-formed and revised story out of them in a semester, let alone a publishable one. At the very least, I want them to leave the class with the sense of fiction writing as something they can do.

    To be honest, I have serious qualms about the enterprise of teaching creative writing to undergrads. Very very very few people under the age of 25 (and probably 30), are capable of writing serious fiction. You just haven’t lived or read enough before then. I suspect the most fruitful undergrad creative writing class, in a long-term sense, would be a year-long reading-intensive course involving no writing.

  2. “I suspect the most fruitful undergrad creative writing class, in a long-term sense, would be a year-long reading-intensive course involving no writing.”

    OMG yes. Along with parallel instruction regarding how very little money the best books earned for the geniuses who wrote them.

  3. If you’ are a structuralist, then it seems to me that grading creative writing should be easy enough. If you are a poststructuralist, then it become impossible.

    Also, formal works are much easier to grade. In art, we can tell if you mastered foreshortening or not. And grade accordingly. In poetry, we can tell if you mastered writing a sonnet or not. And grade accordingly. But how can you tell if an abstract painting if good or not? How can you tell if a surrealist postmodern poem is good or not? At least, from the point of view of grading?

    Don’t get me wrong. I have been an experimentalist in form in my fiction (and more recently a formalist in my poetry, but that’s practically experimental today), but when I was taking creative writing classes, I learned that I needed to hand in stories with a certain structure simply so I could get good feedback on things like characterization, dialogue, setting, plot, etc., because otherwise everyone was obsessed with the experimental aspects.

    Were I a creative writing teacher, I would strongly encourage my students to only turn in highly structured works precisely so we could work on story or poem elements. But I would also encourage them–outside of class–to experiment away! Creative writing classes are one thing; publishable works are another.

  4. They have to be pass/fail classes. Does creative work deserve “academic respect”? Yes. But these programs for creative writing essentially exist as patronage (and a source of cheap labor for the institutions). Writing prose, poetry, theatre, or creative non-fiction is not building a piece of furniture or even sketching a nude model or a bowl of fruit. I can’t see how A-F grading would help (or if it helps at all, anywhere, in any subject, actually — much like homework, A-F or 60-100 grading has very little proven utility by even the most rudimentary quantitative measurements).

  5. The teaching of creative writing inhabits a border space, almost by design. Not dissimilar to when amateur English scientists began to examine the cell and the roots of disease, except they were full-fledged members of the clergy because they had to be. That was the best job going back then if you wanted to do deep research in your spare time. Not much has changed, except now we have to pretend to have manners, or else the internet will punish us.

  6. The Uprights Citizen Brigade, a comedy school in which I’ve recently taken several classes, recently introduced grades to its improv courses. Students and alums reacted with collected horror, with many rightly pointing out that comedy — and thus art — is inherently subjective, restricted by the “standards” of whatever instructor you happen to land (and just as there are certain superstar writers bitterly lodged in high places who grumble over any budding talent trying things differently, I can cite at least one UCB instructor who is hostile to anything not mainstream, bellowing the scolding imprecation “too dark” to very funny and genuinely original performers). I don’t believe art should be graded,. It takes many years to learn any craft and to ratchet up experience, as “John Sticks” observes above. It takes a lot of trying and experimenting and failing to find a voice. And the crib death principle that is regularly part of MFA culture would be better served by a more positive community that is tough but far more empathetic and inclusive to voices not their own. (See Junot Diaz’s “MFA vs. POC” for a good breakdown of how damaging this groupthink problem is for the voices we really need to hear.) Classes on How to Write are often taught by sour and cynical professors who would rather be making art. They are only in the classroom because they need another check to pay the rent. They are parochial prescriptionists, not people who actually give a tinker’s damn about those on the edge. In a just world, this hostile cluster (not all profs!) would be pumping gas somewhere in Ohio, where their didactic views on art would be scoffed by the real and the impoverished.

  7. Are you teaching for the ivory tower, or the publishing house? To take poetry as an example: In high school, our assignments included Greek sonnets, Shakesperian sonnets, limericks, haiku (the simple definition), diamantes, other shaped verses, blank verse and different lengths of “rhymed verse” (and you better have a discernible meter if you want to call it “rhyme”). Then you get to the publishing (real) world, and it’s “no rhyme,” “no rhyme,” “no rhyme,” “no rhyme.”

  8. “How Should We Grade Creative Writing?”

    Drop the “How” and ask the far more important question: “Should We Grade Creative Writing?” So what is that AWP organization says yes? Why should everything be graded? Why not evaluate without a grade? Grading mania is the worst form of scientism, the belief that everything can and should be quantified and ranked.

  9. Shelly,

    In a perfect world grades would be unnecessary for CW classes. But in the real world, they are required by institutions, as well as by the plain fact that many students would not do the work absent a grade. I tend to grade mostly on effort, though–if I see a good faith attempt to create characters, shape narrative, and describe the world in non-cliche terms, that’s good enough for me. Admittedly, my standards may be far too low…

  10. Also, and sorry, but I had to lol just a little at the idea of poetry nowadays written for the publishing house :D

  11. “… many students would not do the work absent a grade.”

    What a sad, miserable statement! So why are they in the class? Why are you teaching them? What’s the point of all this? Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t get the point of taking a creative writing class if you’re only after a grade.

  12. I’m entirely sure strict adherence to some grading system is pertinent. Looks more like a convenient tool to use than anything else. Gives off airs of standards: what you’ll call good and proper and the like.
    Basically, it does more for the teacher than it does students. Your job becomes easier when you have the rubric in hand and a checklist of traits to measure students.
    Although telling students how to submit, warn them about scams, etc. is a polite thing to do. And, of course, I think one could quietly disagree what makes a story “publishable.” Then again, I’ve never felt the need to rush for the printers.

  13. Shelly,

    Yes, I’m afraid you are a bit naive. Though there are students who are very keen on learning to write, there are more who just take it for an elective, for a lark. Even the ones who are into it are 19 or 20 years old, and often not possessed of the most, shall we say, rigorous work habits. As the poster says above me, it’s a tool to get them to produce the work they need to produce to learn.

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