The Elephants Evaluate: Some Notes on the Problem of Grades in Graduate Creative Writing Programs1

Article excerpt

This article takes up the "special strangeness" of grading practices in the graduate creative writing workshop, based on the author's research, personal experience, and interviews with the faculty of her doctoral creative writing program. Using a structure of notes, the author attempts to make sense of the way grades are understood by both teacher and student at the post-secondary level. First, she considers why the formal evaluation of creative writing continues to be defined by a system of grades, despite the perceived failure of grades to represent the value of such work, and despite educators' historic and ongoing attempts at reforming the system. And secondly, she explores the many resulting disconnects: between the neat collapse of meaning in a grade and the very pluralistic, collaborative arrival at meaning in a graduate workshop; between the creative writing teacher's tendency for grade inflation and the literary market's stark onepercent publication rate; and between the mentor's fraught roles as both a critic/evaluator and "friend" to the creative writing graduate student.

"It has been ambitious and plucky of me to attempt to describe what is indescribable, and I have failed, as I knew I would."

- E.B. White, "The Ring of Time"

After nearly a decade of pining for that stamp par excellence - you know the one; the only grade that matters to a graduate student - I still find myself wondering how this article would fare in the eyes of my mentor, Michael.2 On the first day of my orientation at State University (one of the few universities that offers a PhD in Creative Writing), I was visibly anxious, already overwhelmed by the pressure to prioritize my teaching duties above the most rigorous workload of my life, when Michael pulled me aside during a ten-minute break. He removed a Marlboro pack from the pocket of his black jeans and sighed. "You are here," he said, tapping the pack lightly, "to become a scholar of the form." Then he cocked his head and smiled, Understand?

The "form" in question is the personal essay: an attempt or experiment, by definition. A plucky stunt, in the words of E.B. White. But stunts don't usually bode well for any performance, academic or otherwise. Often my insecurity over a grade collided head on with my need to push the limits, test boundaries. Often I second-guessed my instincts in favor of a safer route, especially in a seminar unconcerned, ironically, with the student's creative license. Such license was only celebrated, it seemed, in the texts we read for assignment. And the double standard frustrated me to no end.

The fact is, I'm no longer enrolled in a graduate program, but the problem of grades in a creative writing workshop remains an interest to me, perhaps more than ever now that I find myself at the head of the workshop - the one doling out the grades and, yes, evaluating the success of my students' creative license, their own plucky attempts at writing personal essays.

Maybe I feel compelled, then, to extend my neck on this very subject - to be vulnerable again this way. Maybe I need to remember how it feels devouring Michael's feedback, his chicken-scratched note on the back of the page, his head cocked to the side (understand?) after another one of my attempts flopped in workshop. Maybe I should've stuck to the form I know best - the epistolary essay - but, for once, I'm forsaking the letter for some notes. To note is to number, to organize. And to observe.


"I don't understand the way she grades."

"I don't think she understands the way she grades."

I overhear them, two coeds, as I make my way to the library in search of the book - ironically enough - Making Sense of College Grades. I glance casually over my shoulder to get a glimpse of the disgruntled students and to see if they're, well, any of mine. They're not, thank God, but the murmuring still hits a nerve. Lately, I can't seem to escape hearing about grades; calculating grades; contemplating grades. …