By Alec MacLeod, Professor in the School of Undergraduate Studies
On the last day of the fall semester—and for several days thereafter—students in my classes gave me papers and projects. With a sigh of relief they proclaimed, “I’m done!” and “It’s over!” It seemed ungracious to remind them that when it’s over for them, it’s just beginning for me. But that is just how I felt as I considered the pile of papers, cds, and binders I had acquired. It is always a juggling act to fulfill their reasonable expectations of a timely assessment while still sneaking some time off to recharge before the start of spring term (not to mention spending time with my step-son, who was home for just two weeks over holiday break).
As January unfolded, I fell behind slightly, with the narrative assessments for the fall semester still incomplete. In many ways I find that winter break adds perspective to things; I have a sense of all of each student’s work rather just the parts at the end. I can see the development of ideas and skills, of growing confidence as fears are quelled. I read through the papers from the semester, as well as my comments over the course of the term, and reviewed the self-assessments.
Writing an assessment means participating in a complex genre, one with several audiences. First, I want each student to feel that I have attended to his or her work. I take pleasure in noticing the qualities for which each student is most proud.
However, these are also part of the permanent record: when this student applies to graduate school, this is likely to be a part of their transcript. I need to be sure that not only the work but also the expectations that each student has met are understandable to someone outside our curriculum. Fortunately, in the School of Undergraduate Studies at CIIS we do not give letter grades. This allows me to speak directly to the quality of the work rather than justifying why I gave a B+ rather than an A-.
Most delicate are the times when I need to call attention to something that a student could have done better on, or that he or she simply blew off, without damaging his or her reasonable chances for advancement to the next level. It is a kind of dog-whistle writing: I want only one of the readers to clearly hear what I am saying. I want the other audiences not to notice.
Of course, when writing 18 to 20 of these assessments over the course of a few days, I must avoid becoming formulaic, using the same turns of phrase or organizational structures in each one. This time around, I think I’ve achieved this goal. I hope that, in addition, my assessments have made an impact on the development of these students.