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Grading Congressmen, Grading Students

Takano gradeEvery now and then, in academic departments where I’ve worked, faculty members have exchanged graded papers and met to compare and contrast approaches to marking and grading student prose. There’s always an element of anxiety to this otherwise useful exercise: am I missing important points? injecting my own prejudices? failing to grade according to my own rubric? missing or overemphasizing mechanical errors? grading too harshly or not harshly enough? All credit, then, to Representative Mark Takano (Democrat of California, henceforth known as “the Teacher”) for making public his markup and grading of Representative Bill Cassidy’s (Republican of Louisiana, henceforth known as “the Student”) circulated letter opposing the U.S. Senate’s immigration bill.

Now, both the letter and the “grade” are political theater. Still, there’s an impressive amount of red ink between lines and in the margins, and a few instances merit particular scrutiny in terms of language manipulation. For instance, in the Student’s opening paragraph (which begins, the Teacher observes, with a “strong thesis”), the Student exhorts us to “secure our border, improve interior enforcement, streamline legal immigration, and modernize our visa system to meet the needs of our economy.” In the margins, the Teacher has written, “Seems like you support the Senate bill which addresses all of these.” In the following paragraph, the Student complains that “it is precisely because the bill tries to address every issue at once that it is unworkable.” To this, the Teacher appends, “Contradicts earlier statement,” with an arrow up to his first comment.

Note the sleight of hand. The first comment infers a similarity between the Student’s desires and a Senate bill that the Teacher says addresses the Student’s concerns. The cogency of the Teacher’s second comment—that a criticism of this same bill’s “unworkability” makes no sense if the student is supportive of it—depends entirely on the validity of the first comment. Obviously, this particular student would emphatically deny that his desires are satisfied by the Senate bill, and there’s nothing in a phrase like modernize our visa system to meet the needs of our economy that says any such modernization in the bill is adequate to meet those needs. In other words, in the guise of correcting the Student’s “contradiction,” the Teacher here is actually debating the student on the effectiveness of the Senate bill.

Also in the second paragraph, the Student claims that the Senate bill is “inadequate, unfair, and unfixable.” “Don’t rely on the ‘Rule of Three’ to make your argument,” the Teacher notes. I had to look this one up. I was never taught to write that mechanistic lump of gruel known as the five-paragraph essay, and so I’ve been blissfully ignorant of phrases like this one, which WyzAnt Tutoring describes as the crucial element of effective academic writing. From my new knowledge and the Teacher’s comment, I take it that listing inadequate, unfair, and unfixable is not enough to prove those claims; that the Student should have devoted one paragraph to how the bill is inadequate, one to how it is unfair, and so on. Makes sense.

But in fact—astonishment of astonishments—it seems the Student has done just that. Moreover, scrutinizing what this Student apparently means by those terms is even more enlightening than dismissing them as unargued claims. In the paragraph on inadequacy, the Student overstates the length of the Senate bill and complains that any bill that tries to solve the whole problem will end by solving nothing. In the paragraph on unfairness, the Student complains that the Senate process itself was unfair, a sort of bait-and-switch after a claim of the bill’s being unfair (presumably to non-Senatorial Americans). In the paragraph on unfixability, the Student makes it clear that the bill cannot be fixed because he and his party will refuse to work together to fix it.

Finally (for my purposes here, not for a complete discussion of the Teacher’s markup, which nails all sorts of bloviation in the letter), the Student finds no justification for linking the “significant undertakings” of different sorts of reforms to each other in one large bill. The Teacher brands this an “incorrect statement.” “Unless all issues are addressed,” he writes in the margin, “the system remains broken.” Now there’s a lively debate topic. But the statement itself, which is an assertion of judgment rather than a claim of fact, surely cannot be incorrect. Again, the devil is in the details. In this more or less concluding statement, the Student’s exact phrase is “no reasonable justification” (italics mine). The Teacher supplies a justification that begs the question, since he finds his comment reasonable whereas the Student might not.

Don’t get me wrong. Cassidy’s letter is full of hot air, preaching to the choir, utterly solipsistic—in other words, political grandstanding, not a reasoned argument. But what strikes me here is that, despite his 24 years as a high-school teacher, Takano’s so-called markup is also not (or not entirely) a teacherly response, because it plays politics as well. Looking at it from the point of view, not of a constituent wanting legislation to move forward, but of a colleague learning from a peer, I am reminded of two things. The first is how swayed our students are by language like Cassidy’s, so they find themselves again and again opting for over-the-top adjectives (inadequate, unfair, unfixable, unworkable, significant, secret, underhanded) in place of persuasive argument. The second is how tempting it is to respond in terms of what their empty claims seem to us to imply. Our students aren’t necessarily making that implication, because, like Cassidy, they aren’t consciously implying anything other than the hope that the reader—the teacher, the grader—will find them firm, forthright, and convincing (there’s a Rule of Three for you) and grant them an A.

We do, in other words, get Cassidys among our students. And if we were in the U.S. Congress, it might be worthwhile to perform as Takanos. But we aren’t in Congress; we’re in the classroom. And there are no soapboxes here.

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