CSULB’s Writing Proficiency Exam: from Instrument of Mediocrity to Instrument of Excellence?

Can CSULB’s Writing Proficiency Exam (GPE / WPE) find a path from Instrument of Mediocrity to Instrument of Excellence?

Mediocrity

My University’s Writing Proficiency Exam enforces mediocrity not just in itself, but in student work more generally. It is a terrible instrument. An alienating, high-pressure, low-reward, hoop to be jumped through. Is there some path to move this instrument of mediocrity toward an instrument of excellence?

Fear

Students fear the GPE (nee WPE). It’s a high-pressure, low-reward exam. I’d like to see more aspects of education be just the opposite: low-pressure & high-reward. The fewer aspects of university life that carry the dread of failure as a human being, the better. Let’s have fewer giant steps with cataclysmic consequences, and lot of small steps:

  • Take a small step
  • Achieve
  • Take another step

When you fail at a small step, you learn and try again. No big deal. That’s what education should be. Lots of no-big-deal steps that add up to a life-transforming experience.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

Students are brilliant at ruthlessly extracting the minimum requirements for achieving a given task. It’s an incredibly cynical approach to one’s own education, but it’s hard to argue that it’s the student’s fault that we’ve arrived here.

In our micro-capitalist college experience, money is replaced with points & grades. Just as capitalism inevitably replaces intrinsic motivators like achieving meaningful goals or becoming a more complete human being, with extrinsic motivators like making a lot of money and buying ever bigger things, so college replaces large goals like building a career, with small goals like points and grades. In the 12 years that I’ve taught at CSULB there’s never been a semester where students asked me more questions about Art than they asked about Points & Grades.

Secret Work

With the Writing Proficiency Exam, there aren’t even points and grades to be had, just a box checked for one more hoop jumped through. Oh, there is the fear of failure: don’t pass and you’re subject to one or more extra semesters of writing classes. These classes will probably help the student, but they’re still extra classes for “failing” the exam.

What if you pass?

Well, nothing if you pass! You’ll be told some number between 11 and 18. If you get an 11 you might be told that it’s “barely passing” but who cares, hoop jumped through, move on to next hoop! If you get an 18 you might be told that you essay was excellent, but again, who cares, only three human beings have read, or ever will read, your work. Not only will no other eyes ever be allowed to see your great essay, but I think (not certain) that the student-author doesn’t even get their essay back. It’s literally throw-away writing.

The Saddest Day in my University Life

In the 12 years I’ve taught at Long Beach State University, there is one day that sticks out as the saddest. I saw a student do something that just crushed me. It turns out it wasn’t my student, and it wasn’t my class, but it was still so disappointing to see.

For many years I taught in our large, University Theatre. One day I entered during the 15-minute interval between the previous class and mine, to find students retrieving graded papers from their instructor. I saw one student fetch his paper, look at the red letter drawn on the top-right of the 1st page as he walked up the aisle of the theater, and then as he reached the top of the aisle he crumbled the paper and tossed it in the waste basket there.

He crushed his paper,

but my heart was crushed!

What a waste! What a waste of human time, effort, and intellect. That was the day that I decided to become an evangelist for Student ePortfolios.

Since that day I’ve forced thousands of students to at least start ePortfolios of their work. When I saw that student throw his work in the trash I wondered if his paper was any good? If it was a good paper, it should live on beyond that moment. If it was a bad paper — what a waste! Why put a few hours in writing crap, when a bit more time could give you something to be proud of? Something worthy of putting in your ePortfolio?

I don’t want to be part of a class, or an institution, that asks students to do busywork.

I’d prefer not to work with students who view their education as busywork.

I do my best to teach useful classes for engaged students. When an engaged student does good work in a useful class, that work shouldn’t be destroyed after it’s graded. It should live on somewhere. Like a blog. A website. An ePortfolio.

photo of a fountain pen and a page of longhand writing
Image: Fraser Institute, Student Essay Contest

Excellence

The CSULB GPE encourages mediocrity. There is no prize for excellent, creative, analytic, out-of-the box thinking. There is only the fear of failure. Students come not to write a great essay, but to play it safe. Not to take risks, but to cover the bases.

I believe that an exam based on the fear of failure and playing it safe, has already failed. Such an instrument doesn’t even belong at the university. In everything a student tries, shouldn’t there at least be the possibility of excellence?

I said that only 3 people ever read these essays. And that there is no prize for excellence.

Why!?

Let’s have a prize! Let’s share the best work with the campus community!

We keep the essay topics, and therefore the essays, secret. Let’s dump that. After an exam is graded, let’s take the best essays, give them prizes, and celebrate them on campus and perhaps beyond.

A Challenge

I think there were about 50 faculty members reading the GPE today. What if each of us pitched in $100. That’d be about $5,000. We could give cash prizes of $2,500, $1,500 & $1,000 to the top essays as chosen by the faculty.

Instead of writing a safe essay that no one will ever read, students can strive to write a truly compelling essay on this term’s topic. Let’s take the university out of the business of giving students hoops to jump through, and into the business of creating opportunities for excellence.

Faculty colleagues: are you ready to write your check?
Students: are you ready to write original, compelling essays?


A squirrel eating a nut underneath a chair at the tables outside The Beach Hut on the CSULB campus
I’m hungry! But the Beach Hut is closed 🙁

Side Note

Many faculty members from across the university campus and I come to campus on a few Saturdays a year to read GPE exams. Lately, after the reading I’ll settle in at a campus coffee shop to write some rant like this one about how in my not-so-humble opinion the GPE is no damn good because…

Since today’s Saturday 8 July, it’s Summer Session at Long Beach State and the campus is pretty quiet. In fact there is no place for me to get coffee because everything is closed. I’m just sitting at the tables outside the closed Beach Hut ranting away. A couple of squirrels came by, asked what I was ranting about this time, and LMK that they would really like something to eat.

It made me wonder:

During the academic year I imagine they get plenty of food. Fallen scraps. Trash cans. Handouts from peeps. But what about Summer? Is Summer the campus squirrel’s Winter? Do they get enough to eat? Do they get anything? Do they starve? Do they die?

No, it’s not Squirrel University, but if we casually feed someone for 9 months, then abandon them for 3 months, are we doing more harm than if we never fed them at all?

Now that I look up from my laptop and out on the quad, I see a bunch of squirrels. Maybe I’m overthinking it. Maybe they’re resourceful. Maybe they’re just fine. I don’t really know. But I’m pretty sure that the GPE should include the possibility of excellence.

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