The temptation often comes in the form of elegant handwriting. Seeing the alphabet rendered with a caring, skillful hand acts as a salve for the weary essay grader. After deciphering near-illegible scrawls for the previous 40 submissions, you swoon at the sight of well-rounded loops, taut linearity, and balanced proportions.
But you jar yourself from the reverie. The essay question you are evaluating is asking for content, not penmanship style points. And your grading criteria is to check for articulate exposition of that content, both fluent and accurate, not cosmetic eye-candy. You must resist the siren’s call to add 10 or 20% to reward the elegant calligrapher. It’s not a calligraphy contest. You must ignore the superficiality of the surface and dive into the rhetoric.
I know this situation well. I’ve suffered to maintain my objectivity and balance when grading the same essays continuously on up to 300 exams in the past. Many essays are indeed penned in shabby scrawls and you want to punish the miscreant for inducing the inevitable migraine lurking just beyond. But on many occasions I’ve verbalized what the penmanship-challenged author has actually written, muttering it to myself, establishing an aural loop of sorts. And — lo and behold — very often that viscerally shabby dog-eared piece starts to appear thoughtful, intelligent, and articulate! And the eye-candy version may turn out to be the Barbie doll of essays — initially endearing but, on further examination, ultimately jejune and vapid.
The seduction can come in other forms.
It can appear as a voice: a mellifluence of familiarity. It emerges in a role-play test, or some other form of oral assessment. One student actually enunciates word-final Rs. Another produces the various ‘Th’ sounds accurately, without effort. You ears perk up. The student has obviously spent some time abroad and has developed a local familiarity with the language. Somehow, it sounds ‘right’.
A scenario. It is a clinical history-taking role-play but the medical student talks like a Californian teenager:
“So, like, dya have some kinda, like, I dunno, some kind of numbness or something, like?”
The following student attempts the same ‘symptoms’ question, but with a distinct Japanese cadence and a flatter intonation. He says:
“Have you noticed any numbness?”
Now interpersonal and social competencies are essential aspects of communication. And thus, in a role-play, delivery should be a factor in evaluation. And if you were interviewing these students for an English-speaking position in your company, you might well prefer the one with the ‘native touch’, sensing that she is somehow the ‘better English speaker’.
But this is not a placement test for a job. It is a classroom or course-based evaluation on a specific task. So if we are evaluating a student based upon their task performance, and not letting native-like forms tease our sensibilities, the second student should be evaluated higher. Even more so when one considers the immediate purpose of this English training — in this case to become an English-competent doctor. The medic who sounds like s(he) just drove out of a shopping mall in Pasadena does not exactly meet the standards of the medical discourse community.
Seduction can also occur in two other areas.
One is when we have to assess students we know well — maybe they are the ones who often visit your room, are involved in the same extracurricular activities as you, and/or are simply outgoing, personable, and friendly. You’ve already half made up your mind that they’ll be getting a good score.
In my experience though, the tendency is to actually mark these students’ performance more stringently than others, perhaps a result of the disappointment we feel when their classroom performance doesn’t quite live up to our personal expectations. But that basic instinct has to be quelled.
Another seduction can occur when students offer up responses or answers that you find agreeable in terms of content; they seem to be expressing ‘the right thing’. Many teachers (and other evaluators) are already wise to this. When the job interviewee tells you that s(he) wants this job because s(he) has “…had the dream of answering phone calls and filling in Excel files for Yamazaki Trading Corp. since childhood” you smell a rat, and the cloying attempt is likely to backfire.
But not always. A surprising number of teachers can be swayed by students who reiterate the social or politically ‘correct’ thing to say. For example, a well-written, argued, and logically formulated essay or speech proclaiming why Japan (or any other given country) should not allow foreigners to become permanent residents is often likely to receive lower grades from the foreign teacher solely because of its thesis position, rather than the English skills of the writer.
Yet, another writer, who claims that, “Foreign residents should have the exact same rights as citizens,” may be given a superior grade, even if the English writing and rhetoric is inferior, simply based on the surface attraction of the thesis. For many evaluators, this is justified in terms of the criterion of ‘critical thinking’ merely because it stands closer to their own, ‘advanced’, set of values. This is simply ideological seduction. Students can smell it in their teachers and adapt accordingly.
The first means of avoiding student seduction is to recognize that it can and does happen, and indeed that it may be happening to you. Both the purpose of the task and the evaluation criteria must be clear and you constantly must ask yourself if you are in fact adhering to that standard — or if you are being tempted by the sweet fragrance of your students.