“Objective” Grading as a Strategic Ritual

During an interesting conversation with a colleague and friend about pedagogical issues and the use of WordPress, the topic of “objective” grading came up.  In this context, it appeared to be shorthand for things that could be counted–blog posts, comments, perhaps multiple choice responses.  Being a sociologist of media, I always cringe a bit at the use of “objectivity” to describe such efforts.  That’s because media sociologists long ago debunked the notion of objectivity in journalism, pointing out its historically specific origins.

One of the classics in this area is Gaye Tuchman’s 1972 article, “Objectivity as a Strategic Ritual,” which summarizes in its abstract (using the gendered language of the day):

The newspapermen studied believe they may mitigate such continual pressures as deadlines, possible libel suits, and anticipated reprimands of superiors by being able to claim that their work is “objective.” This article …shows that in discussing content and interorganizational relationships, the newsman can only invoke his news judgment; however, he can claim objectivity by citing procedures he has followed which exemplify the formal attributes of a news story or a newspaper. For instance, the newsman can suggest that he quoted other people instead of offering his own opinions. The article suggests that “objectivity” may be seen as a strategic ritual protecting newspapermen from the risks of their trade. It asks whether other professions might not also use the term “objectivity” in the same way. (p. 660)

My conversation today reminded me of this classic piece and had me wondering if we can usefully think of “objective” grading as a strategic ritual, protecting instructors from the anticipated rebuke of students and (for junior faculty) anticipated criticism of tenure committees.

My curiosity led me back to the article for the first time in years and I found some very useful discussions.  For example, Tuchman (661) describes rituals in this way:

A ritual is discussed here as a routine procedure which has relatively little or only tangential relevance to the end sought. Adherence to the procedure is frequently compulsive. That such a procedure may be the best known means of attaining the sought end does not detract from its characterization as a ritual.

This certainly seemed potentially applicable to how instructors might use “objective” grading in classes.

Further, Tuchman (661) notes that invoking objectivity can be understood as a type of performance strategy.  In this context:

“The term ‘strategy’ denotes tactics used offensively to anticipate attack or defensively to deflect criticism. Objectivity as strategic ritual may be used by other professionals to defend themselves from critical onslaught.”

Again, this seemed usefully applicable to the case of objective grading.

And then, in re-reading the article, I realized my association with teaching had already been made by Tuchman late in the piece.  Citing Everett Hughes’ discussion of ritual, Tuchman (676-677) notes that her study:

…supports Everett Hughes’s contention (1964, pp. 94-98) that occupations develop ritualized procedures to protect themselves from blame. He notes, “In teaching,” an occupation like journalism, “where ends are very ill-defined–and consequently mistakes are equally so–where the lay world is quick to criticize and to blame, correct handling becomes ritual as much as or even more than an art. If a teacher can prove that he has followed the ritual, blame is shifted from himself to the miserable child or student; and failure can be and is put upon them” (pp. 96, 97).

An interesting way to think about the topic, I think.

None of this is to say I’ll necessarily stop using assessment measures that can be easily quantified, including suggested word counts on writing assignments and multiple choice quizzes.  These can be marshalled in the cause of efficiency, especially when teaching larger numbers of students, though they are certainly only one small element of assessment.  (See Enoch Hale’s recent helpful discussion of assessment.) But Tuchman’s work is a useful reminder that labelling such efforts as “objective” obscures their social construction.