Language & Composition

Mr. Eure | Brewster High School

DAMAGES+ Post-Mortem

We need to start with a quiz.

Many of you will panic at “quiz,” and a small percentage will answer that panic with an attempt to cheat; this is so common that is not really up for debate, nor is the systemic cheating in this building really the point. I bring it up only so that I can also tell you that this quiz will not be entered into THE ALMIGHTY GRADEBOOK. It is being given as part of a lesson on writing rubrics and grading.

The quiz: Write the eight categories that comprise our course’s writing rubric. Take no more than 60 seconds to do this. When you are ready, click to continue reading.

Now count up the number of categories you have correct using one of the DAMAGES+ guides found here. As we generate a score for this quiz out of 100 points, keep the following in mind: There is a direct connection here between points lost and missing knowledge. This will be important in a moment.

Multiply the number of incorrect or missing categories by 13 (rounding up from 12.5 points per answer). Subtract that from 100, and write that score at the top of the page. Now that we have a grade, we can conduct a post-mortem—a kind of artifact autopsy that will tell us exactly what happened.

On a quiz like this—a recall quiz—the score reflects how effectively you read and studied the material. In this case, the score reflects how well you learned the basics of the rubric over the four days you had to do so. The score might also reflect your basic ability to memorize information, your native intelligence, and how you perform under pressure; recall quizzes are relatively straight-forward, however, and that makes the post-mortem relatively straight-forward. This will also be important in a moment.

If you have a very low score, you’ll reach a simple conclusion through basic deduction, because low scores on a recall quiz usually reflect a lack of time and effort in studying. And if you didn’t study, that’s the finding of your post-mortem: You need to study.

Let’s say that you’re one of the people who scored an 87. The direct connection between points lost and missing information tells us all we need to know: An 87 means that you missed one category. A 74 means that you missed two categories. In that case, the post-mortem starts with a series of easy questions: Which categories did you miss? Why couldn’t you remember?

If you were confused by the two “A” categories, that’s your post-mortem: Review the two “A” categories. If you couldn’t remember the “+” category, you have to ask a follow-up question: Why? Was it that it doesn’t start with a letter, removing it from the mnemonic? If so, that’s your post-mortem: Focus on the information outside of the mnemonic. If you missed everything but the DAM, that’s your post-mortem: Recognize and review the important information from the secondary pieces of the rubric.

When you know that there is a direct and straightforward connection between a score and a skill or knowledge, you don’t have to work hard to diagnose the problem, nor is it difficult to adjust. Writing, unfortunately for you, is nothing like the quiz you’ve just taken.

An adequate response to the summer assignment has been shared with you, alongside all of the DAMAGES+ resources distributed in class, through Google Docs:

Navigate to the Model Papers folder. That essay happens to have earned an 87, the same score that some of you will have just earned on this mock quiz. Before we continue, note that the writers of model papers should be considered resources. I leave them anonymous because of the inevitable resentment; should you recognize a peer’s work, however, do not resent him or her. It makes you look petty and selfish, especially in a course that is built around collaboration.

Back to the paper that earned an 87. What does that 87 tell us?

Well, the first response ought to be what it doesn’t tell us: It doesn’t tell us that the paper lost 13 points. That is not how papers work, nor how they are scored. You do not begin with 100 points, nor is there a set of requirements to divide into 100 points. The eight categories of the rubric don’t even contribute equally to a score like this; detail, arrangement, and meaning always matter more than grammar and style (although style is inexorably linked to meaning). No, what this 87 tells us is the paper’s relative effectiveness in answering the prompt.

Essay writing, to put it briefly, is about aggregate effectiveness. You earn points for what you do well, and then you are penalized for certain errors or deficiencies, depending on the context of the writing and any particular guidelines from the prompt. For this prompt, some of the particular focuses were the use of sources, MLA requirements, and the quality of the essential question. The only absolute scale in that idea of effectiveness—whether a response is effectiveadequatelimitedinadequate, or ineffective. Those terms are interpreted through and mapped onto different scales, from the traditional 100-point grade to a six-point Regents Exam rating.

Now we can talk about your essays from the beginning of the year. Using your score, the rubric, and some of my comments, you will conduct a post-mortem on this essay. You can write that post-mortem in some form in your compendium, leaving it there for the next writing assignment you complete. This does not mean trying to understand every error. It means identifying, so to speak, the cause of death—or, to put it less morbidly, it means identifying what happened to this essay before it stopped being a living document.

Some examples:

If you did not budget your time during the week set aside for writing a response to this prompt, that’s your post-mortem: Figure out how to insure that doesn’t happen again, no matter what other commitments you have.

If you didn’t do the summer work back during the summer, that’s your post-mortem: Figure out how to insure that you don’t miss formative or foundational steps, regardless of the many legitimate reasons you might have had to do so.

Those are two issues outside of the words on the page, but a post-mortem looks at everything; for some of you, the most critical issue is time and schedule management, and until you solve that problem, the words on the page must be secondary. Diction and arrangement and source work can wait.

Most of you, of course, will want to focus on the words on the page. Perhaps you are one of the many papers lacked effective source work. In that case, your post-mortem might be to determine if you used the writing resources made available to you. Did you read the short guide to synthesis writing? Did you revisit the conversations online, especially the final discussion of Carr? If not, that’s your post-mortem: Figure out how to use class resources more efficiently and effectively.

If you did use those resources, yet your source work was insufficient, then your post-mortem is different: You must figure out how to structure your writing around a thesis that blends sources instead of chopping summary and analysis into disjointed paragraphs. But you must first recognize that (1) that may not be immediately obvious, and (2) all deficient skills take time and practice before they improve.

Regardless of what focus your post-mortem takes, here is what you don’t do:

  1. Obsess about the score.
  2. Take the score personally.
  3. Demonize your teacher.
  4. Helplessly ask, “Why did I get this score?”

And here is why you don’t do those things:

  1. This is one score in a sea of them. This is a college-level course. It is only first quarter. You have a certain number of points per quarter to spend inflating scores like this, so you can artificially create the score you want. Most importantly, obsession does not help you analyze or reason out how to improve your writing; obsession feeds itself, and it leads to a kind of self-defeating hyper-ideation.
  2. This is not a personal attack. It is a clinical assessment of the effectiveness of one writing artifact. Personalizing the feedback and score as an attack will short-circuit almost any attempt to improve. Learn amenability now; it is the most important quality a student can develop in academics, but it is even more important in the work force (and even, as you will learn, in relationships).
  3. Demonizing the source of unpleasant truths is a kind of logical fallacy, and you use it when you want a cheap and easy way around hard work. If the source of the unpleasant truth is just a mean old ogre, then the conclusion reached by that source is invalid. But this is illogical. There is no “hard” or “easy” grading; there is accurate and inaccurate grading, and accuracy rests on two things: the skill of the teacher, and the teacher’s motivation. If your teacher is unskilled, he might grade inaccurately. If he is motivated by your feelings—by making you feel good or bad—then he might grade inaccurately. But a skilled teacher motivated to improve your performance does not care if you are happy or sad; he cares if you understand.
  4. You are not helpless. You have a rubric that was created from an exhaustive study of dozens of other writing rubrics. You have guides to writing unpacked from that rubric. You have scores and commentary connected to that rubric and those guides. And you have several papers from this year that earned scores in the 80s—i.e., adequate responses to the prompt—to compare to your own work. You can conduct a post-mortem assessment of your weaknesses, and you can begin to transform those weaknesses into strengths.

#4 does not, however, mean that you are on your own. The argument here is that the fountains of red ink on many essays coddle and perhaps even infantilize you (even if it also stings a bit), because that sort of commentary does the thinking and connective analysis for you. You do what it says, and that is transcription, not revision. But if a thorough post-mortem baffles you, or if you are overwhelmed by what you find, then it might be that you need one-on-one help. In that case, you can conference over your writing in multiple ways, including over email and through Google Docs.

No, #4 means only that you are forbidden from immediately and reflexively demanding an explanation. It means only that you must be mature enough to shunt your emotional upset and displeasure to the side. You are smart enough to know how destructive that emotional reaction is. You are old enough to see the dangers of entitlement. And you are not that helpless.

On to the steps you must take to complete this post-mortem:

  1. Study your scores and any feedback.
  2. Read your essay again.
  3. Unpack the meaning behind each score, using as much specific detail from your paper as possible.
  4. Read the model paper.
  5. Conference with others, including your teacher, as necessary.
  6. Write a post-mortem that identifies the biggest problems.
  7. Identify in that post-mortem how to avoid those problems in the future.

For #3, you are required this time to copy over the exact language from the rubric—the grid breakdown of DAMAGES+ located here—for every single category. This will be collected and checked in, giving you a way to improve your post-mortem (and earn another grade to boost your average).

Final note: You will be quizzed constantly on this rubric. The quizzes will cover everything from the adjectives used in the grid to the examples used in the guide. Study it constantly from now on.


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