Lying for Fun and Profit
What follows is the paper I presented last Friday at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Atlanta as part of the panel “Reclaiming Our Spaces: Accessibility and the Public University. The other papers on the panel were by Rachel Rigolino and Susan Naomi Bernstein.
Before March 16, I had a perfectly fine presentation all mapped out. I had even created a PowerPoint showing how the sample prompts for the new CUNY Assessment Test in Writing (CATW) present the same old cultural accessibility problems that have dogged standardized entrance exams for more than a generation. I was going to be all high and mighty, showing how we never seem to learn, how our assumptions even in choosing what to us seem to be innocuous prompts and questions keep people out: What may be clear to “us” can be quite confusing to someone with a different cultural background.
I was going to use a quote from Mansfield Park, the Bertram sisters complaining about how stupid their cousin Fanny is. She, of course, has not had the “advantages” they have had. I was going to try, once more, the Sisyphean Task.
On March 16, I realized something that I should have known all along: What we are dealing with is not just a problem of accessibility for people from particular cultures or with needs distinct from those of the majority. That’s acting like Yossarian, tending Snowden’s chills unaware that his stomach is about to slide out. What we are faced with is a growing contortion that affects education at all levels, a contortion of our idea of education and of writing within educational contexts. A contortion that not only places certain students in an academic apartheid but that makes form the end-all, with content becoming an irrelevancy. A contortion not just limiting, but destroying education. And a contortion promoting dishonesty.
What it comes down to is this: Though we professors rail against academic dishonesty, we also encourage lying. Oh, only certain types of lying, but lying, nonetheless… and woe to those who don’t understand the differences between the types! For students whose moral compass has yet to be fully set this adds a level of confusion and distress to an already perplexing and unwelcoming situation. Of course, this has been with us for a long time: Students writing essays for the old CUNY/ACT exam would do better to make up an example or two rather than wracking their brains for instances from their own lives—and we teachers told them so.
This type of exercise is fine for one with a background in creative arts, but that is generally reserved for people from rather well-to-do backgrounds. Yet it is through experience that one learns the difference between lies and stories as defined in any particular cultural situation. Academic settings are no different; without experience, one can end up expelled, never understanding why.
At City Tech, our syllabi all carry a statement of academic integrity. In light of that, in our developmental classes, how are we to explain to the students that they can make things up on certain papers, on the exit exam for the course, but not on others? How are we to explain this to students who have little experience of the conventions of creativity in our society or of the conventions of honesty in scholarship? In fifteen weeks, are we expected to impart both skill in writing and comfort with the nuances of academia, a part of society our students have only experienced at a distance? Impossible.
On the Writing Programs Administration listserv recently, during a discussion of an SAT prompt using Reality TV as the topic, a discussion sparked by the March 16 New York Times article that is also responsible for this paper, Les Perelman, Director of Writing Across the Curriculum at MIT, wrote:
One of the absurdities of the SAT essay grading is the instruction to readers.
The official guide for scorers explains: “Writers may make errors in facts or information that do not affect the quality of their essays. For example, a writer may state ‘The American Revolution began in 1842’ or ‘ “Anna Karenina,” a play by the French author Joseph Conrad, was a very upbeat literary work.’ “
I have had success training students to score 10 (two 5’s) by just making up factual rubbish. A student would not have to know more than what the prompt states about Reality TV shows. He or she could just make up three examples of shows, each one supporting one of the three topic sentences in the body paragraphs. The examples don’t have to be real or even resemble real Reality TV shows. The student would still be supporting each assertion with specific details and examples.
Every time I deal with the College Board, I think that Rod Serling should show up and his voice would tell us that we are now entering . . .
“The Twilight Zone.” That seems where our education has gone. In a later comment on the same discussion string, Perelman wrote, “Many of my students at MIT have told me that they always made up stuff for standardized writing assessments. Paradoxically, that strategy helped get them into MIT, a place where the integrity of data is absolutely sacred.” MIT students, already adept at manipulating the minutiae of American culture, can manage the fiction and the reality; few other students can easily negotiate Perelman’s paradox.
In a later comment on the string, J. L. McClure of Kirkwood Community College in Iowa described the obvious problem:
The main problem I see in this issue is… the lesson it gives to students about the relationship of “writing” to “content.” Over my 35+ years of teaching fyc, I’ve had any number of students who wrote wonderful personal essays that turned out to be, in fact, fiction (and I’d bet most of us on this list have as well). It gets more difficult to bullshit your way, though, through content courses (or work) when content rears its ugly head as the primary criterion for evaluation, rather than not being one at all. And maybe that’s something that should be addressed more clearly in fyc, countering the bullshit strategies students have developed taking these tests and preparing them for what’s to come. That and continuing to point out the flaws of writing test.
So, though students had to learn to lie to get in, we’re somehow to say to them, with a laugh, “Now forget all of that. It’s truth that matters here.” A student from a privileged background is much more likely to be able to provide this “bullshit” early on in a college career, and even to understand the necessity of changing the approach. A less “advantaged” student? Not so much. The result? The bullshitter gets the chance to master content while the other doesn’t get in at all. The “best” students, in our warped system, are those who can master both bullshit and, then, content. Is that really who we should be offering opportunity to? Really? At the expense of those who refuse to be other than honest? Or who don’t know how?
I read this paper to my “Language and Thinking” class Monday. One Chinese student nearly jumped out of her chair, so eager was she to comment. “My friend failed the test three times. She learned in school in China always to be honest and can’t do what they ask on the test. She is depressed and now can’t go to college.”
Don’t get me wrong: Many of my students try to bullshit, too. But they haven’t the skill at it in the context of academic culture that Rita Malenczyk of Eastern Connecticut State University, another contributor to that listserv string argues begins to form in “privileged” kids in elementary school, partly as a result of the standardized tests they are learning to master: “My son Nick, who is now in sixth grade, is a master of making stuff up because he’s been drilled for at least a year and a half to write timed impromptu essays with no advance preparation.” The students from educated families also learn this because their families impress on them the importance of tests and help them negotiate them. Students from less affluent and less educated backgrounds generally end up having to muddle through, understanding neither the importance nor methods of negotiation. Nor the accepted limits to dishonesty, nor even the line between that and “creating.”
Of course, there are long traditions of “respectable” lying, and even of mistaking form for content, deliberately or not. And of seeing the lie as a means to success. Budd Schulberg, just to pull up one example, long complained about young people who would thank him for providing a roadmap to Hollywood fame and fortune in his 1941 satiric novel What Makes Sammy Run? Yes, the problem has been around for centuries. But that’s no excuse for our institutionalizing it on our college entrance exams.
After those stories on complaints about SAT writing-test prompts in The New York Times, a high-school student wrote a letter to the newspaper:
Standardized testing has forced high school students to lose highly important analytical and social skills. Having gone through SAT prep this last year, I can safely say that such programs robotically prepare teenagers through one-size-fits-all formulas: your essay must include two literary examples and one personal example. And if worst comes to worst, use a historical example.
Evidently, when thrown the slightest curveball, nervous test-takers are reduced to tears and incessant whining. While the goal of the SAT essay is supposedly to test teenagers on their writing abilities, colleges shouldn’t accept students who can’t think on their feet about simple, current issues.
Clearly, a test-taker having problems with the SAT essay on reality shows must either be shoving his or her head in books all day or is completely ignoring his or her peers, who are likely discussing such shows.
To the overstressed workaholics of my generation: If you can’t answer the open-ended SAT prompt about a subject popular with today’s youth, I sincerely hope you won’t become my roommate.i
So… the situation is even worse: if you can’t bullshit, you aren’t even worth associating with today’s best college students! One commenter, writing elsewhere, argues, “But people who are outraged about the issue may be missing the point: The essay is supposed to evaluate the test-taker’s writing skills, not his or her knowledge of a topic. To that end, there was more than enough information provided in the question prompt for students to pick a side—you didn’t need to watch ‘Jersey Shore’ or ‘The Bachelor’ in order to answer it.”ii What a concept! All you have to do is know how to bullshit—making the divorce between form and content final.
My students love the movie Catch Me If You Can. Sometimes I think they believe this is actually how people make it, looking the part and relying on native smarts. To my students, mainly immigrants and others from outside the American mainstream, there’s always an aspect of the con in success… or so they’ve seen from their distance. What they now see up close, also success of the bullshitter, only confirms their cynical view of what counts for success in American society. Is it any wonder, then, that they attempt their own acts of dishonesty? Their only problem is that, not knowing the rules, not knowing when it is OK to lie, they get caught more often.
One way or another, the SAT folk certainly don’t care about this aspect of what they are doing. According to The New York Times:
Angela Garcia, executive director of the SAT program, said she did not think it was unfair to ask that question of students who had neither the time nor inclination to watch Mike Sorrentino on “Jersey Shore,” or Kim Kardashian on “Kourtney & Kim Take New York.”
“The primary goal of the essay prompt is to give students an opportunity to demonstrate their writing skills,” she said.
This particular prompt, Ms. Garcia said, was intended to be relevant and to engage students, and had gone through extensive pre-testing with students and teachers. “It’s really about pop culture as a reference point that they would certainly have an opinion on,” she added.
Peter Kauffmann, vice president of communications for the College Board, said that “everything you need to write the essay is in the essay prompt.”
For example, the questions are preceded by an explanatory statement — “These shows depict ordinary people competing in everything from singing and dancing to losing weight, or just living their everyday lives” — as well as an assertion: “Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being misled.”iii
‘Everything you need is in the prompt’? The tools of a good liar are facts. In this case, the facts are the prompt. The world of American success, this again reinforces, is the world of the good liar. Lying, here, is at least what gives one a start in American higher education.
What is bothersome about the writing tests used in gatekeeping by American higher education is that they don’t measure anything particularly useful for educators, colleges, or students, simply measuring student exposure to and attention to cultural standards. What’s so important about the ability to turn a set of clues into a story? Or the skill of constructing an essay of formal cohesion but not necessarily communicating anything at all? Why prove training in writing a type of essay (the five-paragraph theme) that exists nowhere but in schools and some colleges? Other standards would work as well—or better. As the March SAT brouhaha shows, the tests aren’t even used simply to keep out the poor and untrained.”Good, middle-class students” can also suffer, especially if they aren’t interested in reality TV or in learning how to bullshit rather than expressing what they do, in fact, know.
“We’ve got to have standards,” educators say. “We have to be able to measure!” But standards have to mean something; the measurement must reflect more than numbers and promote more than form. The old CUNY/ACT exam was graded on a scale of six. With two graders, that meant the highest grade was twelve. Seven was considered passing. The new CATW, certainly an improvement, is graded through a series of numerical evaluations of differing weight—and the passing score is a 56. Essays are still scored on a scale of six, but in five categories, three weighted double of the others, making a 96 the highest possible score, for there are still two readers.
But more numbers don’t mean greater accuracy.
That aside, we are letting number lull us into a belief that we don’t have to look into anything else, that giving a numerical score puts “paid” to the project. We forget completely about the fallout from what we are doing. And that, in this case, is encouragement of dishonesty.
The CATW, though better than the CUNY/ACT, still discriminates against cultural difference as absolutely as that SAT prompt does against those not involved in American popular culture. And its victims get as little sympathy as that letter-writer gives students who don’t watch reality TV. Though the prompts are supposed to be as neutral as possible, they still contain cultural assumptions and barriers—just as that SAT prompt does. Adding insult to injury, though, they also encourage an attitude towards writing that puts form over content and that sees the lie as a legitimate means of reaching an end.
When, when are we going to stop this nonsense and return to honest education?
i Lisa Lehman, “Letter to the Editor: A Curveball on the SAT,” The New York Times, March 23, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/24/opinion/l24test.html?_r=1&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss.
ii Lylah Alphonse, “Reality TV and the SAT: Did students miss the point of the essay question?” Shine from Yahoo!: Parenting, http://shine.yahoo.com/channel/parenting/reality-tv-and-the-sat-did-students-miss-the-point-of-the-essay-question-2465881/.
iii Jacques Steinberg, “SAT’s Reality TV Essay Stumps Some,” The New York Times, March 16, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/17/education/17sat.html.