On the Appropriateness of Topics for Impromptu Writing Exams

When I expressed, to a group of others teaching developmental writing within the CUNY system, the complaints I had heard from students about the topics they has been asked to write about on the CUNY Assessment Test in Writing (CATW), I got two responses.  One was that the prompt, concerning whether or not amateurs should be continued to be allowed as entrants in the New York City Marathon, was a particular favorite.  The other was a shrug and a comment that students should be able to write in response to any prompt, no matter the topic.

I bit my tongue.  The gathering was collegial and I did not trust myself to be civil.

In terms of what students can do with them, not all prompts are created equal.  The Marathon may seem like a topic open to any writer, no matter their background–after all, running is something most people can do–but it really is not.  For writers from middle-class backgrounds, jogging is something they’ve seen around them since early childhood–and it is likely those writers have even known marathoners.  The races are a known part of life, and topics around them have been floating by since they first started listening to the conversations of adults.  Even the distinction between amateurs and professionals would be a known matter.

It is possible to keep something as a hobby, to the middle class, in a way that is not apparent to immigrants and the poor, to people who need to keep financial survival front and center.  The very idea of amateurism is somewhat foreign, unless one comes from a rather privileged background.  One would not put in the time necessary to get to the point of running a marathon simply for the satisfaction of doing it, were one not from the middle class.  The same goes for other motivations for jogging, including health benefits.  So, the very question posed by the prompt would be more foreign and less accessible to many poor and immigrant students taking the exam, placing a burden on them as writers that others lack.  The question contains a built-in inequity that the teacher who liked it (herself likely a runner, given her appearance) does not understand.

The other response, that students should be able to write on anything, presupposes an ability to engage in academic discourse that many students have never been exposed to, let alone have developed.  Being able to talk or write about anything one comes across results from years of training in language use and in observation.  It is not something brought to college, not by most students, certainly.  Expecting it privileges students from academic families or, at least, households with college-educated parents.

Both of these people were defending a testing regime that is indefensible, anyhow.  Arguing about the specific utility of parts of the test should be seen as beside the point–for the idea of the test itself, mandated by political forces onto CUNY, has no real foundation except as a means of exclusion.  The small, further exclusions within particular manifestations of the test don’t matter much at all.

That said, we all have an obligation to our students to do all we can to prepare them to negotiate the CATW successfully.  It doesn’t matter how we feel about the exam: the students’ futures are on the line.  To help my students, I need to understand the problems they face in even entering into the type of topic they are likely to encounter on the test.  I should never defend the prompt; liking a particular prompt, or resorting to blanket “shoulds,” doesn’t help, but removes me further from being able to assist.  The two teachers who commented aren’t starting where their students are, but (in the first case) where she, the particular teacher, is or (in the second case) from an ideal of what a student ought to be.

As teachers, none of us should be defending the prompts or the test as a concept or barrier.  We should not be invested in the test in any fashion.  Instead, we should be invested in our students, in making sure they are as prepared as we can possibly assist them in becoming by the time they take the exam again (they are in developmental classes for not having passed the last time).  Yet there are many of us, now, who have build careers around the test, and who now give it the priority instead of the student.

That is even more inappropriate than a prompt giving priority to the middle class.

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