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In 1923, a project was initiated to normalize the grading of essays and to minimize biases in this process. Graders were given four example essays of various proficiencies that were meant to serve as scoring guides to help graders assign a score from 1 to 10. This sort of grading is still used by modern schools to compare students’ performance while simultaneously monitoring whether each student is actually reaching the standards set in place. This sort of surveillance over the students’ performance supports Michel Foucault’s argument of a disciplinary structure that keeps order amongst people through the control over “production of knowledge and skills in school” in our society (303). This rigid assessment is analogous to the Panopticon- a watchtower structure utilized in prisons that allows the guard to see all prisoners simultaneously but prevents prisoners from seeing each other and from knowing when they are being watched. Using the Panopticon as a metaphor for modern grading as applied to these four 1923 essays demonstrates that this method of evaluating students is fundamentally flawed and is unhealthy for society due to the prejudice on which it is based.
An analysis of each of the four 1923 essays is required to accurately assess the general rubric that was used to grade the students’ essays. The prompt for these essays asked students to consider a time that they learned a lesson. The essays are placed in order of ascending grade, with the first essay receiving the lowest score and the fourth essay receiving the highest. In the first essay, many key components are found to be missing. For example, several words are spelled incorrectly, such as “owt” and “minnutes” (Essay 1). Moreover, the grammar of the entire piece is rarely correct. There are several instances of punctuation and capitalization errors. In fact, these spelling and grammar errors are so prevalent throughout the essay that they suggest severe gaps in education, as opposed to simple careless errors. Although the piece is quite short, it does effectively respond to the prompt as the student describes learning to not “[chew] tobacco” (1). Regardless, the general spelling and grammar is sub-par, which explains why it received the lowest grade. The second essay has significantly fewer spelling and grammar errors, and it is generally a cleaner piece compared to the first essay. However, even though it is a substantially longer piece, it hardly responds to the prompt. This student does not actually explain what lesson she learned. Moreover, most of the essay is spent giving overly descriptive explanations of menial tasks, such as how to open a door. Overall, this piece has objectively better spelling and grammar, but it fails to clearly respond to the prompt, which explains the mediocre grade. The third essay, although substantially shorter than the second essay, actually responds to the prompt. The student explains learning a lesson of not “indulging in [soft drinks, ice cream, and other good things]” (3). Moreover, the student has no spelling errors and minimal grammar errors. However, the student has many short and choppy sentences, which are not stylistically effective. The student also could have elaborated on her lesson to make the essay more understandable. All of these factors combine to give the student a slightly above average score. The fourth student’s essay has none of the errors or issues seen with the previous students’ essays. This student’s grammar and spelling are impeccable, and the sentence structure is relatively complex. The student’s narrative also accurately responds to the prompt, as it clearly demonstrates what the writer learned. Specifically, he gained “a new understanding” about poorer children, and his experience with Miss Marson “modified [his] judgement of human conduct” (4).
In the grading of these essays, it is abundantly clear that the most important quality of a piece is the grammar and spelling. Fewer mechanical errors are directly correlated with a higher score. The next most important quality of the piece is the subject matter of the essay, and how well it actually responds to the prompt. The first essay seems to defy this though, as it clearly states how the narrator learned the lesson of not “[chewing] tobacco,” yet it received the lowest score possible (1). This deviation is likely due to the subpar mechanics, and this shows that mechanics have a greater weightage compared to the subject matter. Other characteristics, such as sentence structure and other stylistic additions appear to have a lower impact on the score. Length does not appear to have a high impact on scoring either, which differentiates this grading schematic from modern standardized testing rubrics. For instance, the second essay is substantially longer than the third, but because its overall topic does not quite respond to the prompt, it still receives a lower grade. However, the fourth essay is both the most stylistically pleasing and the longest response out of the four pieces, so it appears that these typically increase with the score anyways, even if they are not specifically accounted for in the rubric. It is possible that these are primarily used in differentiating higher scoring essays, but this cannot be extrapolated based on the given sample essays. Overall, the main topics used to grade essays are mechanics (grammar and spelling) and subject matter, and style and length appear to have a lower impact on grading, yet they may still be considered in the grading process.
The rubrics used today are strikingly similar in format to those used to evaluate these 1923 essays and represent a panoptic approach to academic evaluation. The Panopticon itself is an architectural structure in a prison that consists of a tower and rings of cells circling this tower. The prisoners know that the tower exists, but the structures of the Panopticon prevents them from seeing other prisoners and the guard in the tower from their cells. Theoretically, the guards from within this tower have the ability to look out at any given moment to see any prisoner. This structure essentially forces prisoners to always act as the guards desire them to act, otherwise they will be punished. As Foucault notes, the prisoners become “caught up in a power situation of which they themselves are the bearer” (Foucault 288). The Panopticon does not only apply to prisons, however, as it can be applied to nearly any structured society, including academic evaluations used in 1923 and modern times. Like the prisoners, students have a limited visibility, as they have no knowledge about who is actually judging their work in modern standardized exams– they only know that the judgement will happen at some point in time. The “guards,” or graders in this scenario, have a limited knowledge of the prisoners, which leads to a significant disconnect between the guards and each prisoner. The disconnect between the two causes issues when considering the effect of the panoptic structure on students’ performance — students are forced into a particular standard of performance with little knowledge of their evaluators, which can be detrimental overall to their work.
Foucault primarily argues that the Panopticon’s disciplinary mechanisms exist to make society more efficient and functional, although “nonreversible subordination of one group of people by another” will occur as a result (305). This sort of asymmetric suppression of individuals through panopticism is demonstrated in the scoring of the essays. For instance, consider the first student and his mechanically poor essay. His battle with tobacco suggests that he comes from a lower socioeconomic level compared to others. This is further exemplified by his diction, as he uses such slang as “popo bush” (Essay 1). This student’s lack of a significant education is heavily evident through his poor use of standard language mechanics. On the other hand, the student with a score of 6 appeared to have enough money such that he was able to live comfortably, as seen by his ability to purchase enough junk food to the point of making him sick. The student with the highest score actually notes that he was so wealthy that he had a difficult time relating to fellow students who happened to be poorer. It is evident that higher scores tended to be correlated with the wealthier students, which indicates the existence of some asymmetric suppression of the less wealthy. Indeed, this panoptic structure aligns with the main goal of the Panopticon, which Foucault suggests to be “non-egalitarian and asymmetric” in power (305). It is important to recognize that these scores are not entirely arbitrary and meaningless either: a student with low scores could be disqualified from opportunities that he would have been qualified for if only he had higher scores. For example, a student who does not follow through with the structure would tend to receive worse grades, which would lead to restricted opportunities for higher education. This lack of a significant higher education would then directly affect the student’s later life, as the student would likely have a restricted job market open to them. These sorts of repercussions serve as motivation for students to abide by the Panopticon’s disciplinary tactics. Schools can be seen as representations of a Panopticon, as they use discipline through both “hierarchizing individuals” and “disqualifying and invalidating” students who perform poorly. Students are shaped to write in some standard way that is deemed acceptable by certain administrators and others in positions of power.
However, it is worth noting that Panopticism has its limits. Not everyone is actually forced to reach the standards set in place by the rubric and scoring guidelines. Consider the first student; the fact that a student who has existed in the panoptic structure for over a decade could have such subpar mechanics demonstrates that the Panopticon does not have as much power as it suggests. This student has managed to get through all of his required schooling without ever conforming to the rubric set in place. However, even though this student manages avoid actually meeting the standards, he is still bound to face the restrictions set up beyond the Panopticon itself, such as reduced job opportunities. Regardless, if this student desired to go into a profession that does not involve anything the Panopticon can directly affect, they would be able to successfully escape the structure. For example, consider a student who performs poorly in school simply because he wants to become a farmer on his family’s countryside estate instead; there is nothing the panopticonic structure can do to detrimentally affect this student for performing poorly in school.
Panopticism in schools is an example of a social structure being taken over by this prejudiced, although efficient, form of discipline. It has gotten to the point that today, our society is fundamentally and thoroughly panoptic. Schools are not the only places where panopticism has significant effects. Adults who emerge from a panoptic school system are generally successful if they obey and conform to the panoptic structure. These experts in normality propagate an infinite loop of panopticism, and its asymmetries will continue to spread through society. As panopticism engrains itself in our society, the only way to stop any further infestation must begin with taking advantage of the limits of Panopticism and not conforming to the pressures it places on individuals.
- Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism.” 1975. Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers, by David Bartholomae et al., Bedford/St.Martin’s, Macmillan Learning, 2017, pp. 279–309.
- Unknown, Students. How I Learned A Lesson.
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