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The Authentication of Knowledge in the Academy:
Grades and Letters of Recommendation

Infamous Grades and Letters of Rec
Forms to Help Communicate Learning

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: June 28, 1999
E-mailFaculty on the Site.

Authentication as an Interactive Project
The Gifts of Hierarchy and Our Comfort with Labelling
Our Rage at the Arrogance and Injustice of Labelling
How to Measure Learning
Forms to Guide Us Through Interactive Measures of Learning
Authentication and the Discourse of Disbelief

Authentication of Knowledge as a Necessarily Shared Project

Draft for Text on the Identity Narrative of Learning
by jeanne curran and Susan R. Takata
Copyright, June 1999

There are some solid theoretical reasons for preparing attestations of competence (awards, honors, letters or recommendation) interactively. By "interactive" we mean that both students and faculty must actively contribute their perceptions, perferrably at the discourse table. When the teacher attempts to assess who knows what, there are impenetrable barriers. Peer knowledge is very different from the front stage behavior exhibited to teachers as is also the dyadic behavior exhibited by a specially chosen student to mentor. Ryan's research, going way back to the early 70s, showed how unable teachers were to predict who would choose to work with whom. Students are people. They are complex. They are many shifting images of their identities, not all of which the teacher has the chance to see. The commuter campus of the millennium is particularly a problem, since our students are more turn by different facets of their identity than ever before.

The teacher catches one image. The persona to which she/he has been privy, and that as one of the many students with whom she/he has interacted. A theory as old and classic as Kurt Lewin's psychological life space is adequate to remind us that the student sees his/her own interaction differently, as placed at center stage. For the teacher trying to fit evaluative reports or letters of recommendation into a crazy quilt of other tasks, that student is peripheral. Thus, a fair and accurate authentication is more likely to come of shared perceptions.

But this is the same advice we gave years ago on career planning. If you do not tell your supervisor, in clear terms that he/she cannot be hear, how well you are doing, when time comes for promotions, your name is less likely to come up. Books by the American Management Association will tell you that one of the great myths of the market place is work hard and you will be rewarded. Make sure that your supervisor knows that you work hard, and that that hard work fits into his/her agenda, and you will be rewarded. Well, maybe, depending on lots of other variables.

On the job, ratings are often more informal. You'll have to do them over coffee. But if you've thought them out as thoroughly as a request for a recommendation, then you'll be able to take advantage of the time shared over that next cup of coffee. Surely you would not say to your supervisor, "Well, whatever you think of my work." And let it go at that? No, no, no. You want input. Well thought out, concise, honest input. Preferably over time, not the day you here a promotion is coming up.

We'll gradually add detail to this section. The following sources will be cited in detail, though most of you will recognize them as works to which we regularly refer in the discussion of discourse skills.

Purposes of authentication: the academy should give first priority to its own needs, which are:

What about cheating? Only likely if you use tests, and we know what we think about tests. Fudging, misrepresenting. If the authentication is developed, as it should be, over time, and if the teacher is an expert in the field, and if the measures we have sought are largely verifiable so that results can be reproduced and predictions made, which is really what industry has been asking for, not grades per se, then cheating is not possible because the authentication is interactive and continuously verified. In Habermasian terms, as I understand them, we will have created a learning as opposed to a non-learningauto-poietic sub-system. That means that when many people fail a given ritualized test, instead of punishing those who fail and those who give the test, we look to the underlying unstated assumptions to develop better measures and conceptualization of the variables. Of course, it is easier to blame the students who fail and the teachers who give the test. Many of them are even unsophisticated enough to agree with you (Blalock throroughly describes the low-quality academic training that leads to this inability to defend their own intelligence); and it is always easier to build a non-learning auto-poietic sub-system. Does away with much of the complexity of thinking and active subjects (or objects, depending on your theoretical orientation).

What about grade curves? Well, if you want to adjudge a small percentage of our student population as As, and recognize that those As are harder to get the more elitist the school because the more support the teachers have, the more homogeneously well-trained the student body, the more discrimination between good, better, best, and leave the rest of the population out there. Go for it. Then you support all the incompetents. That is a patently stupid argument in terms of how the grades are assigned and in terms of their purpose. Wake up!


  1. Ryan's work was au courant at UCLA in the mid 60s. It had shown that teachers were highly inaccurate in the predicting sociometric patterns in their classes, such as who enjoyed working with whom, who would be willing to work with whom again. Cohen used some of this in her work with junior high students on altering status characteristic discrimination on the basis of race.

    We need to check recent developments in this area, but the overall predictive ability of the teacher as a face-to-face group member for whom front stage behavior is often reserved, and who is not included in most of the backstage dyadic flow between members, should not have altered. If anything, teachers at all levels, have been increasing the distance between themselves and students, in keeping with the supervisorial trend of the labor market. (References here to David M. Gordon and to Craig Calhoun on the "supervised society".)

Forms to Guide Us Through Interactive Measures

Draft for Text on the Identity Narrative of Learning
by jeanne curran and Susan R. Takata
Copyright, June 1999

As we noted earlier, learning is a factor in our identity. For one thing, our identity is learned. So how we learn affects who we discover we are and who we become. But in an even more important sense learning, our tolerance of the ambiguity of knowledge, our tolerance of different perceptions, our choices to remain open or closed to other concepts, all are essential components of who we are. And we don't just happen to be who we are, we become who we are within a social context. So there is a narrative for each of us, a narrative that may fit the normative pattern or may not. Certainly there is a gendered narrative that differs from the normative pattern drawn from patriarchal societies, and certainly there is an ethnic narrative that differs from the privileged Western normative pattern.

We, of the Dear Habermas project, must operate to share the skills of public discourse within a limited university support system, and within an educational environment largely hostile to complexity and the sophisticated methodology needed to describe that complexity. It is easier to give a test and have done with it. But that is not our project. On the other hand, we have worked on this project for years, and we have data to guide us. We have listened, carefully, and in good faith, to the narratives of learning our students have told. We believe that, at this point in our development, as a country, and as a discipline, and as participants in a realtively uncharted venture, that the collection of individual stories matters.

Several years ago we convinced our students to write, and they did, and we were inundated, and did not know what to do with the results. But our students were writing, and that was good. Our students have continued to write, but never as we predict. Always we respond, and always they shift once again. We try to focus, for if we are to develop testable hypotheses, we must limit the variables, we must move past the stories. Barney Glaser is right. Story talking is delightful, but we must solve some of the social issues we face, beyond the conceptualization that fascinates us.

But story talking is where it must begin. Let us give you two examples: