Inclusive Assessment: The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations Revisited

On April 11, The Telegraph was one of several British Sunday editions to report on the adoption of so-called “inclusive assessments” by some British universities. The University of Hull, a public university responsible for the education of over 15,000 students, was featured prominently in these reports. Hull’s website describes its initiative on a web page titled “Introducing the University of Hull’s Inclusive Assessment, Marking and Feedback Policy.” It will come as no surprise in 2021 to find tenets of Critical Race Theory embedded in the initiative. Thus, we find the following declaration:

Constructing an academic voice means adopting a homogenous North European, white, male, elite mode of expression dependent on a high level of technical proficiency in written and spoken English, a mode of expression that obscures the students’ particularity [sic].

The mandate is positioned as one element of the university’s “Assertive Commitment to Decolonising Curricula.” The web page provides a depressing display of educationist bureaucratese devoted to overturning long-standing standards and practices that are deemed to be too “white” and too “elitist.” Although the web page also enumerates five common-sense “best practices” (as in the banal observation that “assessment allows students to demonstrate they have achieved [course] outcomes/competencies”), these unexceptionable remarks should not distract anyone from the initiative’s radical intentions.

The marching orders are accompanied by hyperlinked material intended to help the Hull professoriate execute the initiative. These include a video mashup of Critical Race Theory buzzwords and therapy-speak. While the video script is read off by a faculty member, one does wonder to what degree these changes are driven by the administration and to what degree they are faculty-led. One finds Dr. Elizabeth Ward, lecturer in German, writing to champion the cause. Ward shows some aptitude for PR phrase-making, characterizing the initiative as “maintaining standards by challenging norms” and perorating with the phrase “difference belongs to diversity, and not to disadvantage.” Elsewhere, one finds a twenty-two-page single-spaced “University Code of Practice Assessment Procedures,” a testament to bureaucratic tedium if ever there was one, but out of the tedium emerges the radical demand for linguistic laissez-faire.

Professors are charged not to take the quality of student writing into account when assigning grades in courses where writing is not the central focus. While this directive makes a certain amount of sense—mastery of knowledge and the ability to apply course content would seem to be the most important elements to assess in any course—it also operates as if there is no relation between clear thoughts and clear presentation of those thoughts. A missing apostrophe in a lab report is one thing. Garbled thoughts and impenetrable grammar are another. The initiative assumes that professors have some special gift that enables them to determine a student’s understanding even when it is badly or inadequately expressed. Professors who teach students whose first language is not English have undoubtedly wished for such a gift, but since such fantasizing is fruitless, encouraging students to improve their English would seem to be a better use of time.

The inclusive assessment initiative is intended to benefit underperforming student groups. The expectation that students from these groups produce standard English is judged to be unfair ipso facto. Underperforming groups include those who do not speak English as a first language, those matriculating from substandard schools, and those with health problems (remarkably, dyslexic students are not mentioned). Surely individual students from these groups ought to be viewed according to the particular problems they present, and any accommodations that they may deserve should vary accordingly, for these students’ problems are actually quite different. Yet here they are lumped together. Apparently as a selling point, professors are told several times that the new initiative will relieve them of thinking about students case-by-case (that is as individuals rather than as members of a sociologically-defined group), but how this lightening-of-the-load will materialize is not explained. In this, as in other assertions, the university provides no examples.

Nowhere is this absence of concrete discussion more evident than in the initiative’s apologia, which emerges from a topsy-turvy view of the university:

The University of Hull will now challenge this [white, Northern European, elitist] status quo. Our learning community will encourage students to develop a more authentic academic voice, a voice that can communicate complex ideas with rigour and integrity – that celebrates, rather than obscures their particular background or characteristics.

This “challenge to the status quo” posits student particularity as of utmost importance—not course material. It also seems to assume that white students have a natural gift for academic discourse, when in reality, it is artificial for one and all. The university provides no definition or examples of student “particularity,” but whatever it means, it is not to be “obscured” by suggestions and corrections that will help the student gain mastery. The general message is clear: professors, you must not require the student to learn proper academic discourse. It is not up to the student to improve; rather, it is up to the professor to adjust to X number of “particularities.”

Nor are there any examples of what “celebrating” a student’s “particular background” would look like in, say, a mechanical engineering project, a chemistry lab report, or an ethnography prepared for Anthro 101. The vision of professors celebrating over a stack of blue books, or fist-pumping while wading through online portfolios or lab reports, is a charming one, but it is hard to imagine that misspellings, grammar errors, or formatting problems are going to induce such joyous moments. Perhaps it would be better to train the still-young, quick, and malleable minds of students into the accepted discourse of the academy, an effort which would have the added benefit of preparing them for the hopes and expectations regarding language use that they will meet once outside it.

The directive does not include (not yet, at least) an equivalent sentence devoted to the course material itself, no sentence that reads, for example, “Constructing understanding of the human endocrine system is a white, male, elite mode of acquiring knowledge that obscures the students’ particularity.” But there is no reason to think that the same dubious, “inclusive” ideology will not be applied at some point to course content. If academic discourse can be viewed as “elitist,” and is therefore to be eschewed, why shouldn’t academic knowledge also be avoided as “elitist”?

Hull is not alone in pushing this version of “inclusion,” which is, at bottom, a deleterious form of condescension. Other British universities have adopted similar mandates, and various oversight boards and agencies are pushing in the same direction. Here is one more blow to standards and one more disservice to students.

Image: summonedbyfells, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, cropped.


Matthew Stewart

Matthew Stewart is Associate Professor of Humanities and Rhetoric at Boston University. He has published in online venues including City Journal, Law and Liberty, New English Review and The James G. Martin Center. He is the author of Modernism and Tradition in Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time.

5 thoughts on “Inclusive Assessment: The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations Revisited

  1. “(remarkably, dyslexic students are not mentioned)”

    It’s not just Dyslexia but various forms of ADHD, notably the Primarily Inattentive variant of ADHD (once known as ADD). And if we are serious about being fair to such students — as well as those students whose first language isn’t English, we need to insist on proper grammar and usage.

    A language — *any* language, be it ASCII or English — is nothing but an agreed-upon set of communication protocols and it is the same thing as agreeing on which side of the road we are going to drive our vehicles on. Here in the US we drive on the right — in England they drive on the left — it really doesn’t matter which side we all drive on as long as everyone agrees that it is the *same* side.

    Students with Dyslexia have problems with things like bdpq — those four lower-case letters are *identical* if you rotate and/or reverse them. And what the student with Dyslexia does (or is taught to do) is use the rules of the language to distinguish between what I call the “flag letters.” If there isn’t a “u” after it, it can’t be a “q” and hence isn’t. Etc…

    Likewise the student with ADHD, particularly Primarily Inattentive ADHD, is always losing about 5% of what she reads. The *only* way she is going to be able to tell is when the grammar is wrong — that what she is now reading doesn’t make sense with what she just read, hence she has missed something, and needs to go back and find it.

    The same thing is true for the ELL (English Language Learner) — that student is like someone driving in a snowstorm and relying on the pavement markings to tell him that he is where he is supposed to be — and as someone who has driven 50 ton trucks in snowstorms, I have relied on the fact that if the yellow line is to my left, *I* am where I am supposed to be. Rules do help….

    Yes, we can turn into grammar nazis quite quickly, and there is a very real equity issue in holding students accountable for what they were never taught. (It falls on *us* to teach it to them because no one else bothered to, but I digress…)

    And what bothers me about all of this is the next logical step, that we no longer expect FACULTY to have correct grammar and usage, and then we descend into the University of Babel…

  2. “The directive does not include (not yet, at least) an equivalent sentence devoted to the course material itself, no sentence that reads, for example, “Constructing understanding of the human endocrine system is a white, male, elite mode of acquiring knowledge that obscures the students’ particularity.”

    I’ve seen it — nearly 30 years ago when David Scott shifted UMass Amherst into what was generally considered to be the most politically correct college in the country at the time. He took the astrophysical concept of the universe being a hollow curved sphere (and the related gravitational attraction of the galaxies on the surface of the sphere) to hold that the heterosexual White male version of all fields is counterbalanced by equally important but different fields on the basis of race, sex, and sexual orientation.

    That race, sex, and sexual orientation would *change* scientific facts. That there were alternative truths which were equally distant and interdependent. Yes, a “Black” version of, say, Chemistry, along with a female one, along with a lesbian one.

    My response to this was simple: If a Black lesbian tribeswoman on the African savanna drops a lit match into a pail of gasoline, how is what happens next any different from if I go out in the dooryard and do it myself?

    Yes, if it is 30 degrees below zero, the first few matches will go out as if dropped into water. (I’ve done this — it’s so cold that the first few matches have to boil off enough gasoline vapor for the next to ignite.) And she may have a different mix of gasoline than I, and will be at least a thousand feet higher than I (less oxygen) and probably other variables as well. But her fingers dropping the match in aren’t going to do anything different from my fingers dropping the match in.

    I never got an answer for this.

  3. I agree with Leif. Matthew Stewart appears to grant that there is such a thing as “proper academic discourse” and, moreover, that it’s a fine thing. In fact, academics write in all sorts of styles and not always do they write well. (Those who write best don’t typically obscure their particularity.) Stewart is right both that creating a clear academic voice is difficult and that professors need to help their students to create theirs. And he’s right that muddled writing is a sign of muddled thinking, not authenticity.

  4. ‘Constructing an academic voice means adopting a homogenous North European, white, male, elite mode of expression dependent on a high level of technical proficiency in written and spoken English, a mode of expression that obscures the students’ particularity.’

    The irony oozing from this statement is rich. When scholars participate in ‘academic discourse’, their prose is almost always impenetrable. Instead of eliminating writing standards, wouldn’t it be better if the scholars themselves learned to write? (They may write academese to mask the mediocre quality of their scholarship, but this no excuse.)

    Note: it looks like the University of Hull pulled the ‘Introducing the University of Hull’s Inclusive Assessment, Marking and Feedback Policy.’ page, but if the sentence above is any indication the authors are no better than their peers.

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