Am I an Imperialistic Grader?

by Scott McClelland | South University

Students take grades very seriously. Many times, they stick their personality out there, as well as any content, for professors to examine. In response, we place a quantitative score on a qualitative essay which comes from deep in the student’s heart. So we invented rubrics in the hope that we could justify our quantitative scoring. Rubrics, at least, provide a foundation to guide (and keep in check?) our qualitative responses to a student’s work. But are they enough?

I find it intriguing that virtually every other area of industry and profession has been touched by ­globalization of one sort or another. As Thomas Friedman famously told us, “The World is Flat.”1 We, then, must recognize that our tribal differences often need to take a back seat to a newly forming global culture that—at least at its heart—wishes to create more egalitarian ways of identifying value.2

In the online doctor of ministry program I teach and administer, I have a large number of African- American students. I am not a member of that community, yet it regularly falls to me to grade written work submitted from those whose ministry context is the black church. Often, I detect a sermonic cadence in the papers. These students appear to be creating what I call “sermonic couplets”—two synonyms connected by “and” (“pleased and privileged,” “hopes and dreams,” “methods and ways,” “thoughts and perceptions,” etc.). Although I appreciate a well-preached sermon as much as anyone, the standards of writing efficiency call for using just one word, not two. So I often draw attention to these couplets and tell students that, for academic papers, they need to “write to be read, not heard.” They seem to understand.

But this led me to ask: What standard am I using to grade the non-rubric areas of a student’s paper? No rubric handles all the stylistic aspects of a student’s writing, so there are gaps (at least, I imagine there are) where I am applying a common-sense standard of my own. But, as one of my own professors once told me, “Common sense is not equally common to all.” Where does mine come from?

As a WASP professor with a PhD from the United Kingdom, I imagine I have a bit of a hybrid writing style that tries to blend good old British formality with some casual American wit (you’ll need to be the judge). Where it gets most “proper,” though, is in the area of grammar, since I was constantly being corrected by my U.K. professors reviewing my dissertation. Perhaps I’m operating with that unexpressed “vow” we all take—to wreak upon future students the stress our professors applied to us! “It’s good for them,” and all that.

When I grade a paper by a student from a different cultural mix than my own, am I going beyond the rubric and applying my own criteria that will certainly trip up an uninitiated black pastor? While I think I’m protecting the hill on which Kate Turabian died, am I also subjecting this pastor to ways of writing (“to be read,” remember) that are absolutely foreign to his upbringing and will never be adopted (nor should it be) when he ministers to his own culture?

Dangling prepositions might be something “up with which we shall not put,” but does a pastor really need to translate that principle from her culture to mine in order to get a degree—just so she can go back and retranslate that degree into her cultural communication style? This is, after all, the pragmatic doctor of ministry degree I’m discussing. If I am not assessing students’ ability to minister well in their context of choice, does that not negate one of the purposes of the program?

This goes beyond a black-white issue. Many students in advanced theological programs in North America are from Spanish-speaking and Asian (often Korean) cultures. In response, some seminaries have created programs specifically for those language groups, knowing those students will likely minister within those cultural areas throughout their careers. Are there other “cultural groups” about which we should be similarly sensitive?

After correcting many ­subject/verb disagreements, misplaced apostrophes, and those pesky sermonic couplets, I justify that work as helping my students gain vital practice toward the capstone project they will have to write. I do this because I know I will be grading that work alongside several other professors who are just like me. I wonder, though: Am I being imperialistic about this? Am I professing a universal norm, when allowing for cultural style might better prepare students for communicating in their contexts? Am I imposing one cultural style—preferred just because it is mine—or am I educating them to be proficient in ministering in ways that honor their cultures?

This essay is supposed to offer tips for readers, but I’m afraid I have more questions than any shortcuts or helpful formulae. Perhaps it’s best to admit this dilemma and invite Didaktikos readers to share how they handle it (visit Faithlife.com/Didaktikos to join the conversation).

Should cultural sensitivity play a role in our grading? Can an awareness of my own style over against another’s be appreciated without forcing that person, through grading, to succumb to my culture? Do we need to distinguish between formal writing and, for example, online discussion posts? Should cultural communication styles be avoided in one context but accepted in the other? My program evaluates final projects in two main areas, “content” and “style”; should our “style readers” be conversant with the culture of the student? Do we truly believe there is an “academic style”—one that is able to be evaluated without partiality and necessary to maintain quality standards (which were put in place by people like me)? Can we articulate that style while also justifying it through some sort of “when in Rome” rationale? (By the way, my program in the U.K. did precisely that to me.)

At a previous post where I served as dean, we had a graduate student who never spoke up in class. I learned that “Juan” was a Spanish-speaker and was thought by his fellow students to be brilliant. However, Juan’s ability to communicate in English was poor. As his final paper in the course loomed—fifty percent of his grade—I allowed him to write it in Spanish. I found a capable bilingual professor to grade it for me. That professor said Juan’s paper showed great insight and solid research skills. Later, our president questioned me about my decision. After hearing my explanation, he said, “Great idea. But don’t do it again.”

Thanks Juan, for proving there is a dilemma. Thanks, too, Mr. President, for proving it also.


Scott McClelland (PhD, University of Edinburgh), is department chair for the online DMin program at South University. He previously served as a pastor in California and New York and as a professor and dean at several colleges. Scott co-leads a spiritual community, “Pilgrim’s Place” with his wife, Louise, and is a participant in Richard Rohr’s “Living School,” class of 2020.


This essay was first published in the July issue of Didaktikos: Journal of Theological Education (DidaktikosJournal.com).

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  1. Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).
  2. Pedro Morande Court, “The Impact of ‘Globalization’ on Cultural Identities,” in Globalization: Ethical and Institutional Concerns, Acta 7 (Vatican City: Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, 2001), 203; available at www.pass.va/content/dam/scienzesociali/pdf/acta7/acta7-morande.pdf. Court writes, “The globalization process has allowed us to understand with much greater clarity than ever before that a global observation point in which an omniscient observer can locate himself or herself and in front of which all the events of the world can be laid out in their significance cannot exist.”
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Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is Editor-in-Chief of the Logos Academic Blog and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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5 comments
  • Interesting article, Scott! Yeah, that is a question I’ve asked myself as well… never mind the “write to be read”… how about adopting the philosophy of “Write so we’ll enjoy reading it!” even in the rarified-air context of Much Higher Education (although, for sure, *don’t let Kate Turabian have died in vain!* ;-). I think both are possible, but then again, I’m not a University Prof either, just a well-educated layman. Thanks for your insights!

  • Yes, I struggle with these issues and don’t have the answer. It’s complicated. I err on the side of grace instead of throwing the book at them. I’ve lived in non-English speaking overseas contexts and have engaged in copious linguistic butchery, often unto derisive laughter by the indigenous. It’s humbling. I have stories…nightmares. If an earnest student struggles with English, gentle correction and grace is my practice. Imperialistic grading or application of language can become excessive, even oppressive. I too have sometimes allowed students to do assignments in different language. Now, if I am specifically teaching English and composition, then that is a time to clamp down on rhetorical blunders. Most of us relish a crisp English style. For those otherwise excellent students who struggle with English as a second language, perhaps a different rubric is needed.

  • I struggle with these issues as well. When we communicate, we must keep in mind our audience. The audience in a church (recipients of the sermon) may well appreciate the cadences, style, etc. of their own sub – culture. Within some of these cultures it is not necessary to coordinate subject and verb, the speaker will be understood quite well. However the speaker will also be understood if he uses correct grammar, and I am pretty sure that proper grammar would actually provide a model for the audience. More to the point, especially at the graduate level, and even more importantly at the doctoral level, it is quite possible that our students will be called upon to write an article in a newspaper, perhaps in the technical journal, etc. If the grammar is incorrect, writing for a general audience of Americans, the writer will be perceived as ignorant, distracting from the topic and the point being made. I believe it is critical that those at the graduate level should be able to write modern standard English. I have taught classes online at several institutions, and find quite a wide variety in writing abilities. However, when I point out grammatical errors students can usually see what their error is and understand that they need to write in modern standard English.
    When grading online discussions, I am a bit more liberal in my grading (not my theology!), but I always point out when there are difficulties with the mechanics of writing.Often we receive online discussion sooner than we would a formal term paper, and if I am noting grammatical errors in the discussions, I can then contact the student and insist that when they submit their term paper, they have someone look it over first, or read it out loud before they submit. Very often this provides a corrective. If your institution has a unit that helps students write papers it would be excellent to refer students to that before they actually submit their term papers. Of course how many students actually take advantage of the institutions’ student writing helps may well be small.
    I believe we do our students a disservice if we do not encourage them to use modern standard English in their writing.

  • I have an answer. Uphold the standards of the English language. It is that simple. Why is the question of imperialistic grading a legitimate question NOW, when alignment with universally accepted writing standards has been THE course of action expected of ALL students for many hundreds of years? Is it a question borne of white guilt? It sounds like it here, but how you “feel” shouldn’t matter. You would be hard pressed to find a Tuskegee Institute or any professor at an HBCU who would ask the same question, because writing well is writing well, no matter the culture. Content may not always transfer in understanding, but the words used to convey those concepts should. Grammar, form and style ARE, in fact, content. Expectations related to these should he well-publicized across an institution and correction given where the work is below standards.

  • I agree with your conclusion, Scott, that we educators grapple with a serious dilemma. The available tools of assessing a student’s academic work seem to be inadequate from different angles. Should we then call the accommodation of a foreign student’s culture a cultural invasion? Or to the contrary, should we call insensitivity to a student’s foreign culture a cultural evasion? I find myself relating to both ends, having been thoroughly exposed to both British and American lingo systems, previously as a student and now as a professor. For example, when I wrote an academic paper for my American Journalism professor in my English for Journalists class in the mid-eighties, he sharply corrected my using “aged” to describe elderly people, saying that the term carried a negative connotation in the US cultural context. However, “aged” would be a cultural term of respect in a West African context. On the other hand, how does one grade an academic paper written by an American, using American colloquial grammar, such as double negatives, “there’s two things,” and “it’s legit” without delving into invasion-evasion of cultures? Another cultural issue is evident in the format of a test given to students. Students with British background usually do better in essay questions, whereas American students excel in multiple-choice exams. Which of these test formats should be used that wouldn’t be culturally invasive or evasive?

Written by Tavis Bohlinger
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