There is no better reminder of the relativity of competence than the fact that the word itself is derived from the verb “to compete”. No one is ever competent in some absolute sense, just more or less qualified to carry out a particular action. Whether you choose to compete against yourself or against others, becoming good at something is always a matter of getting “better” at it. Actually, there’s something too combative about the image of struggling against: the “com-” in compete literally suggests a striving alongside, more as in a race than in a fight. The loser is not beaten but passed.
How can this sense of relative mastery be instilled in students when it comes to their writing? How can we get them to see that being a “good” writer is the result of continuous improvement over time and that their “academic literacy” is inexorably related to that of their peers?
Here’s a thought experiment that sometimes gets people to see what I mean. Suppose an ordinary liberal arts college decided to hold an annual 3 mile race around the campus. Suppose all students were required to compete in this race and suppose that they were given a grade based on their time. The top 10% would get As, the next 25% Bs, the next 30% Cs and the remainder would get Ds (for completing the race) and Fs (for not completing). This grade would count for 25% of their GPA. Now, there’s of course no particular rationale for getting students to perform a physical competence like this (nor that it should involve running rather than, say, swimming or rowing) but one thing seems reasonable to assume: with this race on the curriculum the college is likely to have a student body that is in better shape than one that doesn’t. The students would have an incentive to devote some hours every week to training for the race; and those hours would, all things being equal, improve their level of physical fitness.
Like I say, the lack of intellectual rationale for this race is likely to leave it in the category of a thought experiment. (While the idea has a certain charm, it’s unlikely that a school that made this much depend on your physical fitness would attract the most academically ambitious students.) But suppose we imagined a different kind of race. Suppose that at the end of the year all the students in the same year of the same major were assigned the same essay question. Suppose they were given 72 hours to complete it and suppose the grades were distributed as in the case of the race and the grades again contributed 25% of the overall GPA. The essays would simply be ranked from best to worst, the top 10% would get As, the next 25%, Bs, etc. My hypothesis here is that, all things being equal, such a program would produce a student body with generally better writing skills, since they would have an incentive to train, just as in the case of the footrace. Their prose would simply get stronger.
Now, let me point out something else about that three-mile race. It would be possible to publish the cut-off times that decided whether you got an A, B, C or D. Looking at those times and comparing it to your own, you’d be in a good position to decide how much effort you would need to put into getting a higher grade next year, even without knowing the names of any particular participants. Grades, that is, could remain confidential. And something similar is possible when it comes to the essay competition. All the essays could be published anonymously, but with their grades stamped on them. Students could have a look at the essays that bested them in order to get a sense of the qualities that made a difference. They could plan their training program accordingly and even ask their teachers for advice about how to produce the quality they discern in the work of their peers. Obviously, this sort of transparency would pose a challenge to the teachers and examiners, who must now grade according to an objectively justifiable set of standards. But that’s probably a good thing anyway.
Most importantly, it would require students to focus on the production of text with obvious virtues — just as participants in a race are pacing themselves to produce one optimal result (a time) at the end. The important thing to keep in mind is that people who can run 3 miles relatively quickly can’t just do that. They’ve got a much general kind of fitness. Likewise, someone who’s able to research and write a solid 11-paragraph essay in 72 hours may not be doing anything very useful during that time (other than passing an exam). But the ability is a very real display of an array of linguistic and intellectual competences that are well worth having as such.
These days, I’m increasingly of the mind that competition among students is the only thing that will truly get their prose into shape. It would give them a reason to spend 30 minutes every other day writing better and better paragraphs. This would make the student body as a whole much more articulate than it is today, and in a better position to learn the complex ideas that their teachers are trying to impart to them.