My Freshman English Grade ≠ 2022 Writing Proficiency

There was an article on The Conversation website back in March by Elisabeth Gruner discussing how she stopped giving grades on student papers in favor of comments and wished she had done so sooner.

I was reminded of Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where he mentions doing the same thing in his classes at Montana State University in the late 1950s. Pirsig’s students reacted much like Gruner’s did some 70 years later. Basically, they freak out at the prospect of not being given a grade.

I have written about Pirsig’s book before, though it has been about 15 years since my last reference to it. My experiences since then have somewhat supplemented my perspective. In recent years I have been writing on the idea that just because you can measure it, doesn’t mean the resulting data is an accurate depiction of value.

In the same way, a grade doesn’t really help you master content and improve. While an instructor can obviously provide a grade and comments, as Gruner notes, students will flip past all the comments to find the grade and then they are done.

Granted, students always have the option of ignoring comments and choose not to improve their skills. But that is a choice all humans have when faced with critique and not limited to educational settings.

The other issue is that grades and comments are only a measure of your level of mastery at a moment in time.

As I mention in my post from 15 years ago, I wrote a paper based on Pirsig’s book arguing for comments on papers in favor of grades. My professor took me at my word and didn’t give me a grade until after we discussed her comments. (She was obligated by the school to provide a grade, I didn’t feel the need for one.)

Another professor commented on another paper I wrote, observing that the grammatical mistakes were legion, but that I had done a fantastic job of capturing the voice and flavor of the work upon which I based my composition.

There was a grade on that paper. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember the comment. Arguably, my writing skills have improved since then. There have been many factors which have contributed to my higher standard of writing, but it really wasn’t the grades. Memories of my educational experience and how I professors dealt with me are what have endured.

In a similar manner, measures of value that are often applied to the arts like economic impact are meaningless.  How does economic impact inform organizational decision making? How does knowing the economic impact number influence how those in the community conduct their lives?

There is a lot of other data which will help organizations strive to do better or effect change. There are other ways in which people’s lives will be impacted by an arts organization. The value of all this can be examined and observed over the course of years.


Something I wanted to call attention to that is somewhat unrelated to my point about the relevance of grades and certain metrics used to measure organizational value. I feel this is important to note for people who want to read Pirsig, or my early posts on his book, and take some lessons from his experience with grading.

In Pirsig’s book, when he talks about his experience eliminating grading in the classroom, he mentions that the A & B students’ work improved, C students either improved a bit or stayed average, and D & F students basically kept sinking.  Basically, the idea was that the students’ natural talent and work ethic were a constant regardless of whether they were graded.

Gruner has different perspective which I think is a reflection of the differences between who got to attend university in 1958 and 2020s.

My studies confirmed my sense that sometimes what I was really grading was a student’s background. Students with educational privilege came into my classroom already prepared to write A or B papers, while others often had not had the instruction that would enable them to do so. The 14 weeks they spent in my class could not make up for the years of educational privilege their peers had enjoyed.

While I know that background influences the degree to which people are prepared for an educational experience, until I read that paragraph, my recollection of Pirsig’s observations about grading dominated my perspective.

Best Time To Fight Burnout Is Before You Start Feeling Burned Out

So hat tip to Roger Tomlinson who made a social media post calling attention to A Manager’s Guide to Helping Teams Face Down Uncertainty, Burnout and Perfectionism    It appears it is pretty much hot off the presses because it references a number of recent events which can be contributing to the stress of staff.

While the guide is written for a broad swatch of work environments, there is a great deal with which readers are likely to identify. It isn’t very long, but does have a hyperlinked index so you quickly return to where you left off.

One of the first things acknowledged in the article is that manager in particular can be doubly impacted by burnout.

In this exclusive interview, Fosslien dives deeper into three of the weighty emotions they address in the book — but from the manager’s lens specifically. “In conversations with readers, I’ve noticed how managers are feeling particularly overwhelmed and exhausted,” she says.

Many managers are struggling with what I call “burnout burnout” — providing emotional support and looking after the well being of their team has become a bigger part of their roles in the last two years, and it’s starting to take a toll.

I am not going to even try to encompass all the contributing factors for burnout and pro-active steps the piece discusses. In broad strokes, though the authors address a lot of assumptions that people make which result in the compounding of stress. If you are implementing burnout reduction tactics when you start to feel stressed, you waited too long. But that is natural and what most people end up doing. If you don’t forgive yourself for that, it will only make dealing with it worse.

Check it out. It is an easy read with helpful illustrations with concepts worth considering.

Has Anyone Achieved Minimal Viable Audience?

Seth Godin recently made a post with a suggestion that runs counter to concept that arts organizations need to broaden their audience.  He has made posts throughout the years about attracting the smallest “viable audience” for products, but this time he specifically applies the concept to classical music and documentary films.

His basic premise is that if you focus on pleasing the core fans, the result will be greater audience satisfaction.

The smallest viable audience for certain genres is very clear. That allows the creators of the work to be specific and to deliver on expectations.

The broader you seek to make your offering, the more likely you are to run into people who don’t care, don’t get the joke or are simply not open to being satisfied.

It’s not easy to record a symphony or edit Restrepo. But your work is more likely to pay off in audience satisfaction.

The keyword “viable” is the slippery element in this. It is pretty widely acknowledged that catering to the traditional audiences isn’t sustainable so there does need to be some expansion.  But there is also an implication in “viable” that you would stop once the audience was large enough to sustain operations. Or perhaps that you maintain a program focused on renewing people lost to whatever factors are contributing to churn in audiences.

The problem is, there really doesn’t seem to be anyone who has discovered the secret of attracting and maintaining a core sustainable audience. Not to mention that economic factors are constantly expanding the boundaries of what is required to be sustainable.

So perhaps the answer is that there hasn’t been enough work done at expanding audiences yet. And by the way, I am not specifically referring to orchestras or art film houses and producers as mentioned in Godin’s post.

I don’t deny his statement that there is a point beyond which you can not please everyone. I have definitely been in too many meetings where people have said “our market is everyone” and that simply can not be the case.

Arguably, there are probably some arts organizations people can point out that have developed a core audience to sustainable levels. I suspect that these groups fall at either end of the population density spectrum. Either there is a large enough population available to support the organization or the community is so small the organization runs a budget with few expenses.

Pretty much everyone else in between probably needs to work on expanding audiences to the minimally viable size which will likely mean providing programming in which people can feel invested.

But I am curious, does anyone have other thoughts on this? Are there more entities who are maintaining a viable, highly-satisfied core audience which allows creators to focus on a high quality product than I am giving credit for?

“…Black people, are just living works of art, in our culture and being.”

For years now I have been following and writing on the Culture Track survey.   At one time the survey was being conducted every three years or so in order to measure changing trends and attitudes about arts and culture.

When Covid hit, the folks at Culture Track decided it was important to closely monitor the impact of the pandemic on perceptions of arts and culture. It seemed like there was a new phase of the study being conducted every six months. (Disclosure, my venue participated in the study and has been grateful to receive useful data as a result.)

One of the things they noticed early on was that racial minorities were underrepresented in the survey and worked with NORC at the University of Chicago to collect data to offset that disparity.   In the most recent phase of the survey, they included a qualitative segment in which they extensively interviewed fifty Black and African-American participants to gain insights that the broader survey couldn’t provide.

In early May, Wallace Foundation posted an interview with some of the co-authors of the report on the role of race and ethnicity in cultural engagement. I haven’t read that report yet, but the interview provides some interesting perspectives.

The same interview links to the qualitative report, A Place to Be Heard, A Space to Feel Held: Black Perspectives on Creativity, Trustworthiness, Welcome and Well Being  This is extremely valuable to read.  While there are reasons specific to them that may or may not cause Black residents of the United States to feel an organization is trustworthy or welcoming, there is a lot in the responses that illustrate why anyone in general would not feel a sense of trust and welcome.

The findings are broken into four sections: Creativity, Self-Care, Trustworthiness, Welcome & Belonging. While there is much to be garnered from the executive summary of the study, the respective sections offer a lot to sink your consideration into.

I am always keenly interested to hear how people perceive creative practice and the study did not disappoint.

Some preferred to frame their creativity as a state of mind (“feeling like an artist inside”), an attitude they viewed as fundamental to guiding one’s life. One participant described this as an active rather than spectatorial process: “It’s not just about appreciating creativity, but about bringing creativity from the world into yourself.” Others seemed hesitant to call themselves creative, especially if there were people in their lives who had pursued creative careers. “I am very in awe of art and artists,” said one participant. “I think we all have creative sides, I think mine is not as expressed as others’.

The more I see people asked about creativity, the more nuance appears. I am starting to feel this is a topic we don’t talk to people about enough. In fact, the study says that in the first phase of the survey conducted shortly after Covid started, Black respondents reported participating in fewer cultural activities than the overall pool of respondents. In this qualitative survey, the range of activities people reported participating in was much broader.

Having the conversations about what people define as creative really seems to matter.

“And that idea of creativity as ubiquitous and lived was, for some, specifically tied to being Black and practicing Black culture as an important form of creative expression….As one participant put it, “I think that everybody, particularly Black people, are just living works of art, in our culture and being.”

In the trustworthiness section of the study, one of the big takeaways I had was that just because the demographic segment whom you hoped to reach are showing up, it doesn’t mean they trust your organization.

The people we spoke with can hold a “double consciousness” about cultural organizations’ trustworthiness and experiential value…they can enjoy the experience even though they don’t have a trusting relationship with it. They’re used to some amount of cognitive dissonance in these experiences: they can relish the art and overall experience even while knowing it’s problematic in important ways

Some of the issues of trustworthiness are related to who has influence and who is making the decisions are cultural organizations. There has been a fair bit of conversation these last few years about representation on executive staffs and boards. But it is also a matter of what stories and faces are appearing on stages and walls. One of the direct quotes from a participant is particularly pointed.

Traveling internationally…when you go to museums, you see what you are told in the U.S. is not true. The narrative of African race is much more out there than in the U.S. If you go to Sweden to the Nobel Prize Museum, [you’ll be] blown away by how many Brown people have won the Nobel prize. There are a whole bunch of us across the globe… I went to Mozart’s house, and I saw how he played alongside Black classical composers. Look at all this greatness we don’t talk about [in this country].”

The question of welcoming and belonging are closely related to these same factors of representation. Just because someone feels welcomed to a space, doesn’t necessarily translate into a feeling of belonging. While it is more marked when physical traits mark you as different from the rest of the crowd, most people can understand the difference because we have all had an experience where we are excited to be somewhere, but we don’t feel like we fit in. It doesn’t even need to be something like not knowing which of five forks to use at a formal wedding reception, we have all walked into a restaurant or store and shown ourselves to be outsiders by messing up the seating or ordering process.

Just as it takes time to become accustomed to the practices of a new place, making someone feel they belong is the process of small experiences over a long time. As the study points out, this can’t entirely be achieved by making an intentional effort to be hospitable to new arrivals, there are also myriad cues about who belongs, many of which will be invisible to insiders. It will likely take conversations with those with whom you have cultivated a degree of trust to identify what cues may be undermining a sense of belonging for them and their friends.

Take the time to read the report of the qualitative study. For many, there will be some things you are aware of already, things you may have already suspected, and things you haven’t been explicitly told before.  For others, it will be a lot of what you already know and will perhaps appreciate having explicitly mentioned and talked about in a manner it hasn’t been before.