Why I grade writing students on respect and empathy

Years ago, when I was still teaching writing classes with training wheels, I had a student turn in a short film script that I wanted to refuse to workshop in class.

It involved a fashion model with no interior life, treated with disdain and ridicule by the dialogue she was given and the way the action and description lines of the script referred to her. There was a lecherous, controlling photographer who the script treated as a virtuous character, even as he sexually assaulted and murdered her.

I met with this student before showing the script to the class and tried to suss out his intent. We spoke for over a half hour as I tried to get across the numerous reasons I had for believing this script wasn’t appropriate for our class.

But he was set in his belief that there was nothing wrong with what was in his script. His said it was honest: That all women just want to be famous, and this woman that he depicted being gaslit, sexually harassed, and murdered deserved what she got.

I had to repeat this back to him to make sure I had heard him right: He wanted to write a script where the audience felt that the model deserved to be murdered for being a model.

As I was trying to explain the many problems with all of this, he interrupted me to ask a question: Was he going to be graded on any of this?

I hadn’t anticipated that a student would be willing to share something so toxic with a room full of their peers, and be willing to be graded on it.

The truth was, I didn’t have anything in writing that directly and specifically addressed the issues we were discussing. He would lose points for flawed characterization and an exploitative and non-sensical plot, but those didn’t get to the heart of the issue.

That was a big problem. A student could turn in an absolutely abhorrent story, and I hadn’t given myself a way to check their impulses with the most powerful leverage I had in the classroom.

I needed better grading tools

After that semester, I evaluated all of my grading criteria and lectures. Something was missing, and it needed to be front and center.

From that point forward, every writing assignment I have given to students involves some variation on the same grading rubric. If they want to get all the points available for this rubric, they need to demonstrate respect & empathy in their writing.

All characters on the page treated as fully-dimensional humans. No stock types, straw men, or derogatory stereotypes used. Every role gives an actor someone specific and realistic to inhabit.

I don’t get as much time as I’d like with each student. I don’t get as much time as I’d like with each of their assignments. So I find a way to make them sit up and take notice of a real problem for writers by making their grade depend on them taking stock of how their writing could have an impact on others.

There’s no clear way to look inside the hearts and minds of every student to see if their default is to look at other people with dignity, respect, and affirming their basic humanity. When we talk about developing characters in class, one of the main points I always make is that we can never truly know anyone. We only know what we see from what we see them say and do.

So that’s what I tell them I’m looking at — What did you write, and what does that show me?

Because narrative choices are moral choices.

No fiction is objective

The defense of saying “That’s just how things were back then!” or “That’s just how people are!” doesn’t work with me.

Any time you tell a story, you’re telling a specific story, loaded with the choices you’ve made as one person, from your perspective.

You can never be objective.

To be truly objective, you would have to know everything and also not have any stakes in the story you’re trying to tell. The first one is impossible, and the second is improbable.

  • You’re not going to spend the time writing a story that doesn’t mean something to you.
  • You’re not going to tell a story that doesn’t have some kind of personal point of reference somewhere in the narrative.
  • You’re going to create characters and situations based on your individual knowledge and experience. Even ways you use to expand your knowledge and experience are still filtered through your individual perceptions of what’s important, meaningful, or useful.

You will always be one little person.

And that’s okay…

So long as you acknowledge that in your writing and as you’re writing.

You need to think about how the stories you choose to tell put the audience in the perspective of certain characters, and what it means to prioritize the perspective of those characters over others.

You need to think about how the resolution of your story gives the victorious perspective moral weight, even if you don’t believe your story has an Aesop-style moral.

You need to think about how, if you’re writing a dramatic work, every single role will be performed by a living, breathing, feeling human being. What are you asking them to do? To think? To feel?

Are you asking an actor to choose between paying their rent and portraying something that reinforces negative stereotypes? Are you going to make an actor feel guilty for taking their paycheck?

And you need to consider how, even if it’s abundantly clear that what you’re writing is fiction, some people may use what you’ve written to further a very real agenda.

Act like your words matter

Because it’s the only way that they will.

If you want people to take your writing seriously, write in a way that shows you give serious consideration to what your words could do if shared with the widest possible audience.

Don’t treat something you’re writing as beneath you, or look at your characters with contempt.

Any story has the potential to carry deep meaning for another person.

People have the opportunity to see themselves reflected in stories in ways that their life may deny them, or in ways that they didn’t anticipate. But a story can’t take hold of a person’s hopes, fears, and sense of self if the writer doesn’t consider it possible.

Give them a mirror worth looking into.