Artist-Centered Evaluation
An Approach to the
Objective Grading of Creative Work

By Matt Buchanan

The Idea in Theory


It is always a problem for any teacher of the arts: How does one objectively evaluate creative work? I've never been an enthusiastic fan of letter grades, but we're often compelled to use them, and even when we're not it is necessary to give some kind of evaluative feedback if students are to grow. But it can be nearly impossible to assign any kind of reliable grade to creative work. The problem is built into the nature of art. Art is subjective, and art is personal. An artist expresses something--whether or not it is something that can be put into words--that no one else can ever really grasp except through the art. It is impossible to evaluate objectively the communication of an intangible. This document is the narrative description of a project I undertook to create a means of objectively evaluating creative work. I chose to use a narrative and informal approach to presenting this work for the simple reason that I think it is easier to understand this way. It is written not for educational theorists or even teachers of education, so much as for other teachers of the arts. Since I am a drama teacher, my experimental subjects were actors and playwrights, but it is my intention (and my belief) that the system will work in any medium. I call this technique Artist-Centered Evaluation.

As a Drama teacher, I spend a great deal of time in all my classes teaching the craft of what is called "descriptive criticism." The idea behind this kind of criticism is that the only person who can know--really KNOW--what an artist's intentions are is the artist himself. (An associated idea is that the purpose of criticism is to help the artist improve or develop his work.) Therefore, the critic should make no assumptions about what that intention is--which means she cannot evaluate how well the artist has accomplished those intentions. The more familiar kind of criticism--called "prescriptive criticism" generally involves comments like, "I think you need to develop the mother's character more." "I think you need more blue in the sky." I think you need a more exciting climax." All of these comments ultimately boil down to the critic describing what she would have done had she been the artist. A descriptive critic confines herself to describing what she has personally received from the work--not what she thinks she should have received. The artist, who alone knows what he intends his audience (or viewer, or listener--the idea works for any medium) to receive, makes choices about revision based on the audience's (critic's) honest impressions, rather than on their suggested changes. (Taking anyone's suggestions for changes can be dangerous for a creative artist for two reasons. First, what works for another artist won't necessarily work for me, so if I try someone else's solution to a problem it may result in dishonest work. Second, the helpful person's suggestions are based on his assumptions about what I am trying to say, which may not be correct, and I DON'T KNOW WHAT THOSE ASSUMPTIONS ARE.)

As a tool for helping actors or playwrights hone their performances or plays, descriptive criticism is very effective. Because I am the teacher, I still sometimes fall back on prescriptive comments, particularly with regard to things like enunciation, projection, and pace (which are generally less subjective than other concerns), but I try to rely mostly on descriptive criticism when working with my students. However, as effective as this technique can be in helping students to improve, it is of little use when a "grade" is called for. At its root, any grading system (regardless of what kinds of letters or numbers are employed for its notation) is really a way of comparing and ranking students. It is a way of informing students (and their parents, usually) where they "stand" in the competitive hierarchy. We may not always like it, but there it is. Since descriptive criticism makes no judgment of any kind, and only tries to reflect the artist back to herself, it obviously cannot be used to evaluate comparatively. Clearly some other system must be found, if we are to assign objective grades to creative work.

A teacher of creative writing may base part of a grade on the (more or less) objective criteria of grammar. A teacher of musical composition may, depending on the assignment, base part of a grade on whether the "rules" of music theory are followed. A teacher of drawing may (again, depending on the assignment) take measurements and grade partly on the "accuracy" of a still life--thought it would probably strike her as bizarre to do any such thing. However, clearly the most important elements of any work of art are subjective and personal to the artist. How can I say one student's play, which I enjoy, is "better" than another's, which I may find uncomfortable? Even if I say to myself that I will grade entirely on "technique" I am still forced to make subjective choices. How do I know the actor does not INTEND me to have trouble understanding what he's saying? And if he does intend it, who am I to say that's not a valid artistic choice? Although I do spend a lot of time working on "craft," I nevertheless also try hard to teach my students to think like artists, and I have always felt a bit of a hypocrite when I have then graded them based on what I like. Also, since I work mostly with fairly "green" Theatre artists, a great deal of my work is more concerned with PROCESS than with product, and I would like to be able to grade that process, rather than simply the product that comes of it. (Of course, teachers from the dawn of time have been assigning grades for "effort" but that's really not the same thing, and in fact it's totally subjective anyhow.) For all of these reasons I came up with Artist-Centered Evaluation.

The Idea in Theory

At its simplest, the technique of Artist-Centered Evaluation can be divided into two complementary ideas. First, instead of grading the "quality" of the product (as compared to some ideal model of perfection) I grade the IMPROVEMENT of the product from one "draft" to the next. (This works conveniently into one of my favorite topics--rewriting.) Second, instead of evaluating this improvement as a whole (and necessarily entirely subjectively ) I grade it based on specific areas of improvement CHOSEN BY THE STUDENT. In other words, the student, with my guidance but not my steering, chooses specific areas in which she would like to improve--sets specific goals for herself--and then she is graded on how fully she achieves these goals. I am not so naïve as not to realize that this still involves some degree of subjectivity. Nothing in art will ever be reduced entirely to "yes or no" questions. But by providing me with specific questions to ask that are personal to each artist's intentions, it allows me to be much more objective than I have ever been before, and incidentally much more objective than any teacher I can remember working with when I was a student. (And I have done coursework to the graduate level in music, theatre, and visual art, and to the advanced undergraduate level in dance.) Most important, Artist-Centered Evaluation respects the fact that the student, at whatever level, IS AN ARTIST, with creative integrity.

Starting from this basic idea, I created slightly different protocols for each of three projects in three different classes, designed to put the idea of Artist-Centered Evaluation into practice. The easiest way to illustrate the idea is to describe its use, so what follows is a description of each of these projects and the protocol I used to grade them.


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