Alexa* let out a sigh of disappointment as she trudged out of the English department office with a page of edits in one hand and a laptop in another.
After meeting with her teacher about an upcoming writing assignment, she came to a realization that the words on her edited paper were not hers.
Dreading the countless changes she would have to make that night, Alexa hurried home to write what would ultimately become a completely different essay.
“As [my English teacher and I] went through my essay, [my teacher] literally had me change what I was arguing to the exact opposite idea,” Alexa said. “I had a whole outline for an argument, and after the meeting, the teacher was just like, ‘Nope, that’s wrong.’ This was for an opinionated, analytical essay.”
62 percent of 324 students who responded to a Chronicle poll said that they have altered their own ideas and language in an English assignment to comply to their teachers’ beliefs.
“There are definitely certain English teachers where I feel like every single essay is just spouting their ideas back at them,” Izzy Yanover ’19 said. “I’m never able to use my own creative arguments, and I feel like I’m just writing down their ideas and turning in their [paper]. If I don’t get their ideas spot-on, then that influences my grade rather than how well I’m writing it or what I’m actually saying. It makes me feel like I don’t have a voice in English, just the voice of my teacher.”
Though students do not necessarily have to completely change their own opinions, they may feel inclined to mention certain topics to appeal to their teachers, Andy Yang ’20 said.
“For [my history classes in previous years], there have definitely been teachers who have told me either that my opinion is wrong or right,” Yang said. “I know I wrote a lot of essays about [President Donald] Trump in ninth grade because my English teachers made their political opinions very clear. I hate Trump, but writing about him was also a plus because I knew the teachers would like that.”
However, the English department’s grading process is not as subjective as students may perceive it to be, English teacher Eric Olson said.
“Students may not know that [our school’s] English teachers do a ‘grade-around’ for every essay in the first semester, and most essays in the second,” Olson said. “A grade-around is an exercise conducted in team meetings. We grade two or three anonymous student essays and discuss their merits, what kind of feedback we’d give and what grade we’d award. That exercise helps us gauge our standards and keep them reasonably consistent. The idea that a B paper for one teacher would be an A paper for another, especially based on the opinion argued, is, I think, a misperception.”
Grading in English classes is primarily based on the student’s ability to back up their argument with evidence and reason, English Department Head Larry Weber said.
“It’s not based on whether their opinions hold water,” Weber said. “It’s how they present them in cogent arguments that are well-organized in which the prose is clear and the analysis of evidence is convincing. These are acts of persuasion, and some are more successful than others based on standards we try to objectify. We’re in agreement about what makes a good piece of writing.”
Mark* said he doesn’t think that his teachers have ever subjectively graded his essays. However, he said he has often felt uncomfortable stating his opinions in class discussions.
“One time, we were doing an assignment where we had to read the Declaration of Independence and talk about all of the articles in it that had transgressions by the King of England and relate it back to today’s society,” Mark said. “It was basically just an excuse for everyone to bash Trump. I felt like I couldn’t point out that some of the things were employed by presidents before him. I think that everyone just focuses specifically on Trump’s transgressions, when there are so many by other political figures, especially in a fairly corrupt government culture that exists today. I don’t think I would want to voice that opinion, especially when it would express a negative opinion about politicians that my English teacher or favorite students of my English teacher have explicitly supported.”
One of the reasons behind students’ tendency to adopt their teachers’ opinions rather than asserting their own can be attributed to the school’s competitive environment, Yang said.
“For the most part, I mostly pay attention to what my teacher’s opinions are because as a person who wants to get good grades, that’s a big influence,” Yang said. “If you want to get good grades, it’s a fact that going against your teacher’s opinion is not going to bode well for classes that are heavily influenced by teachers’ preference, like English and history. Especially in such a competitive school like Harvard-Westlake, even if you don’t actively think about it, these things influence you.”
Olson said that when it comes to explicitly political topics, he tries to respect and acknowledge all sides.
“When discussing Orwell’s ‘Nineteen-Eighty Four’, for example, I like to point out that both left and right have co-opted Orwellian terms to vilify their opposition, and both with good reason,” Olson said. “I hope students feel comfortable discussing whatever political implications our texts might raise. If I do offer my opinion, I try to couch it as only that: an opinion they are free to disagree with. Ideally, the classroom should be a safe place for all perspectives. What I cannot always control is how our student population receives or reacts to a controversial opinion, but I still hope that opinion can be expressed, provided it isn’t overtly hostile and hurtful to others. Freedom of speech, after all, is a value that we have to honor and balance against the need for a safe, productive educational environment for all.”
In spite of the issues that can possibly arise with differing opinions— political or other — Weber said he welcomes the discussion of controversial topics.
“The ideal is that we ask questions that invite interpretive possibilities, given that the works we read are inexhaustible in terms of the meanings you can construct from them,” Weber said. “We are hoping that an essay can provide an insight that’s unexpected and that our questions are inviting that to happen. So, if a student disagrees with me, I’m happy about that. I don’t think our essays are meant to be these lightning strikes from mountain tops, as much as they’re meant to be efforts to contribute to an ongoing conversation. Whatever that contribution is, it should be welcomed. All grades exist on a subjective-objective continuum no matter the class and no matter the assignment.”
*Names have been changed