Which Comes First For You: The Spirit or the Letter of the Law?

All, Education, Favorites, Rants, Teaching, Writing

Tough Subject Yesterday I spent the morning training and testing to become a certified KYOTE (Kentucky Online Testing) writing exam scorer (I know, how jealous are you?). Actually, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be and the concept itself is actually pretty good. Placement in developmental writing in Kentucky will be based on an examination of student writing and not some multiple choice test with little relationship to the student’s writing ability. But that isn’t what I want to write about today. Today I want to talk about which comes first with you as a teacher, as a student, and as a writer – the spirit or the letter of the law?

Two incidents yesterday have made me think about this decision and how it impacts the person you are and what you do – in the classroom and out of it. During the KYOTE training we spent a great deal of time quibbling over language in the training materials – specifically about just what it meant for a writer to respond to a prompt. But ultimately the issue came down to a question of what our job as scorer was meant to be. We are the gatekeeper. Our job is to determine whether or not, based on this small writing sample, a student is prepared for college-level writing. Some people wanted to quibble about what it meant to exactly meet the letter of the law – or rather the letter of the rubric. What frustrated me was that by focusing on these rules they were missing the spirit of the law – that decision about the student’s readiness for college-level writing. A good piece of writing might not follow the prompt slavishly but may in fact transcend it. Similarly, a bad piece of writing might respond to the prompt and do it very poorly. The intent of the KYOTE writing exam is simple – to determine college readiness – and the prompt (much like the law) is simply a vehicle to achieve that goal.

FED - Federal Protective Service Police DepartmentThen in the afternoon as I was attending to my teaching duties I found myself taken aback by a student’s question. She asked me when I had changed the rules about posts to the class blog because she had noticed some of her classmates’ posts were shorter than my originally stated requirement. Once again, here was someone so focused on the letter of the law she completely missed the spirit. I meant the word count to be a guideline as we began our work (so students would know they needed to write hundreds of words rather than a few sentences) but now as we near the final weeks of the semester I am much more concerned with what my students have to say than the number of words they use to say it. I think most of my other students have similarly moved beyond worrying about the word count and focused on engaging the topic of the week. After all, a good blog post needs to do more than meet the minimum word count and I believe most of my students have learned that through the feedback they’ve received over the course of the semester. While that might be the case, here is one student focused on that rule instead of the conversation or content.

What makes people, including inexperienced students and experienced educators, want to cling so tightly to the letter of the law that they completely miss the spirit? Obviously, one can go too far to the opposite extreme, but strict adherence to the law chafes me and I have difficulty understanding those who hug it closer. Is it fear? Is it lack of imagination?

I think learners and teachers and writers need to worry more about meeting the spirit rather than the letter of the law. I dream of teaching students and writers who do not worry about meeting the minimum standard and instead pursue knowledge and projects that transcend them. My goal as an educator is to create classes which foster this transcendence.  What do you think? Which comes first with you – the spirit or the letter of the law? Am I wrong to worry about this at all?