Octopus Knowledge: Gaining Understanding and Empathy

This is how Yancey’s “Writing Assessment in the Early Twenty-First Century” made me feel. There were many different threads (legs), yet they were all wriggling against each other and confusing at times. However, they were tied to once central idea (head): making sure that students and teachers are being properly assessed for the maximum growth potential of writing curricula in education systems.

The assessment of students is ongoing process and in an ideal world, assessments help students reach their maximum potentials. Judging students based on one single numeric criterion (SAT score) perpetuates the unreality of an ideal world. Students are so much more than a number on a test. They come from different, often harsh backgrounds and they have unique personalities that should be assessed, especially when it comes to writing. As we witnessed in our last meeting, when we wrote on those lovely colored pieces of geometry, writing is extremely personal (#WhyIWrite., #IamFrom). Applying strict metrics will choke students and institutions of learning as well. There is no “model student of writing” (read Mr. or Miss Robotico(a)). That is what makes writing so rich and lush.

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Free your minds to gain understanding, assess and build together

At the heart of Yancey’s work is assessing as a way of understanding. As Sir Francis Bacon said, “knowledge itself is power.” We have to probe and ask questions if we want students to find their voices and write well. How are students progressing based on any given writing curriculum? How are instructors responding to new processes of writing? Are they effectively teaching them? Are writers and their instructors connecting over time in the same rhythmn?

There is one caveat in this ongoing process of gaining understanding. We must keep in mind that budding writers are often inexperienced. We are taught to walk on two legs and don’t swim fluidly with eight. I find rubrics to be important in instructing young writers. It helps them gain confidence. I was resistant to this idea, but I’ve gained some valuable knowledge from my colleagues in Writing Theory and Practice. Susan Wong wrote very eloquently about this topic in her blogpost last week and her personal reflections in class have been enlightening.

Yancey describes multiple modes of writing assessments. The “portfolio approach” is very important. Especially when it comes to higher education, it is important to judge students based on the progression of their writing. This is a an organic approach that enables instructors to view a student’s entire body of work. It is surprising what can be achieved from August to December and so forth.

I was leery of the “outcome assessment approach” (174). It seems that this may straightjacket an instructor if stringently enforced. I agree with dissenter Derek Soles Ibid. Yancey helps us to understand Soles’ dissent:

His point: that as has been true historically, the individual teacher’s [writing] composition philosophy should trump the curricular commonality of the outcomes statement.


In one composition class, students should be exposed to multiple lenses of teaching. For example, diverse points of view (i.e. gender) should be explored in the classroom. This leads me to my objection to Common Core, which Yancey also mentions in her article, but does not fully address (186). I think we should take a good hard look at Common Core (CC). Is it harmful? Does it homogenize learning? In writing, as in life, there is no one standard approach to anything. CC seems to encourage fragmented learning and also emphasizes students reaching set benchmarks, rather than learning in a more organic (see the forest first) approach. I welcome differing points of view as I am, and will always be, a student.

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Turning a Blind Eye to Terror
To gain empathy and overcome bias, we must be more like an octopus

In Lina Mounzer’s article, “War in Translation: Giving Voice to the Women of Syria,” she expresses the pain of women’s displacement in a deeply visceral manner. She is able to do this so well because she has literally walked in their footsteps and lived and breathed their tumult. Unlike the cheerful music in the above video, there is no readily accessible “somewhere over the rainbow” for them or their children. There is fear (at the best) and the destruction of their homes and children (at the worst). That is what has been going on in Syria since the advent of the Arab Spring in 2011, when Syrians, like all other protesters that year, simply wanted what we often take for granted: free expression (in that case, freedom from Assad’s oppressive and corrupt regime). It is getting much worse, as we have seen in the news with Turkey’s recent attack on the Kurds. At present, a ceasefire has been negotiated, but that does not entail immediate peace by any means whatsoever. Clashes and mass chaos will be the order of the day before any meaningful resolution can be reached. It will be extremely difficult for the latter to occur without outside aid.

Does that mean that we should abandon hope? No. Like the octopus that changes color and texture, we need to live in that water with the Kurds and imagine ourselves in that position. This is what Mounzer does, she takes on the war-torn women’s mantles and she bears witness to their pain, which is one of the often difficult privileges a writer gets. It is a true paradox. Turning a blind eye is not an option. Apathy is not a viable choice, it is actually an evil (to paraphrase Holocaust survivor and humanitarian Elie Wiesel, God rest his soul). This sentiment was also echoed by Hannah Arendt in her analysis of the Nuremberg trials.

But why is it so hard to be empathetic? To take on the colors and textures of the octopus as it adapts to its changing environments, like the women in Mounzer’s article doing the best to protect themselves and their children?

I believe that we have inherent biases as individuals (i.e. I am too educated, I am too protected by the Constitution, etc. for anything to happen to me). Yet have we not all experienced pain? It is essential that we reach beyond what we find to be comfortable and get very uncomfortable. We should actively read articles like Mounzer’s and we shouldn’t turn our eyes from the awful images in the news.

Author Viet Thanh Nguyen makes an brilliant comment in Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives:

… A writer’s work is impossible if he or she cannot conjure up the lives of others and only through such acts as memory, imagination and empathy can we grow in our capacity to feel for others.


As I have seen in our class, in our blogs and in our conversations in and outside of class, many (if not all) of us have experienced intense sorrow, pain and anxiety. I am reminded of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s “Didn’t It Rain?” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmiGdWysQJQ; https://genius.com/Mahalia-jackson-didnt-it-rain-lyrics). There is a lot of suffering in that song and I’d warrant that we have all been in that rain. Let’s use all of our senses in order to reach towards empathy. Let’s adapt to new realities and respond to them.

Published by medeathewriter

Creative writer, lyrical gangster, poet, student of life and an attorney. Speaks Italian and Spanish.

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