Here in Omaha, the weather forecast a few days ago was suggesting that we might have an inch or two of snow this weekend, but they are now saying that we could get four to seven. So, one could say that they were “wrong” a couple of days ago. So, should we expect them to apologize for the fact that the forecast has changed? I don’t think so.
While it would be nice if such things were always 100% accurate at all times, the fact is that this sort of thing is, always, at best a guess. Yes, it is supposed to be based on the best information available (which I think it tends to be) but the fact is that we are not dealing with an unchanging situation means that all we can really require is that the forecasters give us their best guess based on the information they have at the time they make the forecast. It may be true that they could do a little better about giving us a better sense of the certainty (or Uncertainty) of their forecasts, but we should also be more aware of the fact that such things are always subject to change and recognize that it’s impossible to make such a guess with a really high degree of certainty until it’s actually too late to provide much advance warning. And, I think I’d rather have them give us a fairly cautious prediction and err, if err they must, on the side of a worst case scenario than look through glasses which are too “rosy.” It’s a lot easier to prepare for conditions which are worse than actually develop than to have to deal with an extreme situation which wasn’t anticipated suddenly.
As a theatre person, I think much the same can be said of criticism, both of plays and of productions. I know how easy it is (especially with unfavorable criticism) to write it off as “only the opinion” of a person who (we want to think) isn’t really qualified to make judgments about our work. I’d suggest that, while this CAN be true at times, it’s an unproductive attitude.
Sure, it’s nice when folks say nice things about our work and it’s less pleasant when they suggest that we could do better. Still, theatre is an art, but it’s also a business. It’s our job to “put butts in seats” and that means that we have to accept the fact that it’s not likely that everyone is always going to like everything that we do. It also means that we should accept their right to express their opinions, whatever they are.
Now, as with predicting the weather, good (valid) criticism is an opinion expressed by someone who has demonstrated that they have the knowledge and experience to offer judgments which we can believe are based on a reasonable attempt to respond to what I believe were Goethe’s three ideas about criticism. As I remember it, it was Goethe who suggested that criticism should attempt to answer three questions: 1) what was being attempted; 2) how well was that accomplished; and 3) was the attempt worthwhile. To me, that suggests that we should not only attempt to make our ideas clear in our advertising and promotional materials, but that we should also seek out reactions from folks who have enough background to be able to make a reasonable guess as to what we are trying to do; how well (in the grand scheme of things) we have done it; and whether what we are attempting makes sense in terms of the material we have chosen. (Anybody wonder why I think a background in dramatic literature and theatre history is of some importance?)
That suggests that the best criticism, like the best weather forecasts, don’t just appear from out of the blue, they come from folks with, hopefully, some experience and training related to what they are talking about. That doesn’t require a lot of advanced degrees and many years of practical experience (although that MIGHT help), but it does suggest that it comes from: people with enough background to have some idea as to how the theatre works; how it HAS worked; what sort of thing has been attempted before; and a sense as to whether what is being done seems to be making a worthwhile contribution to reasonable thinking about the work being presented. (In terms of weather, that translates to some knowledge as to which model(s) seems to best fit the current conditions and the willingness to “look out the window” to see which model(s) seem to best predict what is most likely to happen.
I think that means that criticism, like weather forecasting, is an opinion (a guess) and is really only as “valid” as the knowledge and experience of the person making it (and their willingness to at least attempt to present their thinking in a way which is not overly influenced by their own personal prejudices). I think that the same is true of grading, especially at the university level.
I know I have been criticized a times for being a “hard” grader, especially when, as in my Lit/Crit classes, I have suggested that “There are no ‘correct’ answers.” As I have tried to explain, that doesn’t mean that ALL answers are equally valid. Just as is true with criticism, there may be (usually are for good plays) many successful ways to “solve the problems of a given play.” I think that’s why a good play is capable of being interpreted in many ways and, hence, can be worth seeing in multiple productions.
In my own library, I have eight different video productions of Hamlet. (Okay, I’m a bit of a nut about that play.) I’ve been involved with two productions at WCU and seen it done in a couple of professional productions. One of the frequently discussed “problems” of this play is whether or not Hamlet is “mad.” Some suggest he is, some that he isn’t, some say that he crosses the line at times, but isn’t always. Personally, I don’t think he is ever truly mad, although he does get a bit carried away at a couple of moments. I think my opinion is reasonable based on evidence in the script and I would be happy to explain what that evidence is sometime (although this probably isn’t the moment).
However, I have respect for at least some of the critics who disagree with my interpretation based on their reading of the play. That’s what I mean (and meant) by the statement that there aren’t “correct” answers. There IS evidence to support multiple interpretations. The fact that I have arrived at one conclusion is NOT an assertion that this is the only acceptable one; just that it’s how I respond to the evidence at the moment. (NOTE: that doesn’t mean that even my opinion couldn’t change.)
So, how does that relate to grading? I think it means that I always believed that it was my job to make my best assessment of my student’s work and assign a grade (which was an opinion, at least when we weren’t dealing with just factual material) based on how well I felt that the student had responded to the specific prompt using materials and ideas which seemed relevant to the class. That is, was I presented with a reasonable (and reasonably factual) discussion which took a position and offered reasonable support for it?
An assertion that, “I just feel that way.” was unlikely to achieve much success in terms of a high grade. Clear, well-written, evidence-based argument was likely to receive a strong grade. Personally, I don’t apologize for being fairly demanding in my expectations. I did always try to stay aware of the fact that in these subjective situations the grade was my opinion. I also tried to be as fair as I could be to every student and to give the benefit of the doubt wherever possible. However, it was the case that the university had hired me because I was supposed to have the expertise to make these sorts of judgments and that I was expected to make them, not just “give” a student a grade.
So, how does this all fit together? I think that it all makes some sense for us to remember that not everything, perhaps not many things, have simple “right-wrong,” “yes-no,” “black-white” solutions. There are many things for which we would be wise to accept the idea that what we have to deal with is, basically, opinion. And among the things fitting this category are weather forecasting, criticism (probably of most things, but certainly in theatre and drama) and a lot of grading.
What I think this all adds up to is that all of us, including the Weather Service, should acknowledge that much of what we deal with IS opinion, and that it is our obligation to seek out those opinions which seem to be based on the best combination of experience and evidence. That doesn’t mean we are always going to agree with those opinions, but they should challenge us to consider whether we have considered the best evidence and constructed sound arguments to support the position we choose to take. In the long run, I think this would help us all be happier.