Grading as performative speech act

In my feminist theology class last year, I had occasion to explain the notion of performative speech acts to them. I used the standard examples: an oath exists simply by virtue of someone swearing an oath, the act of getting married consists of saying “I do” (under the appropriate circumstaces), etc.

And then it occurred to me — their grades are performative speech acts as well. They get the grades they get by virtue of me, the recognized instructor of the course, saying that’s what they get. I reassured them that obviously I would give them the grades based on the standards I’d laid out in the syllabus, not just arbitrarily, but at bottom, my say-so as a professor is what generates their official grade. As a friend pointed out yesterday when I mentioned this, that means that we teachers actually create “A students” (in much the same way that Butler says it is the state that “creates hate speech”) — whatever their underlying skills, however hard they work on academic matters, they only become “A students” when we declare them to be such.

To add a further wrinkle to it, at Shimer College we have an online grade entry form, but we still have to print out the form and sign it in order for the grades to become “official.” On a practical level, this seems to be unnecessary (Kalamazoo College had a purely online system, for example), but I like how it highlights the performative aspect of the act of grading. If not for the grade sheet, my most powerful signatures would be on credit card receipts: “Let this be your tip — I hereby declare it!”

Shimer is also small enough that the president and chairman of the board of trustees physically sign all the diplomas — and my PhD diploma from CTS is physically signed as well. Surely that’s impossible at bigger universities, so that we enter into a Derridean problematic where the signature still “counts” despite being mechanically reproduced.

Of course, in a world where the act of the signature is on the decline, where answering a little mini-quiz with information that supposedly “only you could know” counts as an “electronic signature” (even for purposes of paying taxes!), we presumably don’t find this problematic — just as we don’t find it problematic that the signature of the U.S. Treasury Secretary on our dollar bills, which performatively makes that piece of paper into money, is mechanically reproduced. In fact, when Obama first took office, there was an interregnum when new dollar bills were still being printed with Paulson’s signature even though Geithner had been confirmed as Treasury Secretary — a strange coincidence given the fact that Obama publically “flubbed” the oath of office and was later re-sworn in “just to be safe.”

It’s as though the Obama administration can’t help but enact the continuing decline of the power of the oath that Agamben, following Prodi, diagnoses. At Shimer College, though, we keep faith — we physically sign our grade sheets and our diplomas. Whatever else our students get, they get the peace of mind of knowing that all the relevant performative speech acts have been performed to the fullest extent, in the fullness of living presence.

11 thoughts on “Grading as performative speech act

  1. You’re familiar, I presume, with the Three Baseball Umpires story (Umpire 1: “I call them as they are”; Umpire 2: “I call them as I see them”; Umpire 3: “They ain’t nothing ’til I call them”)…

  2. “I output a token based on the result of a pattern-recognition algorithm applied to the inputs from my visual sensors”, which I think is equivalent to “I call them as I see them”.

  3. Perhaps y’all might be interested In this from the Talmud, Bava Metzia 19a (this is part of a jumbled piece I wrote elsewhere ) ‘In the middle of a whole lot of discussion about lost and found documents (property deeds, divorce ‘gets,’ promissory notes on loans, even ‘credit default swaps!’ etc.) is a section on the manumission of slaves. A case is presented for consideration, and I paraphrase: ‘A writ of emancipation is found in the marketplace, to whom should it be returned; the master or the slave…?‘ It’s like this, Tom finds a document just laying on the ground while strolling through the market. The document states that Dick the slave is free from his master Harry. A question arises: Who does the document belong to, should it be given to Dick the slave or back to his master Harry; that is, is Dick a free person or still a slave? The Rabbis kanoodle on this for quite a spell before offering their wisdom and judgement on Dick’s status. But I want to first note some precedents that are brought to bear having to do with “wills,” etc., from section 18. The usual form of a ‘will’ that would, for example, bequest a piece of land to someone, uses the standard Hebrew phrase: “…from today and after my death.” That is, I leave my vast estate to my daughter Amber but she doesn’t take physical possession until after I die; Amber has a claim of ownership now but must wait until I die (sorry Amber) for the document to effect it’s full possessive power. But just how does a ‘will’ effect that power (if it does) and how does a system of contested, differential symbols set Dick free (if in fact it can?).

    Let’s say Tom gives the writ to Dick and he begins living as a free person, he has a job and money, property and investments, then a wife and children; and he has a document of manumission attesting to his status as a “free person.” But is he really free? Harry, his (former?) master says no, and so Dick is brought before the court, his money and property may be confiscated and his marriage annulled because Harry asserts that Dick is still his slave. The Rabbi’s then ask some probing questions: Was the writ of manumission signed? (addressing issues of authorship and authentication). Were there witnesses to the signature? (addresses issues of socially constructed/validated meaning); Is there an effective date of manumission in the document (addressing issues of the relationships of time and being. This is important because sometimes masters would write documents in anticipation of freeing a slave before a major holidays etc.). And further, did the master present the writ himself and ‘give it into the slave’s hand,‘ or was it delivered by a third party (concerns questions delimiting presence and absence). Or, and this can be a big factor, did the master free the slave verbally while nearing “immanent death,” which is one of the cases where a verbal statement supersedes a previous written one.’ This is only part of lot of discussions in this section of the Talmud that seem relevant to your question. Obliged.

  4. He doesn’t go into a ton of detail — he just says that oaths don’t seem to be as effective or binding anymore. I explore this in my contribution to Anthony’s edited volume.

  5. Actually, it was the Chief Justice who flubbed the oath. Obama had clearly rehearsed it, and was trying to say it as it had been written. I guess the Chief Justice found it hard to swear in a president who had been opposed to his appointment. The press complained that they hadn’t been invited to the re-swearing, but I suspect that Obama was trying to spare the Chief Justice any embarrassing questions.

  6. Regarding speech as performative act – while all speech arises from the position of the speaker within a given situation, the speech can’t be divorced from the situation, in the sense of being the arbitrary act of the speaker. That’s why we have debates, discussions, disputes, reviews, appeals, and reversals. There is the need to allow for error, distortion and bias, to whatever extent is possible. That’s the reason for the cry for robots in the earlier comment, and the move towards “goal line technology” in UK football. It results from too much human error in the refereeing of the game, and an implication that it is possible to base the final stage of performative speech on a more accurate and unbiased assessment of the situation.

  7. The document in question, emancipating Dick, has no power of its own. It is supposed to be evidence of a free, deliberate act on the part of Harry. Maybe Harry has changed his mind, but that particular reality might not be permitted to override his earlier choice. And the document would have been an expression of Harry’s actual choice, even if it were embodied in an act of performative speech. If the document was signed, and there are the signatures of witnesses, the latter are performative, but also evidence that certain persons were physically present and saw Harry give evidence of his actual intentions. Social agreement (a) that Harry will not be allowed to change his mind or retract his earlier choice, (b) that certain persons will be recognized as valid witnesses to Harry’s earlier expressed choice, and (c) the document will be considered as valid evidence of that choice – this all represents an orderly way to establish physical evidence of real acts expressing real intentions involving real people. The consequences for Dick will be profound in their physical consequences, and the social realities involved are, of course, part of the reality of Dick’s position. Status in society may well be expressed and controlled by socially agreed performative speech acts, but it arises from the real intentions of one group of people with regard to another, in this case those who would own slaves and those they would enslave.

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