Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | April 1, 2015

The universe is made of atoms AND stories

I was in the middle of my grad school career and, although I was an English major with a focus in Composition & Rhetoric, I became involved in a research project that required a lot of information management. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Excel, much less databases, and so my co-researcher — Nick, a fellow grad student — and I compiled and analyzed our data by sorting piles and piles of responses (hard copies of questionnaires), and tallying results with a calculator. OMG.

AristotleAnd yet I was hooked. We had started with a fairly straightforward query. Rhetoric, the field we were studying, is basically about the effectiveness of communication between a speaker and his or her audience. We had been studying everyone from Aristotle and Plato to Kenneth Burke and Foucault. So, Nick and I decided, as a research project, we would look at a problem of rhetoric in a most simple and immediate forum.

We decided to examine the “rhetoric of grading.” In other words, when a teacher gives a student a grade of A, B, C, D or F, what is the meaning of that grade to that student? What was the teacher’s intention in assigning that grade? It was a case in which the rhetoric – the text – shared between the “speaker” (teacher) and “audience” (student) could be stripped down to one letter of the alphabet: A, B, C, D or F. What did that letter mean to the teacher? To the student?

We devised a questionnaire and enlisted about a dozen writing teachers and their students to participate in our survey. All, of course, were guaranteed anonymity. We got a ton of responses and were faced with a pile of work. Multiple choice, true/false, and Likert scale (“On a scale of 1 to 5 …”) questions result in data that’s easy enough to compile, crunch, and analyze, even without Survey Gizmo or Excel. But we were naïve and unseasoned and curious (and stupid) enough to ask a lot of open-ended questions, which of course resulted in people writing their thoughts in their own words. There was a lot of it was interesting anecdotes and opinions on the individual response level. But what did all these words mean, ultimately? Were there trends? Commonalities in their responses?

We examined this data from many different perspectives. We manually counted the frequency that certain words popped up in open-ended questions. We sorted through the questionnaires again and again. It became almost an obsession to try to get to the heart of these words, to understand the meaning of all this rhetoric, to try to categorize all those words, to find trends that pointed to a clear message to emerge from all these questionnaires.

MTA bus - 2It was about this time I happened to be riding a crosstown bus in NYC, heading home, our survey on the “rhetoric of grading” and our need to come to some conclusions weighing on my mind.

I looked around the slow-traveling bus at my fellow passengers, at the street scenes outside, and then scanned the advertising and public notice placards that formed a border of text and illustrations along the ceiling of the bus. One caught my eye — one of the MTA’s “Poetry in Motion” posts. It was just a few lines from a poem, The Speed of Darkness, by Muriel Rukeyser. Those lines practically shouted at me:

Time comes into it.
Say it.        Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms.
I felt rebuked, enlightened, and amused. Nick and I had focused so much up to this point in our research project on the small atoms of rhetoric delivered to us in that survey by students and teachers responding to questions about grades given and received, trying to classify and categorize and count and calculate the trends. But the time had come for us to step back and see the big picture, to understand the story that teachers and students were trying to tell in their responses.
We did, indeed, make sense of it all. Our most significant finding was that the meaning of the grade of “C” was pretty darn ambiguous, with the writing teachers, overall, claiming it meant one thing, but student writers describing it quite differently. Students also seemed to interpret the relationship of their efforts to their grade a bit differently than their teachers, especially as it figured in to the highest and lowest grades, A’s and F’s. The mechanics of the English language (grammar, punctuation, sentence and paragraph structure and so on) seemed to figure prominently in a teacher’s mind in delineating the difference between an A and a B, while a very large percentage of students firmly believed that some people are just naturally – genetically – good writers.
Theory & Practice of Grading WritingOur paper about the research project and our findings, “Grading as a Rhetorical Construct,” was published in an anthology, The Theory and Practice of Grading (SUNY Press, 1998), and is still available through
These days, when I’m in the middle of a research project, neck deep in data, trying to make sense of it all, those lines from that Poetry in Motion poem still come back to me:  “Say it! Say it!”
But I’ve revised the lines just slightly from the original “the universe is made of atoms not stories.” It’s pretty obvious that it’s made of both.

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