Over the last week I’ve spent some time assessing the work of photography students who are finishing up the first term of the year at the photo school. It’s always great to see the finished pictures that are result of those few weeks together. Aside from giving out grades, the role that I and my co-assessor play is one of engaging critically, acting as viewers of the work who give it the kind of scrutiny that might not get from most other viewers (family and friends, say). So it seemed a little surprising to me the amount of resistance that my co-assessors and I seemed to get.

We’d offer an observation on the work, or perhaps some suggestion for improvement, and it seemed that not a few students would interrupt us with reasons for why this or that wasn’t done: the photo store didn’t allow that option, or they just didn’t like printing on that kind of paper, or it was too hard, or they weren’t interested. I’m not putting about that the co-assessors and I were trying to be authorities from on high, nor that most students were like this; most weren’t, in fact. It just seemed something we noticed and remarked on, this time round.

It got me thinking about the process of assessment. Obviously the criteria for a particular assignment need to made explicit, but perhaps so does the purpose of assessment itself. Quite by coincidence, a couple of days later, I got a questionnaire from an academic at the uni doing a project on the assessment of creative work, and this crystallized a bit more thought on it all. The next few paragraphs are pretty much cribbed from my response.

Assessment provides a means of checking that the student is learning effectively, so the the university/general community can be sure that graduates have a certain set of skills.For the student, though, it is itself a way that the student can learn, both by doing the task and getting feedback about it. Least important for learning, but a necessary evil, it’s also a way of ranking for scholarships, admissions, etc.

With creative work though, I wonder if  a student’s sense of self-worth is more at stake, a feeling that the work is somehow more personal than traditionally scholarly critical work. Perhaps there’s a greater risk of vulnerability partly for this reason, and partly because creative work is probably more public. In any case, I reckon that in its assessment, creative work shares with critical work the need for clear criteria.

And what’s being assessed? The work should show us something new or show us the familiar in a new way. It should demonstrate craft competence. It should say what it aims to say clearly (and I don’t mean necessarily that it should be simple). It should be aware of history and context. It should fulfill the brief/answer the question/succeed in doing what it sets out to do. One doesn’t want the work to be solipsistic or incomprehensible, yet it shouldn’t be obvious and cliched either. Maybe here’s where some personal judgment comes in. The assessor needs to have experience and openness and rigour and generosity, all in balance.

What should not be assessed is the trouble it took to make (eg I had to climb four mountains to have this epiphany so I could write this bad poem), nor should we be assessing the work with reference to how the maker feels or how much it’s an evocation of their feelings or person (firstly, you can’t judge the work because everyone feels something, and secondly, if the work is crap then is the maker a lesser person?). This last point is one that David Hurn and Bill Jay make in their book On Being a Photographer.

It seems to me that there’s not a lot of difference in assessing creative and critical work: specific criteria being addressed, with the possibility of some special thing about the work or the writing or whatever to take it into High Distinction territory. Is making scholarship and making art simply a question of employing different mediums? If so, should that make universities more willing to admit the practice of art-making into the realm of scholarship? Not just by teaching creative arts production in a university context, I mean, but by being open to treating it as scholarship too.