In one of my classes, the students are required to write a pursuasive essay. In our class, I decided to have the students read and write about “the future.” As I have written here previously, we read the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, read various essays on the (possible) future, and viewed multi-media pieces on the same subject. As our textbook tells us, “Everything is an Argument” which leaves plenty of room to play and analyze the rhetoric used to make arguments about the future.
The final essay was the culmination of all of our work on rhetoric, research, and imagining the future. I was quite impressed with the results I received from my students. They were mostly thoughful, well researched, if a bit on the depressing side (not very many happy pictures of our future). Certainly there were some that were unfocused, others that were poorly researched; over-all, however, I was quite happy with my students` work. But there was one essay that gave me pause.
One student chose to write about how we are currently witnessing the End of Days as desccibed in the Bible. The student went on to very logically and meticulously show all of the ways our world currently resembles what is “fortold” in the Bible. Rhetorically, it was very pursuasive. The Bible says this, our world looks like this, therefore we are at The End of Days. On the basis of the research the student had done and the rhetorical strategies the student employed, this was a strong B or even A paper (give or take some grammatical issues). But, what to do, how to evaluate, the “reliability” of the Bible as a source?
Adding to the complexity of the issue, the student in fact had done much the same thing in an assignment I had devised, asking them to compare our world to the world imagined/fortold in Fahrenheit 451. By the end of the essay, the students had come to various conclusions about how similar our world is to Bradbury`s imaginary world and what that could mean, what lessons we should be taking from that comparison. How is Bradbury`s fictional world (as a source) any different from the Bible`s vision of the future?
Please don`t think that I am so naive that I don`t know the answer to that question already. But, I teach in a place where the Bible is still an important document that many of my students (and their families and communities) revere. And I know that others react with a quick dismissal of any student who would quote the Bible or any religious text as a sign that the student has shown no critical thinking or even, perhaps, doesn’t deserves to be in university. And this is where the conflict, for me, comes to head. The difference, of course, is in how we know the students treat the two works: the Bible as fact and Fahrenheit 451 as fiction. If the student didn`t actually believe the Bible but instead treated it as a work of fiction, would the final product thus be more worthy? And how am I to know, one way or the other, what the student believes? It certainly, for me, isn`t my place to judge a student`s faith or beliefs. But I know there are people who would expect me to fail or at least grade the student more harshly based on the fact that, for them, the Bible is a reliable source.
I am particularly troubled because I know that this is generally a good student; they do the work, they make a real effort, and has shown great improvement. And the work the student did was good; knowing that the Bible is a contentious document, the student really did go out of their way to outline as many similarities as possible. Not to mention that every other source the student used was a “legitimate” source as we discussed in class. But I also know that this student`s essay is going to be read by my colleagues (anonymously) for our general education/student learning outcomes requirement. And while this student will never know the things that I know will be said about her/his paper, it stings me nonetheless. And I also know that my colleagues will wonder what grade this student received on the paper. They`ll never know, but I know they`d be troubled to learn that it is probably a much better grade than they hoped.
So I`m going to ask for this advice. What can I or should I do in these situations?