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Crowdsourcing Grading, Liability, and a New Year's Allegory

Since this  is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the New Year in the Jewish calendar, my partner and I spent much of the weekend in services at Beth El Synagogue, where Rabbi Steven Sager is offering his final sermons.  He is retiring after thirty-two years with our community.  He is a man of extraordinary depth and wisdom and, in these last sermons, wit too.  He loves poetry and he often speaks with the cadences of a poet.  Much of what he says is allegorical, with meaning for many different aspects of one's life.


Today, he spoke to us about what it means to be an "our" instead of a "me" and "you."   He went through many examples but one particularly resonated for me in the context not of only of a religious group or a synagogue but of "our" HASTAC community and, beyond, our digital World Wide Web, inhabited together, sometimes as a "me" and "you" or an "us" and "them," but, in its best moments, as a collective "our." 


Rabbi Sager told of how, most Fridays, after preparations for the typical "bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah du jour," parents of the child will invariably ask him if he will take down the Torah, open it for them, and then pose for photographs of them reading it, then put it back.   He says he invariably responds, "Why don't you take it down?"   They are invariably shocked.  "Carry the Torah?  But if I drop it, that means I have to fast for forty days!"   Long pause in the sermon.  "Well, then don't drop it."   He noted that, of course, the young girl or boy preparing for the bar or bat mitzvah has been carrying the Torah, so the parent shouldn't be frightened.  And then he said, "Something important happens when they realize this is their responsibility.  Their relationship to the Torah and the ceremony and everything changes when they take the responsibility--making sure not to drop it."


That's point one:  when we do something risky ourselves, we take responsibility in a different way than when we say, "It's your job.  You are in charge.  You do it.  And then I'll join you in the photograph."


Later in the sermon, Rabbi Sager came back to this story and said sometimes when he tells it, people will say.  "The Torah's heavy.  You let people lift it? Aren't you afraid of liability?"   (NB:  There are lots of doctors and lawyers in the congregation.)


He said, "What about the liability of not doing it?  What about the liability, for everything else, of not taking responsibility?"


That is a profound question.  I don't want to worry it too much except to say that, when I advocated peer-to-peer evaluation, and a method whereby teams of students took responsibility for assessing their peers' work and offering feedback to it so it could become as good as it could be, and then other students would assume that role the next week, and so on and so forth, it was because I believe that, in this digital age, when so much of our communication is unmoderated, we are doing a terrible job teaching the responsibility of peer-to-peer communication.  That has to change.  We must refocus education on the challenges of our moment.  We must make all of our students and one another aware that, well, if you do the equivalent of dropping the Torah, there are serious consequences so, duh:  Don't Drop It!


Even more, we need to rethink education so that we realize that if it seems risky to find ways where students are empowered to act as agents, as responsibile adults in a process of peer-learning and peer-evaluation, there may be greater liabilities to not taking those risks.   All over the Web, people have pointed the risks of my experiment out to me (often in impolite ways, but sometimes quite constructively).   Sometimes I hear the voice of experience warning me away from risk, and other times what I hear is simple fear or intellectual resistance to change (another form of fear).


But the real response to such apprehension is the one Rabbi Sager gave.    "What about the liability of not doing it?  What about the liability, for everything else, of not taking responsibility?"


That is the right follow-up question to any experiment that pushes us to learn better and deeper, to take more risks, be more creative and bold together. What about the liabilities of not taking risks?   It is a very good thought with which to begin this new year. 


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