Reimagining Remote Teaching Volume 27 | GCTC

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Reimagining Remote Teaching Volume 27

by Sharon Down - April 9, 2021

A few years ago, I wrote an autoethnography for a Grad class at NKU.  I won’t bore you with it. It was about grades and grading. The main take-away for me was how much of my identity has always been bound up in grades, both as a student and now as a teacher.  I also realized how much my students’ identities were also entwined with grades, but in a very different way.

My experiences with grades were mostly positive.  I took pride in them, from gold stars in kindergarten to my college GPA. I couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t do everything assigned in classes, or why they seemed so apathetic about their grades.  Often the folks with the lowest grades seemed to care the least, except in the waning days of a term, when they suddenly realized they might not pass. I thought my good grades were a result of my efforts.

Turns out, that’s only partially true.  Grades are also about conformity.  About producing course products (like writing) that are a more about a grader’s subjective judgment about how well this particular product conforms to the teacher’s expectations, or Standard (Academic) English, the language of teachers.

But who made the standard?  And how does grading products affect students’ development as writers?  

A foundational text in writing studies is Donald M. Murray’s “Teach Writing as Process Not Product.” And a big part of my more recent pedagogy is about finding ways to get students to focus on process.  Many of you know that I took an interest in grade contracts a few years ago.  My experience was that students resented it: my default grade was a C, too low for the amount of work they were asked to do to get it, with extra work and writing quality required to get something higher.  So product grades still figured into the final average. Students who fancied themselves “good writers” sometimes found that the product alone was not nearly as awesome as they’d imagined, and as they hadn’t engaged fully in the activities of the course, their final grades led to disappointment.

I’ve been reading a book recently: Asao Inoue’s Labor Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. It contains reference to one of the grade contracts I was modeling mine on: that of Jane Danielewicz and Peter Elbow.  But that contract also grades subjective writing “quality.”  And Elbow, at least, was in a position to hand a drop slip to students who weren’t engaging in the work of the course.  He was able to pick his students, and so of course he got what he felt were good results.

Inoue’s approach is different. His contracts, negotiated anew in each class, reward labor, not product. He includes a lot of metacognitive writing; this practice gives students more agency and frees them from chasing grades for their own sake.  It makes students more mindful of their own process, (and of their use of time), and more willing to take risks, to be “wrong” and grow from that experience.  He argues that “labor or effort or engagement …are arguably much closer to the act of learning than a draft or portfolio because these dimensions (i.e. labor and effort) embody the experience of learning itself” (12).

Inoue also makes a powerful case about how Standard (Academic) English is really the language of the dominant White middle class, which comes more naturally to some students (because they were raised speaking it in their homes and neighborhoods) than others.  So his approach offers a powerful way to enact anti-racist (and classist) pedagogy. Or at least, a way to reconsider “our assumptions about grading, [to be] mindful of what we assume a paper or written product tells us about a student, mindful of what we think we can see and what textual markers we use that makes present so-called quality in a draft” (Inoue 12). 

What’s the point of all this for you?  Not to convert you to contract-based grading, though it would be cool if several people experimented with it to see how well it might serve our students. 

No, this is an example of the kind of thinking and researching I plan to pursue next year as part of a Faculty Learning Community. Maybe a journal article or conference paper comes out of it, maybe not, but I do plan to learn all I can and use it to shape my pedagogy in an intentional way.  

I don’t even need others to read this book or go on this particular journey with me; others pursuing their own pedagogical curiosity are companions enough for me.  And maybe they hold me accountable to keep doing research and keep pushing out of my comfort zone when I might want to give up, or when the semester’s undertow gets me. Finally, I hope to grow as a professor by considering the insights and challenging questions of my colleagues. 

Tuition waivers are never coming back. I find that I have missed the experience of being simultaneously teacher and student (maybe not in that order.) I was a better teacher, because I was engaging in the same process I was asking of my students. Faculty Learning Communities are another way to move to the other side of the desks – to broaden our perspective, to experiment, intentionally and mindfully, in ways that benefit all of us: students, the college, and our wider community. 

*Want to check out more free resources for professors who use writing in some way in their classes?  Check out the WAC Clearinghouse