Experiments in Decentralized Grading Strategies
by Bethany Ides
Presented at the 2019 Fall Forum
After my first decade or so of teaching, I felt myself at an impasse. While I believed more heartily than ever that the classroom can be a highly generative space for learning and developing new methods of equitable and inclusive community-making, I felt that grades and grading were the biggest impediment to this. And yet, it was still very much my responsibility to produce them. So, I began a series of experiments to see what else was possible.
The belief that more was possible was premised on a few assumptions—
- Assuming something new/different will happen in our work together that will defy precedent… which I associate with Hannah Arendt’s concept of natality that she uses to describe humans’ inherent capacity for action (or revolution). Arendt writes in The Human Condition: “The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle. The fact that [humans are] capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from [them], that [they are] able to perform what is infinitely improbable.”
- Assuming it is not a foregone conclusion that educational institutions only stand to institutionalize thinking/thinkers… which I connect to Fred Moten’s assertion that “the only possible relationship to the university today is a criminal one” and to the political and intellectual paradoxes that a professional professor routinely performs which, in effect, prevent criticality, as well as to Sara Ahmed’s supportive reminder that being questionable (as someone who is not readily labeled “male” and/or “straight” and/or “white” and/or “able-bodied,” for instance) can be catalyzed into “[making] everything into something that is questionable.” And I can virtually guarantee you that messing with a system like grading will make you questionable in the eyes of your students, which can feel like an increased risk when you’re already questionable for one of these other reasons.
- Assuming that our ideas propose at least as much as they reflect… which is the belief that new ideas auto-generate conditions favorable for more new ideas at the same time that they also allow us to reflect obliquely on what we thought was already a given.
- Assuming that collective discourse does not occur in an abstract plane of absolute values but rather as live intermingling of contexts and ideas… meaning a classroom organized around collective discourse is a living social organism, responsive to actual present conditions and also having actual present needs; that there is something more nuanced and complex than a vendor-consumer exchange taking place; that there is reciprocity in live-ness; and that none of what is discussed could ever be assigned an absolute value from which one could determine the particular degree to which a student’s insight is commensurate, adequate or “correct.”
“Classrooms work as a space where individuals come together to investigate and attempt to connect ideas. The air and space between ideas is the space amid certainties…. There seems to be a fear of trying new things or losing seriousness when it comes to classroom settings. I think it is entirely possible to stay serious while using more playful methods of investigation to achieve greater understanding. All that is needed is a system of accountability. Typically, grades are used to hold students accountable. However, the classic grading system may not be useful to all students because everyone starts out at a different level of understanding. In addition to this, grading creates an attitude of passive learning, causing students to participate just to fill a requirement, while avoiding a genuine exploration of new concepts with peers.” (This came from a student.)
In my courses on Play, I asked students to work in groups to develop games and rituals for radically reconfiguring grading. Together, we all played grading in class. That is, we willfully suspended what we understood to be educational-institutional behavior and engaged in student-led activities that were in moments both asburd and astute. Then, we tried using these methods to actually grade the students’ essays which felt pretty disorienting. But also: there was the realization that grading-as-we-knew-it had suddenly become dislodged. Students started spontaneously deciding their own assignments and undertook remarkably sophisticated and rigorous projects as a result. They were fearless.
Later, for a course on Sharing, I asked students to design their own grading contract agreements, and met with them each individually to discuss that. I wanted to do all I could to prevent the activity from defaulting to a re-production of normative valuation or worse, a deeper internalization of disciplinary structures. The strategies they came up with were brilliant. One wanted to extend the writing process by creating a series of end-notes in which she would explore questions I’d posed in the margins of her essay. Another wanted to incorporate more speculative writing into his work, so he composed a fictional epilogue to every essay (on top of the page requirements). Another said that grades meant nothing to her but that her peers’ viewpoints meant quite a lot, so she asked other students to take part in the grading process. Several asked that the grade for their first essay be decided after they completed their second, so that they could better determine by contrast how much they had improved. In every conference, I’d ask the student: OK, so what do you want my role to be in this?
I am still experimenting, and can absolutely attest to how exhausting these kinds of experiments can be, but the break-throughs for all involved have been so exhilarating and emboldening, I still want to know what else is possible.