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Committing to ungrading, in an emergency and after

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As the COVID-19 pandemic forced a transition to online learning, my social media feeds were full of urgent questions from colleagues in academia. We wondered about what goals still made sense, and how to support our students when many of our own lives had been (and could still be) upended. One thing many of us seemed to agree on was that, at a minimum, it would be both kind and practical to abandon the notion that making distinctions between a B- and a B was a good use of our remaining time this semester, or what our students needed from us right now.

Duke lent important support to all of us who felt this way. As a student-generated petition for pass/fail grading gained nearly 3,000 signatures, Provost Sally Kornbluth announced on March 18 that Spring 2020 grades would be satisfactory/unsatisfactory by default for undergraduate courses. Most graduate and professional schools followed suit soon after. 

Radically changing our grading systems because of COVID-19 is an example of what theorist Elaine Scarry calls “emergency thinking.” It casts grades as a temporary inconvenience, something we should let go of when conditions are not ideal—when they don’t allow for the fairness or objectivity that usually goes into grading procedures. The problem is that the fairness and objectivity never existed, and there is a perverse way in which abandoning grading in an emergency reinforces the myth that they did.

Traditional grading is one of the academy’s most pervasive and unquestioned forms of structural injustice. This is true now, when adherence to pre-coronavirus grading schema seem incompatible with the many different situations in which Duke faculty and students find ourselves. But it’s also true in non-emergency times—the times when we’re allowed to shake hands with each other and work in coffee shops. As a long list of thoughtful educators working in contexts from elementary through higher education have argued—and as I have experienced firsthand through my own ungrading journey—traditional grading is an obstacle to authentic relationships in the classroom, decreasing student’s real motivation to learn or take risks. Grades can be effective in maintaining certain forms of compliance, but they fly in the face of decades of research on learning: the common purpose shared by everyone from acclaimed researchers to first-year students at Duke. 

Grades are also one of the major mechanisms by which colleges and universities wind up maintaining and even exacerbating inequalities that students bring with them into the classroom. These include educational inequalities, which often fall along racial lines due to the school segregation that continues in the U.S., as well as disability and neurodivergence of various kinds. Students with college-educated parents or caregivers often come into graded classrooms with a leg up over first-generation college students, as do students who grew up speaking “standardized”—meaning, white—English.

If we simply jettison our usual grading practices now, because of this emergency, we preserve for “normal” times a system that is mired in bad faith (find me a single professor who sits down to grade with the same sense of pride or purpose as when they are writing an article, lecture, or lesson plan). As former Duke professor Cathy N. Davidson (now at CUNY) and Christina Katopodis recently wrote in Inside Higher Ed, “Even at higher ed institutions where residential life is a cornerstone of all they do, it seems somehow easier to close the campus, move every student out of the dorms and place all courses online than to change policies and practices for how those students will be tested, assessed and graded.”

We can craft a crisis response to grading—#PassFailNation, as folks are calling it on Twitter—and then go back when the crisis is over. Or we can ungrade.

Ungrading (a term used in popular talks and writings by scholar Jesse Stommel, among others) can mean many things, including having students reflect upon and evaluate their own work throughout the semester, also using guided peer assessment, or contract grading of various kinds. These systems all differ from each other, and each has its own strengths and drawbacks. But they have some key things in common. On the whole, they reject the notion that teachers should be putting grades on individual pieces of student work. I have found this step alone transformative: as soon as students are doing their work without feeling like they have to guess what the professor is looking for in order to get a good grade, they start doing wonderful things. They are more likely to take risks, collaborate, suggest creative formats and approaches and reveal important pieces of themselves. 

The merits of different alternative grading methods are worth exploring and debating. But all of them, when compared with the top-down, bad faith grading so common in the academy, are comparatively non-hierarchical, transparent and egalitarian. All of them foster the intrinsic motivation that students bring into the classroom. Faculty members ditching their old grading schema to serve students’ mental health needs in a time of crisis should be reminded that every day in our classrooms there are good students, students who care about learning and want to succeed, whose mental health also feels precarious—who are in crisis, coronavirus or no.

Those of us who have been exploring alternative grading for a long time are limited by the fact that we must still produce a traditional grade on a four-point scale at the end of the semester. And in general, while innovative educational strategies in higher education tend to bubble up from people who are teaching in the most precarious, non-tenure track positions, those are also the people who also feel the most exposed if they implement non-standard grading procedures.

I use a system of labor-based grading contracts adapted from Asao Inoue’s book, Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. Every assignment has a point value, and students get all of the points on their assignment as long as it meets the clearly-stated minimum standards I have communicated to them. I give plenty of feedback, and incorporate opportunities for revision so that students willing to keep working on the assignment—with my help—can still demonstrate their learning and earn full points. In other words, I accept that learning happens at different paces and is an iterative process, and don’t penalize my students for the way that learning works.

As COVID-19 was forcing me to reinvent so many facets of my teaching and my life, I was glad of this one thing I did not have to rethink on the fly, did not have to leave up to emergency thinking. I already had a grading system meant to maximize student engagement while minimizing stress. Perhaps more importantly, partly because I had been contract grading all along, I could relate to students in a time of mutual need without that sense, so palpably present when I used to put As, Bs, and Cs on individual assignments, that my role as a gatekeeper or judge was always there in the background—a hat I couldn’t remove.

Just as COVID-19 has cast a stark and urgent light on the failures of our healthcare system, our economy and other basic structures of American life, the wave of emergency ungrading allows faculty members to think about whether we ever want to go back to reading papers with half of our thoughts already occupied in justifying the grade we’re going to give. I hope that students like junior Michael Castro, who created the petition for widespread successful/unsuccessful grading at Duke, will keep speaking up to faculty and administration about whether they think grades are helping them learn and be engaged members of this community, which cannot help but be altered forever by the pandemic.

I’ve been lucky: I found the work of Jesse Stommel, Asao Inoue, Cathy Davidson, Alfie Kohn, Starr Sackstein and other ungrading champions when I desperately needed it because I could no longer stand the bad faith, or the sense that my grading was perpetuating the very same inequalities that the rest of my teaching sought to expose and undermine. I found ungrading before an emergency. Others have come to it in the midst of a global crisis. But it shouldn’t just be an emergency measure. 

A wealth of information on ungrading—theoretical and practical perspectives, and not all of them speaking in a single voice—can be found in Jesse Stommel’s “What if We Didn’t Grade? A Bibliography.” A Facebook page for Teachers Going Gradeless has provided me with a supportive community and great resources, as have many people posting with the hashtags #ungrading and #gradeless. For those wishing to see how institutions around the country are rethinking grading in this crisis, Laura Gibbs is curating a  “#PassFailNation: Alternative Grading” site.

 I hope that students, as well as my fellow faculty members, will join a sustained effort to rethink grades beyond temporary measures. Keep safe; be kind to yourself and your loved ones. And, if you possibly can, stay ungraded.

Adam Rosenblattt is an Associate Professor of the Practice in International Comparative Studies.

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