On UnGrading the Composition Classroom

       “One class down. Two more to go.” I can’t put a number on how many times I’ve whispered sentences like these under my breath over the past two years. Typically, I’ll find myself in a coffeeshop somewhere or perhaps at my living room table, hunched over a stack of papers that I’ve left to the last minute, some guilt-spawning Peter Elbow “Good writing teachers love student writing” quotation swimming in my brain. Oftentimes, as teachers of writing, we forget what grading really is in an effort to hastily get it done, to move on to the next project and the next item on our busy agendas. I’m often burdened by the guilt that perhaps I’m not taking enough time with student papers, not paying enough attention to the complex nuances, allusions, experiences outlined in them. The truth is, I shouldn’t feel this way. I do love student writing. In fact, I love and respect student writing so deeply that I’ve dedicated a fair portion of my life to considering the implications of an instructor such as myself not loving student writing enough. Nevertheless, I’m burdened by the feeling that my well-honed, carefully-considered comments fall on disinterested eyes, that my students are so taxed with performing to the rigorous standards outlined in my assignment prompts that their intellectual focus barely glances at the core pillars of what I’m hoping to nurture– writing as discovery, language as social action, writing as connecting experience, language, invention, response– and I’m led to the unhappy conclusion that pursuit of a grade ultimately obstructs genuine, authentic rhetorical action. In other words, if students were somehow able to act without fear of penalty, and still were incentivized to work, grow and revise, the learning occurring in those projects would be infinitely deeper, profound, more meaningful.

       Now, I had the advantage in my intellectual journey to read Peter Elbow and imbibe his evaluative philosophy into my pedagogical habits from the very beginning. I was never what he would think of as an old-fashioned grader. Instead, I jumped right in with the types of evaluative procedures that he would consider nurturing, generative and ultimately helpful. But, like Elbow, I have long nursed doubts about the evaluative enterprise in regards to grading student writing. What is our ultimate goal? What are we working toward? I can’t speak for chemistry or psychology or kinesiology, but the sciences and social sciences seem to be disciplines in which students benefit from a “checklist” style of learning, ie. memorize this list and you’ll excel. Contrasted, the humanities and the arts, and specifically writing instruction, approach a process rather than a list. We’re not primarily concerned with our students’ ability to recite a definition of the rhetorical triangle, but rather their ability to put this textbook knowledge into practice within their own composing practices. I’m never quizzing my students on their recollection of the Burkean Parlour. My classroom never touches a scantron sheet, nor are they ever really expected to sit down and perform the task of “studying.” Instead, I demand action, process, intellectual movement. Our class requires organization, planning, synthesizing, response. None of these can be empirically assigned a grade. Evidence can be subjectively analyzed and given/not given a stamp of approval, but when we assign an A or a C or an F, we’re falling back into the old trap, the old tired horse of writing studies: we’re evaluating a final product instead of steering our students toward the real goals, which are all process-based, unfolding developments of rhetorical and expressive dexterity.

       When we assign writing next to a rubric, we reward “checklist-style” learning (I see this in my students all the time, and though there are plenty of suggestions tossed around as to how we can disincentivize this, I’m at a near loss as to how to do so effectively, from the beginning, across the board).  When we evaluate a student’s essay in comparison to an assignment prompt, we’re reinforcing the same type of narrow stay-in-the-lines thinking that coloring books do. When we evaluate student writing next to the essays of other students, we inevitably objectify it, flatten it, deflate it of all air, just as the time and labor constraints of the modern university incentivize us to do. And when we stamp a grade on student writing, we inevitably initiate a complex rhetorical situation that students rarely are compelled to respond to or to consider further. In other words, when a grade becomes final, a student no longer has any incentive to think about it in any depth. It’s unlikely she/he/they will ever perform a similar writing exercise again, and even so, students hardly tend to be aware of the benefits of reflection unless specifically asked to consider them. The truth is that, far too often, grading is taken by students as an emotional evaluation of their worth in the eyes of their professor, as an appraisal of their intellectual and cognitive abilities. As a culture, we’ve hammered this into their thinking throughout their entire educational careers, rewarding them when they satisfy assignments and narrow teacher-appointed learning outcomes that hardly challenge them. A possible resolution to this problem that I employ within my own pedagogy is direct questioning. Early in the semester, I ask my students to perform some sort of typed, long-form writing assignment, usually three pages or so. Instead of assigning the writing a traditional, formal grade, I instead read through each paper with a red pen and ask five open-ended questions. I neither mark nor look for grammatical or semantic errors. I don’t worry about development, argument, analysis, summary, description, diction or even improvement– I simply ask questions related to the content of the writing. Then, in class, I ask students to respond to my questions and venture answers to them. This exercise helps students slip out of their android/robot voice, a body of words intended to check off boxes on an assignment prompt, and instead to envision their writing as thinking, as a real contribution, as discovery.

       One thing is clear: the current system of assigning letter grades in writing classrooms is not cultivating the type of thinking, nor the approach to writing as process and intellectual exploration, that we’ve always envisioned it achieving. The valuable questions worth asking here: How can we steer student composing toward all of the complex hopes (what we formerly would refer to as expectations or requirements) we strive to cultivate in student writing without the fear of penalty, the apprehensiveness to risk taking, the anxiety inherent in uncertainty?

       I’ve recently come across a provocative analysis of these and similar problems. Jesse Stommel writes of his experience “ungrading” for over 17 years across multiple institutions, classrooms and composition course iterations. His approach is to eschew grades in favor of achieving learning outcomes in other ways. He relies primarily upon self-reflection, guided peer-review and more than a fair bit of structured critical thinking. These practices, coupled with “grade-free zones,” process letters, portfolio compilation, peer-assessment and classroom-sourced rubrics (ie. student-led rubric design), creates a grade-free classroom experience that remains intensive and intellectually rigorous. His students grade themselves and their own writing. Stommel readily and enthusiastically admits that he allows students to assign, nearly all of the time, their own grades. Sometimes they’ll overinflate their valuation, and sometimes they’ll deflate it. The value in this type of practice is in the critical thinking students are introduced to, forcing them to not only consider but also put into practice why grades are assigned, what they measure, what their value is, and what is lost when we quantify these very-human practices into mere number, as institutional norms demand.

       Stommel’s goal is to “help students develop their ability” to do complex and unrestricted “metacognitive work.” Indeed, the predicament boils down to a simple premise: institutions require numerical and quantitative verification that learning is occuring within our educational system because of economic and bureaucratic demands, and this need sabotages the learning that students might otherwise develop over the course of their academic careers.

       I’ll admit, when it comes to grading, I have concerns regarding the achievement of learning outcomes, especially in basic writing classrooms and in first-year writing courses for general education students, that Stommel’s explications don’t fully alleviate. We aren’t doing students any favors if we give them a discounted ride to the finish line, if our drives toward openness, evaluative-gadgetry and self-discovery become so overpowering that we that we lose all sense of quality and the pursuit of clear, effective communication. My students need to learn how to explore and discover and create in addition to, and not instead of, learning to write well. My composition courses are vigorous and challenging. They are ambitions in their aspirations toward the ideal mixture of writing, new media composing, experimental probing and reflection.They are learning-intensive from a multitude of angles, and no student, regardless of ability, goes the entire semester without being gently spurred forward on their intellectual journey. With this being said, I comment often and grade infrequently, and in a simple manner, as Peter Elbow suggests.

       There are a few avenues forward that we can perhaps take, but I don’t have the space to venture them here. Instead, let’s consider a manageable solution. Stommell assessment of this problem is spot on, and his solutions are largely sound, though I’ve detailed above why they haven’t completely alleviated my concerns about whether our students are actually leaving our classrooms at the end of the semester as better writers/thinkers/composers/creators than they entered.  My solution is to take a hybrid approach. I assign grades in some cases when it makes sense to assign grades as part of a critical and progressive pedagogy that is still ardent and purposeful in the ambitions it makes for student learning.  More often, though, I choose to UnGrade. My pedagogy makes extensive use of Statements of Goals and Choices, as I’ve outlined here and here. Similar to a rhetorical analysis, Statements of Goals and Choices are a pedagogical component which I’ve found valuable. They ask students to write a “cover letter” for many and most composition assignments. Originally conceived by Jody Shipka in her 2011 book Toward A Composition Made Whole, SOGC are uniquely positioned to solicit the types of thinking– critical, reflective, exploratory, speculative, analytical, conceptual, uncertain– that dynamic and forward-thinking pedagogies should aspire to. What if we graded students not on the products they hold in their hands at the end of the semester, and instead on the critical, reflective, exploratory, speculative thinking-writing they’ve unlocked instead?

       The course I’m teaching this semester is called Writing Studies II: Hacking the Curriculum. We’re discussing similar ideas as were brought up here. We use metaphors of “Lifehacks” to describe how, among other things, we’ve been able to “hack” our educations to maximize pursuit of higher grades at the expense of genuine learning. Grades are one instance in which genuine, authentic learning has been hacked by academic systems to flatten them and make them institutionally manageable. But what if we began hacking our conceptions of grading itself? What possible futures could be opened and entered?

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