It was a dark and stormy night…

Last week, final grades were released to students.  I know this because, like clockwork, that’s when I start receiving emails from students regarding their final grades.  Some express anger; others sadness.  Some plead their cases; others demand immediate action.  Regardless of tone, language, and length, these emails always boil down to the exact same question:

 

What can I do to get a better grade?

 

Whenever I receive such an email, my first response is to go back to my notes and make sure that the posted grade was, in fact, the right grade.  Several years ago, while in grad school, I mistyped and accidentally gave a student a lower grade.  No matter how many times I double-check before posting final grades, I know that accidents happen.

 

However, that was not the case this semester.  One student – who missed more classes than he attended and never once brought a book to class – sent me more emails regarding his final grade in one day than he sent me all semester regarding his performance during the semester.*  In these emails, the student begged and pleaded for a chance to improve his grade.  Of course, the semester is over, the grades have been submitted, and there’s nothing to be done.

 

But it did get me thinking about this post, one I’ve been meaning to write for a while.

 

There have been a number of posts over the years and around the internet arguing against seeing colleges and universities as corporate entities concerned primarily with customer service.**  This push has come from both administration and students: administration is continually looking for ways to decrease the size and power of the work force, while students increasingly expect their tuition dollars to provide them grades.  (Yes, I know that I am over-simplifying a complex development.  I’m happy to have a more detailed discussion in the comments.)  I’ve written before on aspects of the former; the rest of this post will address the latter.

 

I have been teaching for nearly 20 years, and over that time I have come to realize that there will always be students who only care about the grades.  Hell, there were times when I was that student: I can tell you that I didn’t give a damn about the Geology course I took in college for one of my science requirements; I only cared about how that class would impact my GPA (because I knew I wanted to go to grad school).  So I’m not going to sit here and pretend that there was once a time when all students cared about learning, and somewhere along the way everything went to hell.  We all know better.

 

That said, I believe that many of us faculty are (perhaps unknowingly) contributing to the move to corporatize the university.  According to oversimplified model I employed above, students pay tuition for a degree; in order to receive that degree, they must reach a specified level of achievement; therefore, students are paying for the grades they need to graduate with a degree.  In short, the product that students pay for is the degree, not the education.  Now, we can all wring our hands and shake our fists and complain about how awful this is, but then we should sit back and remember that we are also part of the problem.

 

We are part of the problem because we encourage students to think of the grade as the product.  In fact, many of us will bemoan the current state of affairs, wondering why students only care about grades, all the while using grades to punish students, guide behavior, or at the very least as the carrot we hold out for them to chase.  Now, I’m not going to say that I have all the answers (or even any of the answers), but I am doing my best to design classes that emphasize learning over grade-grubbing.***

 

Let me use one example: attendance policies.  As I have written before, I do not like attendance policies.  I used to penalize students for lack of attendance, and the punishment always came as a form of grade reduction (and most of the college faculty I know have some sort of policy in their syllabi).  I understand the rationale for such policies: if students don’t come to class, then they can’t learn, and if they don’t learn, they shouldn’t be able to earn good grades.  However, if the students aren’t learning, won’t they earn low grades anyway?  Taking points off of their grade thus seems needlessly punitive.  If the student can miss class and still earn good marks, why should that student be penalized for not being physically present in the room?  In other words, when constructing attendance policies, what’s the motivation: to get students to learn or to put their asses in the seats?  If the students can demonstrate an ability to learn, then what are we teaching them by penalizing them for lack of physical presence?  “I’m sorry, but even though you learned all the material and demonstrated that learning on the exams, you missed too many classes.  You earned an A, but here’s your B.”

 

Additionally, I’ve talked with many people about such policies, and they all seem completely arbitrary.  Many faculty use something called “excused absences.”  You are allowed to miss an arbitrary number of classes with no punishment; after you hit that arbitrary number, however, you lose points.  For some, it’s 3 classes and 5 points (out of 100) for each additional absence; for others, it’s 5 classes and 3 points.  Or whatever.  At some point, to me, it’s all just numbers.  Why, if physical presence is so important, do they get “unexcused absences”?  If X number of absences is pedagogically justifiable, why is X+1 over the line?  And how do people come up with the points they deduct?  If 5 points, why not 6, or 13, or 2?  Personally, I’m more interested in grading they work that they do, and not the work that they do adjusted for the number of times something was more important to my students than that day’s class.^

 

In my mind – and I’m happy to be convinced otherwise if there is something I’m missing or misunderstanding – attendance policies encourage students to recognize that the grade is the goal, and that students should adjust their behavior in order to maximize their chances at earning a good grade.  I understand that the goal of the policy is to get students into the space where learning happens.  But the result, from what I can tell, is that we are training students to associate grades with attendance, and not with learning.  (Again, if a student misses class and is able to keep up with the work, meet with classmates, form a study group, and learn the material, should that really be penalized?^^)

 

Similarly, I cannot grade with rubrics.  I understand rubrics even less than I understand attendance policies.  While I appreciate the effort at standardizing what can often seem to be a completely subjective procedure, too often such rubrics seem either arbitrary (thus making them no more objective than grades not based on rubrics) or exist to encourage students to consider the grade as more important than the learning.

 

For instance, here are two rubrics I found online for grading essays (there are many others, but I only need two to make my point).  Look carefully at them.  Now, not knowing the assignments or the classes, perhaps my comments will be entirely unfair.  But I’m going to make them anyway.  For one rubric, proper use of evidence is worth 25% of the paper’s total grade; for the other, it’s worth less than 20%.  Now I understand that all faculty – even those teaching the same courses in the same program – will have individual approaches to grading; we cannot expect the kind of uniformity we might expect from multiple-choice exams, where the grade is the same regardless of who grades the material.  But why should “good” be 85% and not another percentage?  Why not 80%?  Why not 90%?  Why a multiple of 5?  (Is it just to make the end of semester math easier?)  However, that’s not my real concern.  My real concern is with how rubrics hide the arbitrariness of grading.  What, for instance, constitutes content that is “somewhat accurate and fairly clear”?  What is the difference between “evidence support argument adequately” and “evidence […] makes the argument soar”?  Honestly, once we start using metaphor, we have lost any attempt at objectivity.

 

But more importantly for my post, I truly do not understand the use of pedagogically irrelevant grading policies.  I have known faculty who have taken points off of papers if those papers did not have page numbers (and in the “correct” location, however the professor decides what that location should be), did not include the date in the header, were not stapled, and were not handed in in person.  Not one of these, in my thinking, has any bearing on the work being graded.  I cannot imagine telling a student, for instance, that while the paper earned an A, it’s lack of a staple and page numbers make it a B+ paper.  What lesson are such policies teaching students?  Certainly one lesson learned is that the grade is more important than the learning.  If a student can perform A-level work and not earn an A, then we have divorced grading from learning.  And because it’s the grades that get recorded and posted, the grades become the goal, not the learning.

 

I’d like to end this post by describing one of the most creative approaches to grading I have ever experienced.  While I was at UConn, I had the great opportunity to take a class with Ann Charters.  While there is much about this course that should merit discussion (and might in future posts), it’s her approach to grading that I’d like to mention.  On the first day of class, Annie told us that we had all already earned As for the course.  Regardless of what we would do with the rest of the semester, each of us would earn a 4.0.  This washer effort to free us from concerns about the final grade.  What would we do, in other words, without the pressure of GPA guiding our decisions.  As I’ve noted before, one of my interests as an educator is getting students to take risks with their work.  Fairly often, I work with students who make choices about their research that minimize their chances at earning a lower grade, as opposed to working to maximize their chances at learning.  Even though I think we can all agree that we can learn from failure, failure is the enemy of GPA.

 

So what Annie did was eliminate the pressure of failure.  She wanted to encourage us to design and complete projects that best suited our intellectual needs.  I remember spending my time researching environmental writing from the 1960s, not knowing what I would eventually write my final paper on.  It was freeing.  I was able to read, take notes, and learn, without worrying about what my final paper would look like.  I did eventually write such a paper, but it was not a traditional final essay, the kind graduate students write as training for eventually publishing an academic article (or that eventually becomes an article itself).  Instead, I wrote a rather passionate argument regarding why she should reconsider the choices she made regarding an anthology she was completing at the time, the work for which she shared with us over the course of the semester.  After immersing myself in a variety of popular publications and relatively-unknown small-press works, reading about environmental approaches to literary and cultural studies, and reviewing the rest of the anthology, I made suggestions about the inclusion of some works over others.  I did not expect her to accept all my suggestions, but she did accept some, which pleased me immensely.  More importantly, however, I learned a great deal about the subject matter, worked with resources I likely would not have worked with otherwise, and was exposed to aspects of the publishing world that I had previously been entirely ignorant of.^^^

 

Needless to say, I learned a great deal in that class, and my learning had nothing to do with my grade, which was assigned before I did any work for the class.  And in the many years since that class, I have often wondered about how I might adapt that experience to my own classes.

 

Not every student had the same experience I had, however.  One student took advantage of Annie’s experiment and clearly did not use it to learn.  He often came to class without having done the reading, and admitted to me that he didn’t put any effort into the paper.  For this one student, the class was an easy A, and not a chance to explore something freely.  And while I am very tempted to try this in one of my own classes, I know that I would end up with several such students, who take the A and run.

 

As I noted above, I don’t have all the answers.  I may not have any of them, in fact.  But I am very interested in finding ways to encourage learning as opposed to encouraging grades.  I know it’s common for faculty to complain about grading.  However, in my experience, grading is not hard because we have to read student work.  Grading is hard because we have to assign a grade to student work.  What’s the difference between a C+ and a B-?  This is an extremely important question, because the end result will be recorded, factored into the final grade, and have an effect on the student’s overall GPA.  That small difference could be the difference between passing and failing, between honor roll and not, between funding and not.  Grading, in my opinion, would be a much easier part of the job if all we had to do was read and comment on the work, providing feedback on what works and what could be improved, engaging in a conversation with the student about where students can go with this work and what they are learning. But having to assign it a grade (whether letter or number) reduces the learning to a commodity.  This, I am convinced, is why so many students flip to the last page of the essay to see the grade before ever reading (if they ever do) my commentary on their work.  At the end of the day, it’s the grade that matters.  And it’s not because students are inherently grade-grubbing or anti-intellectual.  It’s because of the variety of ways they have been trained to see the grade as the only thing that matters.

 

And yes, many of us are complicit in this development with our classroom and grading policies.

 

If anyone has any thoughts about how they emphasize learning over grading, I’d love to hear them.  What have been your successes and failures?

*Which was none.  Nor did he speak in class all semester.  Or come to office hours.  There was a period of 4 weeks when I was convinced he had dropped the class.

**This is also a move by corporations to fund colleges in order to control curricula.

***I understand that there are many reasons why students focus on grades, and some of those factors are imposed on them by colleges and universities.  In addition to graduation, many aspects of student life are determined (at least in part) by GPA, including but certainly not limited to: housing opportunities, financial aid, extra-curricular opportunities, work-study positions, and participation in athletics.

^Seriously, I do not understand the concept of “excused absences.”  If the point is to make sure that the student is present in the room, why should it matter why that student missed class?  The student who missed class because of a medical emergency is just as absent as the student who missed class because of a nap.  If the first student is allowed to miss class without punishment and make up the work, why shouldn’t the second student be able to?  I mean, other than the desire some faculty have to punish students for not having the same priorities as their professors.

^^In case you are wondering, that student I discussed at the start of the post?  His grade was based entirely on his written work.  I’m sure that some of you were outraged at the student’s behavior.  Perhaps you may find it outrageous to learn that, had his work earned him a passing grade, he would have passed the class, despite all of his absences.

^^^To give one example, I learned about the difficulty of securing permissions.  Sometimes, no matter how much you’d like to include a work in an anthology, it will never happen.  Some authors demand more money than an editor and/or press is willing to pay.  Others have ideological objections to inclusion.  Others still are impossible to locate or never respond to your requests.  I had always thought that anthologies were expressions of the editor’s choices.  How silly of me.

Advertisements

27 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

27 responses to “It was a dark and stormy night…

  1. Matthew Davis

    I think the excused absenses thing, at least in my case, is because of university policy in that regard instead of really wanting to know why my students were absent. I also want my students present in the class because class discussion drives part of my pedagogical technique and it’s harder to do that when only three people show up.

    I’m wondering now if it would be worthwhile to instead wrap participation into the grade somehow, except then I have to decide how much they participated as a number, and I hate doing that for many of the same reasons I, like you, dislike assigning grades.

    • “I think the excused absenses thing, at least in my case, is because of university policy in that regard”

      I know this is true for many people. My reply to that, however, is to note that in this regard you are a function of the university. That is, as far as the student is concerned, there is no difference between “your policy” and “university policy.” And while I completely understand why many faculty are not in a position to either reject, oppose, or work to change policy, I’m curious as to how the university enforces this policy. If you decided *not* to penalize students for absences, for instance, how would the university police you? (OK, I’m making an assumption. How do you handle “unexcused absences,” and what is university policy on those?)

      “I’m wondering now if it would be worthwhile to instead wrap participation into the grade somehow, except then I have to decide how much they participated as a number, and I hate doing that for many of the same reasons I, like you, dislike assigning grades.”

      I tried that too, and it added so much work for so little reward. And I found that students who say nothing are actually less disruptive than students who speak pointlessly just to make sure they earn the points. (If you do this, would you evaluate their participation, or would all participation be graded equally? If the former, how do you do this? If the latter, why grade vocal participation differently from written expression?)

      • Monica

        While I like the idea of wrapping grades in with participation rather than attendance, I have experienced the Major Fail of this more than once in grad school. When people think that just opening their mouth matters, they say a LOT of stupid and/or completely irrelevant things, conversation is stilted (or just full of nonsequitors), and nothing good ever comes from it.

  2. I, too, have an attendance policy that I am required to follow, dictated by my program. After 8 unexcused absences (excused or not is determined by the Dean of Students, not me), I am required to fail a student. I’ve come around to its usefulness because of our requirement for group work (I’m required to include at least one major group-based assignment on my syllabus). If a student has missed 8 classes, and 3 of those were spent in groups working on a project, she is not only hindering her own learning, she is actively hindering other students’ learning as well. This has happened both semesters teaching here: a student who has missed a few classes already stops showing up entirely, and it *always* seems to happen in the middle of the group project. Other students complain to me that student X isn’t contributing. To a certain extent, there’s nothing I can do without the attendance policy; if this was a job, the person would be fired. Saying, “you’ve been absent 8 times, I’m required to fail you” becomes a way for me to staunch the metaphoric bleeding happening in the group by cauterizing the absent student.

    That said, I’ve only ever once had a student who missed that many non-group-work classes who would have been able to earn even a C. In that one exception, the student missed 7 classes; he was already on the borderline between D/F as a result, even without accounting for the absences. I warned him I was required to fail him if missed one more class. He showed up for every class after that, and–as a result–he did actually learn something and managed to eek out a C. I think this largely has to do with the maturity of the vast majority of my first year students. They’ve rarely had to do anything school-related without an external motivator; throwing out all external motivators before they’ve really had a chance to develop a real love of learning can hurt their academic careers pretty badly, in ways they may take a long time to recover from, if they recover at all. I’d be all for a system that gradually phases out the grades, though, as they start to be more internally driven.

    • Thanks for your comments. Let me ask you about these two points:

      1. “To a certain extent, there’s nothing I can do without the attendance policy; if this was a job, the person would be fired.”
      2. “Other students complain to me that student X isn’t contributing.”

      I understand the argument about “if this was a job…” but the truth is, it’s not a job. (Incidentally, I believe that the more we use “if this was a job…” as a rationale, the more we encourage them to think of the university in terms of consumerism. But instead of “pay for degree,” the model is “earn degree by attendance.”) But to stick with your direct comments, how would a supervisor handle this if it were a job? If the group came to a supervisor and complained that “X isn’t contributing,” X might get fired. But what comes next? If we can’t replace X the way a job could (by rehiring for the position), then why should we follow the “if this was a job…” thinking in “firing” the student? In what other ways do you consider “if this was a job…” thinking in your pedagogy? Do you think of extra credit as overtime, for instance? Are students who don’t engage in discussion penalized because, according to the analogy, employees who show up but don’t work can also be fired?

      Further, getting fired is not the only result for X. X could also be moved to a different group, one that might draw out X’s strengths better. A good supervisor puts teams together that feed off each other’s strengths; so let me ask this, to what degree are individual student strengths considered when you form student groups? If X is failing the group, is that all on X, or should some of the blame be placed on the group for not determining X’s best means of contribution? (Isn’t that part of group work?) Should some of it be placed on you for not putting X with a better-designed group? If X is to be treated like an employee, shouldn’t you be asked to act like a boss?

      Think of the metaphor you used, too: “academic careers.” It’s a common metaphor, and one I have no doubt employed countless times. But what is the value of that metaphor? And more importantly, by our very language, do we encourage students to see college as a job? And if I can extend this thinking further, could we be holding our students back by alternately asking them to play the role of consumers *and* workers, simultaneously? For instance, what are we asking of them, cognitively, by demanding that they pay increasing amounts of money to be treated like an employee? Or, more directly, what is the pedagogical value of telling students that their grade is based (at least in part) on how well they behave like an employee?

      Sorry for the length, but your comments have me thinking about further implications of the policies we hold to and our reasons for doing so. I’d love to continue this conversation.

      • Rebecca

        Actually, Jim, I would object to your statement that college is not a job for students. One of the most important things we can do for students is help them find intrinsic motivation for learning as opposed to the extrinsic motivation that is the GPA. But, to say that learning and attending classes is not their job is actually to perpetuate the myth that college is not the ‘real world’ and that it is instead a four* year bubble that the students go into and then somehow emerge after that time into reality. Like its an extended vacation. It is REAL WORK and it is the REAL WORLD. I know that you also worked a full time job while you went to college. The lessons I derived from that experience were 1. that I didn’t want to spend my life working restaurants and working on my class work was a way out of that, but 2. That the work I did in the classroom, while it didn’t pay my bills (and actually caused most of them) was my real job. Waitressing was just the thing I did to survive. But that world and work was not any more real than the world of academia. In fact, it was less real because in that world, I was just a name tag and body that could be replaced. If I wanted to be successful in the classroom, then I needed to recognize that THAT was my job and everything else was curricular. Too many students, at least at my university, treat their coursework as just one more part of a ‘college experience’ where playing sports, being in clubs and greek like, and going to parties are all equal parts in importance. But they don’t get jobs in the real world by playing division III sports (they don’t even get scholarships). And they can’t get kicked out of college for skipping choir practice, but they can for failing too many classes or for cheating in their classes. The reason students are supposed to be in college is to go to classes and learn things.

        How one measures this has been a thorny subject for centuries. I like grades in individual classes much better than some of the past alternatives–like you have a single exam a the end of your four years to see if you’ve learned the curriculum and pass or fail with no do-overs. Grades are an infinitely more compassionate form of assessment. Do I wish that more students were allowed to take classes they were just wanting to get by in for a Pass/Not pass? I sure do. This is one way to get students to try new things while removing the GPA as a factor. I was able to do that as an undergrad and it was great. It is a way to diminish the extrinsic motivation and get them thinking more intrinsically. At the end of the day, though, we have a system and we can’t change it. Schools have tried to go to no grades–Max wen to UCSC during those year when they did it and has 30 pages of undergraduate ‘transcript’ to prove it. But other than some more draconian or less efficient methods of evaluation, we should be working to make the best of the system we have and our grading schemes and rubrics should be created to try to maximize the system and to make it clear to the students what our priorities are in the classroom and guide them to make appropriate decisions and prioritize for themselves. Because not all assignments are equally valuable for our pedagogy and not all of them demand equal time commitments. Our grading structure should tell them that.

        As for rubrics, I started using them a couple of years ago and not only has it improved the quality of the writing I get from the students, but it has also completely eliminated grade complaints on the assignments as well. Why? because the rubric clearly lays out what I prioritize in good writing and thinking and because I ask the students to submit with each paper a self-assessment of their own writing based on the rubrics. And while some students are occasionally way off, more often, they are pretty dead on. They admit when they didn’t proofread or when they didn’t present counter arguments or when they didn’t spend enough time with the primary sources. Rubrics can help the students set realistic expectations about their grades and that is key I think. If they weren’t ever expecting anything other than a C, then when the C or D comes, they don’t complain. I never want students to feel like they need to guess what I am thinking. That’s not fair given how odd my brain works at times.

        I have an attendance policy that is simple and generous–students can miss up to 2 weeks worth of class meetings for whatever it is they need to miss for, be it sports, moot court, funerals, illness, etc. After this, I reserve the right to deduct a letter grade. I rarely ever have to enforce this policy. If a student has an ill parent or a crisis that requires them to miss more than that, I work with them to make sure they are keeping up with the reading and try to facilitate conversation between them and other students to keep engaged. If a student is just sleeping in or whatnot, I send them a nice email when they hit 2/3 and remind them of the policy. But, more importantly, the students can see regularly reflected in their grades on assignments for class that the attendance is impacting their grade because they are writing factually incorrect things in papers, because they are not handing in papers, and because when they come to class, the rest of the students are having a conversation they aren’t a part of and that they don’t understand. If that isn’t happening to students in the classroom, then maybe students don’t really need to attend.

        And here is where the real world job analogy fits in. If an employee is just punching the clock and goes to work and plays on the internet and then just wants to leave, then the work is the problem and no policy in the world can fix that. It is all just extrinsic motivation and the person should probably get a new job (if they can). But sometimes, a person doesn’t realize that they might enjoy the work if they had a good team to work with, or if they got better assignments and it is the job of a good boss to try to understand how to get the best out of employees and play to their strengths so that everyone wins. If more than a a couple of students in any of my classes are totally checked out, then I need to figure out a way to get them to check in. For some, an attendance policy reminder can work if it impacts that GPA. But, what I’ve found in many a semester, is that if I do my job well and make class time meaningful and varied, then what started out as an extrinsic motivation (Gen ed and GPA) turns into a “this is my favorite class this term” and “I wish I had taken this sooner because I see all these connections with my other courses” or “thank you for giving me a place to be creative in the classroom because not many classes let me do that anymore.” The start of this transformation for me, however, is clear policy and clear expectations and setting assignments that require students to think about why I have those expectations and policies and let them know the consequences of failing to follow them.

      • “But, to say that learning and attending classes is not their job is actually to perpetuate the myth that college is not the ‘real world’ and that it is instead a four year bubble that the students go into and then somehow emerge after that time into reality.”

        I disagree here, mostly because I think there is more to the “real world” than a job. I agree that college is hard work, and there are important lessons to be learned, and that college should not be a bubble that separates students from the rest of the world. I just refuse to accept that the “real world” be defined solely by a job.

        “But sometimes, a person doesn’t realize that they might enjoy the work if they had a good team to work with, or if they got better assignments and it is the job of a good boss to try to understand how to get the best out of employees and play to their strengths so that everyone wins.”

        Agreed. But one thing to consider is, what kind of “job,” then, is the classroom? As you noted above, some jobs are not for us, and so we spend our time trying to get out of those jobs and find something better. Knowing your work ethic, you were probably a very hard worker as a waitress. But would you have been happier – could you have made it a career – if you had a better team to work with, or better assignments, or a better boss? If we’re going to ask students to think of college as a job, we have to accept that, for some of them, it’s a shitty job that they really want to quit, but can’t because they need the compensation (here, the degree) before they can get a better job.

        I think where we agree is here: “The start of this transformation for me, however, is clear policy and clear expectations and setting assignments that require students to think about why I have those expectations and policies and let them know the consequences of failing to follow them.” If rubrics work for you, and for your students, then there’s no reason why you should stop using them. However, they have never worked for me, and I found that I get better writing without them. And of course, getting the best work from our students is the goal. One reason why my theory class has been improving is that, with each iteration, I’ve become clearer with my expectations, my goals, and how students can best achieve those goals. I’ve taught that course 3 different semesters (6 total sections), and by far the most recent sections have produced the best work; I’m convinced that a large part of this is that I have become better at my job. I’m equally convinced that another reason is that I have spent more time having students engage with cultural products outside of the text and outside of the class. Essentially, I’m asking them to engage with the “real world,” and I know I can do a better job of getting my students to see the connections between the classroom and the rest of their lives.

      • Rebecca

        “But one thing to consider is, what kind of “job,” then, is the classroom?” Its a job like any job. What is a job? A job is a series of tasks that you do toward an end goal. There might be a series of smaller goals that all work toward the big goal. The degree as goal is not a product of the corporatization of the university. The degree has been the goal of the modern university since its inception. The classes are each smaller goals that reach that larger goal. Each class is a small series of tasks that are intended to achieve a goal. That goal is, on the one hand, the grade, that serves as evidence of completion of the task for reaching to the larger goal of the degree. The second goal, like the goal of any task or job, is to use the product of that task. The product is not the grade, the product is the learning. For example, this weekend, I worked at building a raised planting box for my garden. It was a job, like any other, one that required thinking and planning, physical strength. The goal of the job was to build a planting box for my garden. The product is the box itself and the garden that I will subsequently plant in it and enjoy the fruits of summer long. The planting is the next task, the next class, in the achieving of the larger goal–fresh tomatoes. And which I will be able to plant again each year and enjoy those fruits from. A class is like the building of the garden box–the goal of the class is to complete it (if it is an A-level box, it will last many years, will not need regular repairs, will be done with the right wood, tight closures, etc.), the product of the class is the knowledge and skills one learns, the measure of the quality of the work comes in the form of the grade, to start, but them accumulates over the years as the skills and learning build up and are used together at each new task. After 4-5 years, a student achieves the larger goal of the degree. Maybe that degree was intended as part of an even larger goal of getting into a career that they were interested in or into graduate or professional school. The learning they did and the skills they learned won’t only be applicable to those specific goals, but they will definitely be needed. And, again, the degree and the GPA are nothing more than signifiers that the person set about at the work involved in getting to them. The product, though, may be a varying quality and that will show through in the later work. The GPA is meant to temper the degree, to give it some sort of deeper insight into how much of the work the student put toward the product.

        “I disagree here, mostly because I think there is more to the “real world” than a job…I just refuse to accept that the “real world” be defined solely by a job.” There are lots of different jobs. College is one of them. Gardening is another. parenting is yet another. Being a professor is another. Coaching kids softball and being a Girl Scout troop leader is yet another. These are all jobs of different kinds. They are my real world. Right now, my daughter’s real world is school and softball and playing minecraft. School is her “job” just as much as teaching is mine. The issue is not that we use the word “job”, but that we teach students that this takes many forms and that they should invest in more than one type of job if they want to have a satisfying life. The language of work and jobs is not corporate. It is human. it is as old as language. For some students, though, reaching them means talking to them about how their education can be a job or, more importantly, can lead them to a more enriching job than mowing lawns in the summer or, perhaps even more importantly, how they can take their education to enrich any job they do or have.

        I am not saying there is not a problem with the consumer model. I am simply saying that the language of jobs and employment doesn’t need to be a part of it. It can be the language we use to turn students away from thinking of themselves as consumers. You don’t consume employment. You consume goods, you consume services. Employment is something you do. If we want to change student engagement, they need to think of education as something they do, not something they consume. The language of jobs and employment can help some students move in that direction. But it is our job to make them want to do it.

      • All good questions. Yes, GT is much more on the school-is-a-job model. Part of the reason for this is that they want students to think of their classes as entrepreneurial laboratories (a project you develop in class can be taken and turned into your own company after the semester is over) and some upper level classes are required to include service components, which means working with real clients outside of the university. The university as a whole takes this model because they believe–and I think to a certain extent rightly so–that being an employee takes real practice, and it is something you can learn. It’s not just that they’re being treated as employees, but they’re being actively taught what that means. And it seems to pay off when our students go on the job market; on average, a GT “literature, media, and communication” student (our equivalent of an English major) earns more in the year after graduation than I do as a post-doc, even after accounting for the number of students who will not get jobs. (One student who graduated in May had his first job lined up with a starting salary of 102K. No joke.)

        As for group projects in particular and group dynamics, students apply for particular positions within projects (for example, on our sci-fi archival research project last fall, students applied for positions as project manager, web designer, presentation coordinator, and editor). I made up groups based on those applications. If one student stops showing up, I work out an alternative job contract/proposal with the team so that the work all gets done, and they get the appropriate amount of credit for doing it. This is similar to a job, where, while you could rehire eventually, if you’re working on a project with a fast-approaching deadline, it is unlikely that the company will do so and get someone up to speed in enough time, so the rest of the team just has to figure out how to get it done.

        And yes, students who show up to class and don’t participate are penalized. I have very clear guidelines for how much participation is required; some of it is subjective, but it mostly boils down to: is the student prepared for class, does the student take notes and/or raise their hand to be called on (note taking is participatory because they are all shared on the class wiki), do the student’s contributions focus on the material at hand or at least consist of productive tangents, etc.

        There are of course major problems with students-as-consumers + students-as-employees, and you’ve highlighted some of them. Here, students treat grades as their salaries, and want to negotiate them. The university will bend over backwards to be on the student’s side rather than siding with an instructor on just about any issue. (Dealing with plagiarism can be a nightmare here). Etc.

      • “Here, students treat grades as their salaries, and want to negotiate them. The university will bend over backwards to be on the student’s side rather than siding with an instructor on just about any issue.”

        And I would argue that, if we are asking students to think of college as a job, then they have every right to negotiate grades, and they should be encouraged to do so. And because the instructor is the middle management in this analogy, such negotiations should be taken up the chain. And if the company’s manager decides than an employee is deserving of a higher salary, so be it. And honestly, in this analogy, management should be applauded for supporting its workers and “bend[ing] over backwards” to increase their compensation.

      • Actually, I’d say that the grades-as-compensation is actually the consumer end of things, not the worker end of things. Grades in a student-as-employee situation would actually be the equivalent of evaluations by your bosses. By giving students higher grades arbitrarily, the university gets to treat students as employees, but without actually paying them. They aren’t increasing compensation, just the appearance of compensation–roughly the equivalent of what happened when you got a pay raise when you were promoted, only to have it taken away via furlough days, perhaps?

      • “By giving students higher grades arbitrarily, the university gets to treat students as employees, but without actually paying them.”

        But they are compensating students. Grades are currency. They have value in the academic world. Grades build toward the degree (the severance package), and can be used to purchase other products on campus (for schools that use them to determine participation in extra-curricular events, admission into honors societies, housing and funding opportunities, etc.). I agree that grades should not be assigned arbitrarily, but doing so is a function of the corporate model of education, and marks the separation of grades from learning. This, of course, my my point. I *don’t* think that administration should be assigning grades. But if we are treating students like employees – if we use “if this was a job…” thinking as a pedagogical justification – then we have to accept the full consequences of that thinking.

        “They aren’t increasing compensation, just the appearance of compensation–roughly the equivalent of what happened when you got a pay raise when you were promoted, only to have it taken away via furlough days, perhaps?”

        Perhaps, and probably a pretty good reason to stop using “if this was a job…” as a pedagogical justification.

      • Rebecca

        I think a lot of the problem, Jim, is that you are trying to fight against a professionalized assessment culture and administrative culture that wants to use grades in one way, while faculty need to use them as another. I can honestly say that only once in my life have I felt pressure to inflate grades, because, honestly, it never even crossed my mind that the grades students received impacted my evaluations. They are far more likely to be impacted by my being a woman, by my being young, by my being pregnant while teaching, etc. And the one time I did inflate them slightly, it was because everyone kept telling me that these were great students, start students! And instead I found them lazy, disrespectful, and assholish. But is was my first semester here and I thought maybe I was just going through adjustment issues at a new campus and in my personal life. Good grades are compensation for good work just like getting a good evaluation from one’s boss is. You are being compensated by being recognized. The issue is equating grades with CEO pay. CEOs get paid A-level pay regardless of performance. Everyone wants to be the CEO.

      • “I think a lot of the problem, Jim, is that you are trying to fight against a professionalized assessment culture and administrative culture that wants to use grades in one way, while faculty need to use them as another.”

        Exactly.

        “I can honestly say that only once in my life have I felt pressure to inflate grades, because, honestly, it never even crossed my mind that the grades students received impacted my evaluations.”

        With the exception of the lone outlier on evals, my evals are completely disconnected from the grades I assign. The one theory class I taught where most of the students did not earn a high enough grade for credit (C average needed to count toward the major) still gave me stellar evals. I don’t change my courses based on evals; I change them based on the work the students produce.

        “They are far more likely to be impacted by my being a woman, by my being young, by my being pregnant while teaching, etc.”

        Another reason I find no real value in evals. They are wonderful examples of institutionally-valued racism, sexism, ablism, etc.

  3. “Here, students treat grades as their salaries, and want to negotiate them. The university will bend over backwards to be on the student’s side rather than siding with an instructor on just about any issue.”

    And I would argue that, if we are asking students to think of college as a job, then they have every right to negotiate grades, and they should be encouraged to do so. And because the instructor is the middle management in this analogy, such negotiations should be taken up the chain. And if the company’s manager decides than an employee is deserving of a higher salary, so be it. And honestly, in this analogy, management should be applauded for supporting its workers and “bend[ing] over backwards” to increase their compensation.

  4. “A class is like the building of the garden box–the goal of the class is to complete it”

    Agreed, 100%, and apologies for limiting how you were using “job” in your previous comment. I agree that “job” need not mean “corporate”; however, given how quickly and easily the former comes to mean the latter, I am consciously trying to avoid that connection.

    “If we want to change student engagement, they need to think of education as something they do, not something they consume.”

    This is exactly what I’m trying to do, and I’m going to steal your wording here when I speak to students.

    • Rebecca

      I’m participating in a couple of panel discussion for parents of our incoming students at one of the orientation sessions this summer on teaching at our university. And I will be telling the parents that they should encourage their students to think of their classes what they do here. They can consume food in the dining halls, they can consume writing help at the writing center, they can consume medical attention at the student health center. But what they DO in college is their classes. The consumer model of education is premised on large classes with a lecturer who professes. we don’t do that here.

      • And this connects to some of the other stark realities of the college experience. Next semester, I am teaching 4 classes; 3 of those classes are capped at 29, an the 4th is capped at 25. All 4 will fill. So with all those students, just how much can I do with them? Sure, I am a great lecturer, and my students can sit there and take notes and then take exams. But we all know that that’s not the best model for education, especially for Intro courses.

        I could do so much more if I were not working with 100+ students. So much more. And the students would have a much better, much richer experience.

      • Rebecca

        But you aren’t working with 100+ students all the time. You are working with fewer than 30 at a time. There are things you can do in the classroom that are ungraded that are simply a different way of arranging class time that changes the pace now and again. For example, one day, I showed up to class with a single powerpoint that had a description of an assignment. Students were to work with a partner and had 20 minutes to create a dating profile for the ideal Spartan man. They were expected to use their readings. After the time was up, each group read their profile and we discussed as a class how the profile matched up to what our sources told us about how Spartan men were expected to act and how they were trained. Great class day. Another day, in a different class, I showed up with a box of crayolas,a pile of blank paper and short descriptions based on ancient theories of environmental determinism. Students had to work with another student, consult their sources and they then had to draw an image of the type of person these climatic conditions supposedly caused. The pictures were great. I posted them to Blackboard for everyone to see. Another great class. Neither of these assignments was graded. They were just a fun thing to do to get them looking into the ancient sources and thinking about how those sources would be applied outside of the text. We do lots of that kind of stuff, in addition to more formal presentations. It took me all of 15 minutes to come up with the assignment and make up the little descriptions. And the students remembered the material in those texts so much better than past students whom I’ve done more traditional lecture or discussion with. It was time efficient for me and a fun and valuable learning exercise for the class.

      • I love the idea of non-graded work in the classroom, to encourage students to see learning as an activity, rather than something be consumed. I know I need to spend more time constructing such assignments in my classes.

        I am planning on using my section of Modern American Poetry next fall as an experimental space, where I consciously try to get students to see the study of literature as something more than “read books, discuss books, write about books.” I’m not sure how this will play out, but I don’t need to right now.

      • Rebecca

        Every time I’ve done something like this, it has been a success. Students who would never open their mouths or a book did so at that point and increasingly more often later.

      • One of my best courses was an Introduction to American Studies at UConn. That semester, someone was spray-painting quotations from the Founding Fathers on campus buildings and walkways, and some of those passages were from works we were reading in class. So one day, I took students outside, showed them the graffiti, and we had a vibrant discussion of the material, it’s contemporary relevance, the value of the graffiti as social protest, etc. It was fantastic, and the students were energized for the remainder of the semester (and actively looking for connections outside the classroom).

        That said, almost immediately afterwards, I stopped experimenting with my classes. It’s not like I sat down and decided, “I need to be more traditional”; rather, I think it’s a combination of a number of factors: emphasizing research over teaching, fearing the failure that often comes with innovation (as I wanted a degree, then a job, then tenure…), falling in love with my own lectures, etc. It’s time for me to change.

      • Rebecca

        So, what you are saying is that you stopped experimenting in the classroom because you were treating your classroom as a means to an end–to a degree, to a job, to tenure–much as you say your students do.

        The reason I can do the things I do in class are because I tend to do them on precisely those topics where I am most comfortable and confident, i.e. the things I have published and presented on a lot.

      • “So, what you are saying is that you stopped experimenting in the classroom because you were treating your classroom as a means to an end–to a degree, to a job, to tenure–much as you say your students do.”

        I’ll go one step further. There were times when I treated teaching as a necessary hoop to jump through in order to do the real work of graduate school. Part of this is on me, certainly. But part of this was institutionally-sanctioned: I know of several cases where grad students who were awful in the classroom but doing well in their own classes were simply moved to other jobs. What “work” you did was irrelevant, so long as you were a productive scholar-in-training. But yeah, I’ll own a lot of it: when I was a grad student, teaching was not my goal, was not where I wanted to succeed, and was not why I went to school. Teaching was a necessary component of being a scholar. Over time, I changed my thinking. But I certainly didn’t go to graduate school in order to become a good teacher.

        “The reason I can do the things I do in class are because I tend to do them on precisely those topics where I am most comfortable and confident, i.e. the things I have published and presented on a lot.”

        This is one reason why I want to experiment with my course in the fall. Although I do not publish on poetry, American Modernism is one place I feel very comfortable, given my studies and my own extracurricular reading.

  5. Great post, Jim!

    It strikes me that at least two passages from Paul Goodman’s “Compulsory Mis-education” are relevant here. It’s the section where he recommends doing away with grades:

    “Perhaps the chief objectors to abolishing grading would be the students and their parents. The parents should be simply disregarded; their anxiety has done enough damage already. For the students, it seems to me
    that a primary duty of the university is to deprive them of their props, their dependence on extrinsic valuation and motivation, and to force them to confront the difficult enterprise itself and finally lose themselves in it.”

    “Many students are lazy, so teachers try to goad or threaten them by grading. In the long run this must do more harm than good, Laziness is a character-defense. It may be a way of avoiding learning; in order to protect
    the conceit that one is already perfect (deeper, the despair that one never can). It may be a way of avoiding just the risk of failing and being downgraded. Sometimes it is a way of politely saying, ‘I won’t’. But since it is the authoritarian grown-up demands that have created such attitudes in the first place, why repeat the trauma? There comes a time when we must treat people as adults, laziness and all. It is one thing courageously to fire a
    do nothing out of your class; it is quite another thing to evaluate him with a lordly F.”

  6. Rebecca

    Also, one thing about grades and grading. When I use my rubric, it also allows me to be more focused in how I comment on papers. This focus in turn gives students substantive feedback that dominates the grade that appears on the page. Even just the visual message that the rubric I use sends dwarfs the import of the grade. Because the rubric is laid out in a checklist with full sentence, detailed descriptions of where they fit the rubric and takes up most page. Then there is a space for about 5-7 lines of other comments. And then there is a little tiny spot within those comments where I can write the grade–which I put in percentage format, not letter. If you glanced at the sheet, you would not be able to figure out what the grade is. You have to read it. The visuals matter. If you want students to focus on a grade, then write it were they can find it easily and write it isolated from the comments. If you want them to focus on the comments and the actual reasons for the grade, hide it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s