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It’s never a stretch to hear writing teachers bring up social justice issues; it comes with the territory. Teaching writing means working closely with first-year students, which means facing the hard truths about why some college students manage to persist and others do not. When we read students’ writing and listen carefully to their ideas and experiences, the structural inequalities that pervade our communities and campus culture are evident everywhere.
That said, I’ve never heard a conversation turn so swiftly from pedagogy to a full-on critique of capitalism as I have in a recent faculty discussion group on “ungrading.” I have written about this movement several times in this space: see here and here for recent posts. But the most recent discussion of “ungrading” practices on our campus, with colleagues from a variety of disciplines, reminded me that we might find pedagogical allies almost anywhere on our campuses, including in STEM fields.
After all, most of us — and not just in Composition — pursue teaching not because we hope to sort and rank students based on an imagined meritocracy, but because we believe in the liberating potential of education. As Alfie Kohn reminds us, “a ‘grading orientation’ and a ‘learning orientation’ have been shown to be inversely related.” Further, grades train students to accept the very structural inequalities that our campus equity principles oppose, as Richard D. Wolff points out:
It starts as schools train individuals to accept the grades assigned to them as measures of individual academic merit. That prepares them to accept their jobs and incomes as, likewise, measures of their individual productive merit. Under this framework, unequal grades, jobs and income can all be seen as appropriate and fair: Rewards are supposedly proportional to one’s individual merit.
For this reason, I’d urge writing instructors — and all your pedagogical allies — to bring your insights to your university’s discussions about Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ). While I suspect most of us are sympathetic to DEIJ efforts, more of us could examine how the default to grade-driven pedagogy feeds precisely the opposite philosophy.
Now, when so many of our campuses are rightly thinking through what it would mean to put our DEIJ principles into practice, is just the right time to insist that pedagogy is part of those discussions. Those of you reading this are the ones to raise your voices.
Even if Twitter is not your customary platform, I’d encourage curious instructors to take 15 minutes to search #Ungrading on Twitter to listen to the wide range of thoughtful colleagues offering examples, testimonials, some stumbles and plenty of successes as they shift their classrooms away from grades and toward learning. I have found that every “But what about X?” objection to teaching without grades is being discussed already with innovation and creativity by our colleagues. Let’s learn from them — and from all of you — in time to try something new in our upcoming semesters. If you’re adventuring into ungrading, let us know how it’s going in the comments.
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