Grades Again

I had a conversation yesterday with a colleague and good friend (a lot of these posts, I realize, are the consequence of conversations in which I wasn’t able to explain myself and then woke up at 2:30 the next morning and thought for two or three hours about what I really meant).

The conversation was about portfolios and grades–but of course when one is talking about grades (and portfolios, a method for minimizing the role of grades), one is talking about so much more–and it’s that “more” that I want to get to in this post.

My friend and I were in a group discussing the use of portfolios. Somewhere in the conversation I slipped into a rant. Well, first, I was explaining my use of portfolios as a way of minimizing the role of grades in my writing classes. I have the students submit portfolios at mid-quarter and for a final. Portfolios are  easy to  grade to when you basically give mostly As and Bs in your class. As readers of this blog probably know, I start from the assumption that everyone in the class has an A. All they have to do to maintain that grade is never miss class and do all the work, let’s say, honestly.

When I frame the rhetorical situation for my students, I tell them that they have to give me portfolios that I could show to outside readers, like deans or chairs, who might challenge my grade distribution (people who imagine the bell curve as real–see bell curve).  Here is an example of my instructions to students:  final portfolio instructions-Engl 103

This simple explanation led to a kind of rant. I noted that people who use the portfolio system and unhook themselves from their addiction to grades (not a good rhetorical move on my part–but I think I said something like that) seem to give more As and Bs than when they used the traditional grading system because their students write better and they write more.

You can see the rant coming. I was slipping into my I-don’t-care-what-anybody-else-thinks-because-I’m-right mode.

The logic is that in order to defend this high proportion of As and Bs, the teacher  needs evidence to justify the inordinate supply of As and Bs (this could lead to an interesting conversation about grades, capitalism, zero-sum logic, and supply and demand).


I think I may have mentioned something about co-dependent grade addiction (another bad rhetorical move–but it is worth noting that when teachers argue that students are over-addicted to grades, the pointing finger curves back toward the self).

The more and better claim: Teachers who have overcome their addictions to grades and create in their classrooms a grade-free zone of trust, appreciation, teacher-student collaboration (Freire), and love of writing will see from their students more and better writing. They will see that their students really want to learn–they want to learn more about writing and they want to like to write again–an attitude toward writing generally left behind somewhere around fifth grade. So the students almost necessarily write more and better. The higher grade distribution follows.

Back to the discussion:

My friend said, have you ever had anyone challenge your grade distributions?

He had me there. No, I had to say (but I’ll bet they’ve thought about it). So my constant complaint about fake writing more or less came back into my face.  In my  weak defense: I have–I think even in this blog–used students’ portfolios to demonstrate to the Natilie Wexler’s (see Personal Writing in the Classroom: A Reply to More Ignorance) of this world that students can write quite well, thank you, that perceptions of “bad writing” may have more to do with bad assignments than with bad writing.

[I’m almost where I imagined I would go ( see Flow)]

Somewhere in the conversation, my friend said he felt as if he wasn’t acting fairly if he didn’t distinguish between the student who clearly worked hard and wrote well and the student who didn’t work as hard and didn’t write quite so well.

I will have to admit–I have often when assigning mostly As in my class thought the same thing. I do make gross distinctions–you can see those gross distinctions in the portfolios, but I don’t make really fine, criterion-centered judgments, much as I have in the past. Here’s what I really think–and I know the lines of logic are blurred:

We should not be socializing our students into reward-dependency: working for the reward. The social reproduction function should be obvious.

I know I’m a romantic, but I simply am unwilling to give up the ideology of looking for the reward in  the action, in the living, in the writing itself, not in the gold star we receive for our performance. I will also add that reward comes from doing something that results in community contribution. I get rewards from knowing I have turned my students on to writing. The money and the grades are highly incidental. I know that we live fuller, richer lives if we focus on living rather than on the gold streets paving Heaven.

I just had my current students read (online) my portfolio instructions–and I asked them whether there are any questions about it. Here’s one of the first replies:

“I have read the instructions and am wondering, is the portfolio more for our sake than for anyone else? At least as far as measuring our own growth, this seems to be a useful tool for self-examination on our parts.

I also think that any department heads or administrators would love to read the type of writing done in this class, although they might find trouble putting specific “grades” to it, because of its subjective nature – is that correct?”

She has it right.

5 Replies to “Grades Again”

  1. Irv, I wonder: do you think your system is viable (in terms of the grade distribution and/or the timing of when grades attach attaching grades) for untenured faculty (whether they be pre-tenure TT or adjunct)? Despite the extent to which it is theoretically, pedagogically, and operationally sound, might it not offer too much exposure–too much fuel, maybe–for contingent faculty to use? The "academic freedom" position is, for many who teach writing, an ideal rather than a practice. Thoughts?

    –Kurt B.

  2. This is my concern as well. I have tenure, and am "safe" from accusations of grade inflation, but faculty who do not have that protection are pressured to deflate grades. This is especially frustrating given that I teach at a place where students are, for the most part, intensely eager to do whatever necessary* to earn an "A", and many of the faculty being pressured to deflate grades are the ones who work hardest with students to help them learn.

    (*I tried contract grading for the first time last year, trying to emphasize amount of engagement over particulars of the final product. I set what I thought was a very high bar for the "A" track. Twenty-three out of 25 students aimed for and reached the bar, and of those 23, only one did so with any degree of gaming of my system.)

    Fortunately, our NTT faculty have tenure-equivalent protections once they reach the 7th year of teaching. Unfortunately, that means six years of worrying that their students' success will be used against them.

  3. See my post above. I really hate the logic of –grade&we're ok. It's really crazy. My only solution (and this is not a solution) is that those of us who no longer have to worry get out there and argue for good teaching. Really, I have a kind of optimism: I know the people in our rhetoric and composition community. Maybe we can open this conversation. I think most of us know that grading essays is silly–as well as an exercise in social reproduction.

  4. Hi, Irvin. (Just so readers know, I'm the friend Irvin refers to above.)

    Irvin, I want to make sure you know how much I (and just about everyone I talk to) appreciate what you're doing for the program at our university. Yes, you are a romantic. As a cranky skeptic, I don't know that I am capable right now of completely embracing what you're advocating since, after all, we are one program embedded in a much larger system in which grades are important. Still, I believe that you are leading our program in a good direction. I am trying to follow you towards the more romantic end of the continuum.

    Still, it has its challenges. You know, I tried to do "The Full Irvin" last fall, de-emphasizing grades and concentrating on personal writing and generating lots of text that students would enjoy writing and that I would enjoy reading. For the great majority of my students, it was a tremendous success. Almost everyone reported that they had a great time and they liked writing for the first time in years.

    Almost. I was troubled by the fact that a small percentage of my students, some of them very hard workers and others of them talented, felt that I wasn't teaching them anything they didn't already know. One of them in a course evaluation complained that she had written all of her work fifteen minutes before it was due. I know we can't take everything students write in evaluations at face value, but this stung; especially since I knew I could have been more critical of her work. (A tangential problem for me is that when students are writing very personal stuff about their lives, it feels like an intrusion to ask them to fix the semi-colons or to show not tell or to add more specific detail.)

    I'm writing too much. This is Irvin's blog, not Fred's. Irvin, thanks for provoking thought and for always listening to your colleagues.

  5. a quick reply to Fred: first thing is–one can never adopt someone else's way of teaching full-throttle. I think what we do is (which is what I have done) pick something from here, from there, and from there and throw in a bit of our own broth and we have a new dish. The other thing I would add: I'm not sure we should take on the role or responsibility of being "the teacher." I like to think of using our expertise to create conditions in which they can teach each other.

    I once told a potential love–that should have been a semi-colon.

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