This blog was written by Michael MacDonald as part of the work for the Hub Affiliates program.
For decades, teacher-scholars with liberatory dispositions have questioned how grading systems in higher education have long been “presented as meritocracies” (Kryger and Zimmerman, see below). In response, they have proposed alternative measures of student learning, most recently calling those methods “ungrading,” “labor-based grading,” or “contract grading.”
Why a “bicameral mind” for the subtitle of this post? As a nerd, I naturally draw from the ways the AI robots in the TV show Westworld were programmed to have an inner dialogue, becoming self-aware by realizing the voices in their heads were their own.
Here, I see a (very) loose analogy to discussions of grading: teachers talking to themselves, a dialogue where the voices we hear are our own.
Another bifurcation in conversations on grading is that there seem to be two areas of study that come up regularly in grading and assessment:
Of course, many fields concern themselves with questioning the regimes of assessment. Some of the most prominent voices in “ungrading,” for instance, include Jesse Strommel and Cathy Davidson, who are regulars in the Chronicle of Higher Education and often interviewed on NPR.
Writing studies (or rhetoric and composition) has been a common voice in these conversations because of the nature of the national college writing requirement. And while Peter Elbow has long been a proponent of student-centered writing as well as a vocal critic of grades, the most recognizable contemporary work in writing has been done by Asao Inoue, who has rebranded “ungrading” as “labor-based grading” in an effort to address not only the myth of meritocracy but also the legacy of white supremacy that provides the foundation for that myth.
And yet another bicameral mind is the university itself. On any given campus we might find several if not dozens of faculty questioning traditional grading systems and implementing forms of ungrading or labor-based grading in their own individual classes. All the while, the university itself slouches toward grade irrelevance, administration and alumni more concerned with supposed grade inflation, GPA, and worrying about how to distinguish supposed high performing students from the rest.
Centers for teaching and learning, like our own HUB, provide campuses with some means of collective action on the matter of moving assessment from the myth of meritocracy to an egalitarian framework for assessment, or as Inoue puts it: to “Eliminate standards-based grades on writing (or grades based on comparisons to a dominant white Discourse) by replacing them with labor-based grading,” a method that instead measures thresholds and competency.
A useful bibliography to start with would be Jesse Stromel’s: What if We Didn’t Grade – A Bibliography
But, to complicate matters further, I’ll add a couple of annotations of my own here (to be built upon in future posts):
Labor-based Grading and Anti-racist teaching
The status quo has often imposed standards that reward those who have had access to the hidden curricula in higher education and punished those with less access or different, say, cultural capital (first-gen and marginalized or vulnerable student populations). Labor-based grading seeks to make student time and labor more visible, as part of the “work” of a course. Teachers are encouraged to provide for students a sense of agency in how they complete the work.
Inoue uses “contracts” to help communicate these methods to students early in a course. And much of his approach speaks to anti-racist teaching through the idea of “compassion” (see Chapter Five).
On Neurodivergence and Labor-based Grading
This essay examines issues of accessibility for neurodivergent students when it comes to labor-based grading methods. Kryger and Zimmerman focus on making neurodivergent labor more “visible”—also the goal of labor-based grading more broadly, but this article seeks to identify “neurotypical” assumptions previously unacknowledged in conversations about labor-based grading.
One goal for the piece is to “acknowledge the complex interconnected nature of a student’s intersectional identities.” Reviewing several methods for using grading contracts, for instance, Kryger and Zimmerman observe that “It is not the assessment technology itself that does the social justice work; it is how we implement, explain to stakeholders, critically analyze, and recursively revise the technology that matters.” They highlight how labor is often “performative” and therefore seek to “uncover the neurological norms inherent in” labor-based grading.
See also: “Work in the Intersections: A Black Feminist Disability Framework,” Bailey and Mobley (2018).
A Reply to Concerns About Grade Inflation
Grade inflation can be a concern for some who believe grades should be used to differentiate students, rewarding some and punishing others via scholarships, internship opportunities, and other incentives offered by a myth-governed marketplace. Tanenbaum and Gallagher respond by pointing out that fears around grade inflation often neglect to find ways of supporting working-class, first-gen, international students and others in vulnerable circumstances. For instance, low grades can jeopardize many need-based scholarships or in some cases cause a student to be deported. A problem with grades in general, they observe, is that they direct “students’ attention [more] toward external motivators.” If grades rise because student labor has been made more visible, then perhaps grade inflation is only a sign that grades have become increasingly irrelevant to the goals of a student-centered, liberatory education.
So, this is where I’m at right now: embracing and experimenting with labor-based grading as a way to resist the false promises of so-called meritocracy. In my next post, I will take a more skeptical eye to labor-based grading to see what exactly can be anti-racist about these approaches.