Will your kids return to college in the fall? They’ve got plans to protect them, you know, from COVID-19. There isn’t a chance in hell it’s going to work, as everyone who isn’t suffering from delusion or selling a delusion realizes. It’s not that they aren’t interested, although many aren’t all that interested, but kids are remarkably good at doing stupid things and coming up with excuses for them. And they’re invincible, every one of them, right up until they feel the pain.
In any ordinary semester, some students fall apart. They overextend themselves with extracurricular activities, fall into depressions, drink to excess, weather their parents’ divorces or their own wrenching breakups. Their performance in class suffers as a result, and we often find ourselves listening to their tales of woe. We can’t hug them, as my colleague Jessica McCaughey observes, so we make do with listening sympathetically, granting extensions, helping them figure out what they can do to catch up in our class, connecting them with resources such as the university counseling service.
On top of the obvious reality that kids will fail miserably to make wise decisions, there’s the “fall apart” problem. This is a curiosity. It’s almost as if this is some intractable truth of matriculation, that students will go to college and find themselves psychologically crippled. If these things are known to occur (do every kid’s parents rush out to get divorced these days? Have breakups gone from a routine of growing up to “wrenching”?), one might wonder whether the efforts would be better used to address these common problems that are now so mentally traumatic that they’ve reduced the population of college students into sniveling balls of psychosis.
Nope. Wrong answer. Why ordinary life has rendered them incapable of functioning isn’t the question. And you can’t hug them, just as mommy did when they are five, because that could be misinterpreted. There must be more than to just listen to them whine about the nail snagging all their sweaters.
What can we do? We can give them the virtual equivalent of hugs: kind words, the assurance of presence and support, flexibility and creativity in instruction. We can also refrain from grading them.
Grades are stressful. Grades are racist. This isn’t a pedagogy joke.
Since the death of George Floyd and our renewed concern with racial violence, you may be asking yourself how you can begin to make your classroom a more explicitly antiracist space. These unprecedented circumstances can become the occasion to take a more radical step toward fighting racist practices in education. This is a good place to start: don’t grade them.
Oh, and that’s especially true for profs who (ugh) grade papers based on white language.
Any rubric that evaluates students’ language according to a single standard — which is invariably a white, middle-class standard — is reinforcing racism, he argues. Rather than evaluating students’ work according to a quality-based rubric, Inoue advocates grading students on the labor they complete. By “labor,” he means all the work that goes into writing: reading, drafting, giving and receiving feedback, revising, polishing.
Remember the “E is for effort” joke? Just change the “E” to an “A” and then you won’t be racist and will save their fragile depressed souls from the trauma of expectations of learning the subject matter and demonstrating some level of mastery.
The foundation of the labor-based grading model is the Grading Contract, which lays out the basic requirements students must complete in order to receive the desired final grade. Inoue establishes a baseline level of work for students to receive a B (while I have followed him in this, I have a colleague who sets the baseline at A-minus). He provides a chart (titled “Breakdown of the Main Components” in the Grading Contract) that specifies exactly how much work students can turn in late, or miss, for each grading category. If students wish to raise their grades above this baseline level, they can complete additional labor, most of which benefits the class as a whole: offering presentations, leading discussions or writing additional responses on classmates’ drafts.
But there is a contract, and it’s formed when a student is offered, and accepts, admission to college. The student is expected to put away his stuffed animals and put on big boy pants, and to perform college level work without hugs from his profs. And the profs are expected to teach the student physics or thermonuclear dynamics or the history of the Mayans. Maybe even read a play by Shakespeare and figure out what he’s trying to say.
Instead, one abdication of responsibility for the maturation process in young people begets the next abdication of responsibility, this time for teaching, for expecting competence, and maybe even mastery, of a subject.
Sure, college can be hard, and when no one ever tells you to grow up, but plenty of well-meaning folks explain your momentary angst as clinical depression and then give you tons of positive support for being psychologically impaired, why develop any grit? Why try to overcome the banal hardships that growing up brings? But most importantly for college, why bother trying to learn when your professor, the person being paid from your tuition, offers you an out, a secondary contract to get a decent enough grade to pay more tuition next year without actually learning anything of use.
You tried hard? Really, really hard? Isn’t that worth anything?
Of course it is. Now couple that with actual competence and you’ve got a chance for a great future. Unless your unduly empathetic professor steals that from you by giving you tummy rubs instead of an education.