Compassion and The Circulation of Grade-less Judgments

As a way to reflect upon my first-year writing course this term, I want to share some student reflections on my class and think about them. All three students quoted below have given me permission to use their words and their names. The class was the first course in a two-quarter stretch sequence, so I'll see all these students in the next class next quarter, which is very exciting.

I've been thinking a lot about the ways in which value and judgments on writing circulate in the writing classroom these days. This thinking began with John Trimbur's good CCC article from 2000, "Composition and the Circulation of Writing." In short, Trimbur argues that writing teachers might pay closer attention to the circulation of writing in classrooms as a kind of commodity. I've taken his ideas a step further and been thinking and finding ways to pay attention to the ways judgments and assessments of student writing circulate in the assessment ecology of my classroom. What kinds of messages, ideas, and lessons accumulate as judgments from various people in the ecology circulate? But really, the classroom IS itself an assessment ecology (I've written an article on this topic for an upcoming collection on the political economy of composition, co-edited by Siskanna Naynaha, Wendy Olson, and Victor Villanueva, so I'll say no more about this).

A critical part of how I cultivate the assessment ecology of my classrooms is our grading contract, which I've discussed in past posts. I'm always interested in what my students say about both the contract and the ecology it creates. While ecology is more than the vibe or culture of the classroom, more than how students and teacher feel in the classroom, for many students, thinking about the ecology can begin there, since the culture or feel of the classroom is often what we all experience on a day to day basis. While not all of my students talk about the contract in their final portfolios, most do in some form, usually in reflection letters or reflective documents they include in the portfolio. Here's what three of my students said in their final portfolios about our class' grading contract and the ecology it helped create:

Lucas (an African American male):  
[T]his quarter has allowed me to no longer fear my own thoughts. Rather than assuming someone will hate my type of writing, and tell me to do it a completely different style, I’ve been given “gentle nudges” perhaps in certain directions. This has definitely allowed me to take risks with my personal style of writing, and not fear being punished for it due to reading compassionately. We weren’t here just to bad mouth each other, we are all here for help; this attitude has definitely helped me open my mind as both a reader, and a writer.
Angel (a white/Italian American female):

My Project 1 was definitely an improvement from my Literacy Narrative because in the beginning i wasn't quite sure if there was a grade and i was trying to add “smart” words in there to sound more intelligent and impress people, that didn't end up being the case, i learned this class was designed to help us feel cared for and not so pressured to fit to one person's standard of “correct”. Learning this I felt that my Project 1 became more personal to me allowing me to write what i feel and add my own experiences in there without having the feeling that it will be an F grade, this quarter with both the Literacy Narrative and Project 1 i noticed nobody ever says that something is wrong, they told me there opinions and what seemed to be confusing or even just asked me what something meant, everyone was very welcoming.
David (a Latino): 
[T]he grading contract was anything but an easy way out. I initially thought that the grading contract would devalue or trivialize the work I produce in class however, the contrary happened and the grading contract had caused my work to matter much more. The greatest change I think could happen in a learning environment occurred because of the grading contract, my mindset changed from the importance of a graded paper to the importance of learning. The papers and work that I produced in this course became a stepping stone in furthering my education rather than a step forward in GPA. It was through this change that I was able to focus on my potential, rather than my current abilities. With this new mindset I have found myself spending more time researching, analyzing, and taking risks over my work in and out of this course than I ever had in high school. 
I've highlighted in red the ideas in each that I think are at the center of each bit of reflecting on the ecology of the classroom. What I'm reading in these reflections that's helpful for me is how each writer moves from the ungraded labor of the course (which is regulated by our labor-based contract) to what that labor engendered in his or her own practices and sense of the class. Lucas references our descriptive feedback labors that consisted of "gentle nudges," which had no grades attached, and was mostly from colleagues, that led to his ability to take risks and not feel like he was going to be punished. A big part of generating our judgments on writing was a practice of compassionate reading, which we designed as a class after reading some materials on compassion. Almost all my students, like Lucas here, responded favorably to our work around compassion. I think our students -- all of us really -- yearn for compassionate response by others, gentle nudges that take us to new places, uncomfortable places, growth

Angel centers on the act of "caring for" each other though our feedback labors. Again, I hear her referencing our compassionate reading practices. Those practices could not be as effective if we didn't have a grade-less ecology. Grades demand standards, usually one standard, and at least for Angel, they seem to be opposed to caring for each other. That's interesting: The effect of eliminated grades on writing is to cultivate a sense of caring for those in the classroom. I'm reminded of the ancient Greek definition of a pedagogue (or paidagōgos), which was a slave who walked the student to and from school. The pedagogue was one who cared for the student in the most literal and physical way, so that the student could learn. Is this part of our jobs as college teachers, to care for our students? Why not? 

David looks at the larger picture of his learning in school. He focuses on his own ungraded labors as a writer and reader that helped him be able to change his focus to the labors of "researching, analyzing, and taking risks," the labors of learning. This moves him away from working for grades and toward the labors themselves. It's interesting to me that David begins by saying that he initially thought the contract (the absence of grades on writing) would "trivialize" his work. I think this suggests how educational systems that circulate grades tend to trick all of us into thinking that our labors of learning are worthless until they have grades attached to them. So learning only becomes circulate-able when the commodity of grades are attached. Learning is trivial otherwise. By default, then, there is no commodity called learning, but David argues that there is, or can be! Imagine that: an educational system where learning is circulated and commodified, not grades.  

All three have wonderful, valuable insights into our course's ecology, the circulation of judgment, and how that circulation creates particular learning products, all of which help create aspects of our ecology. I don't want you to think that everything was perfect in the course. I'm sure there is still some unevenness and doubt. I'm sure some students in my class will wonder about grades next quarter. But what these reflections show me is that the ecology is working in many of the ways I designed for it to do. Furthermore, I offer their gender and racial identifications because these are the kinds of students I design my courses for, students of color, the marginalized, those who have been beat up by conventional assessment ecologies. Part of implementing an antiracist agenda in one's courses, then, is to think about how one's assessment ecology affects all our students differently. That is, we must assume that it does affect each student differently, then find out how. This means my next step is to see what exactly have my white middle class male students taken from the ecology. What accumulates for them? 

While most of my students are not white, most are vulnerable students in college writing classrooms, because they often struggle with taking risks, learning, writing, or just doing the work required before one can even put pen to paper because of time constraints outside my classroom. In the academy, it can be and feel dangerous to show yourself learning, to fail, to risk, to write, especially if you are a student of color or a multilingual student. These reflections suggest to me that my students do this kind of dangerous work not in spite of the writing assessment ecology, but because of it. I think that's clear in these reflections. My students are not done learning yet -- but they never will be. We are all always in the process of becoming. The excerpts above are just snapshots of each student becoming at this moment, and next quarter they will move on to being something new. It's all beautiful, all becoming. As teachers, I think, we likely need reminding that all learning is beautiful. All learning is becoming. 

So I'm hopeful and excited about our work next quarter!