Attendance in Labor-Based Grading -- Part 1 of 3

This post is a three-part series that responds to Erik Armstrong's (@mr_e_armstrong) Tweet. Thank you, Erik, for asking these questions. 

Many folks often ask me about ways to account for the busy and often unpredictable lives that many students must face while going to college. How can one use labor-based grading contracts in a writing class, one that uses attendance, or the presence of students, to help calculate course grades?

I'm appreciative of Erik's thumbs, since they raise three great questions, ones often asked in various ways when I do workshops on contracts. To honor the spirit of his tweet, I'll try to address all three of his questions (in three separate blog posts), since I also get versions of all of them all the time. If you are not familiar with labor-based grading contracts, you may want to check out a past post of mine that has lots of other resources on the practice, "How Do You Do Labor-Based Grading in Pre-Existing Curricula."

Problems with Attendance in Labor-based Grading
Most who ask me about attendance requirements in labor-based grading tend to be rightly concerned that it may unfairly disadvantage those students who lives that prevent them from being able to attend class regularly, which often also are those students who fall in to other marginalized categories, such as working students, older students with children and families, students of color, and students with food and housing insecurities.

Requiring the same level of attendance of all students assumes that all students in the room have equal control over and liberty with their time during each week. This is, of course, not usually true in college and secondary classrooms. So what can a conscientious teacher of writing do in such circumstances?

Let's identify at least one value that I think is shared by most writing teachers. It's a principle really, and one we either accept and use to decide how we teach or we have some other value we use to make those pedagogical decisions. In order to learn how to communicate meaningfully, effectively, and ethically, you have to practice using language with others. I'm putting aside other forms of communication that we use today, like pictures and symbols. The bottom line is if we believe this, then we there doesn't appear to be any substitute for doing things. Doing things takes time. Some of our students do not have as much time to do the things we ask of them as others, and that is the thing that is not fair. All teachers and students work within these fundamentally unfair conditions, systems really. We always make compromises and trade-offs in our teaching and learning.

This unfairness is often felt as a tension in how to foster fair and antiracist writing assessment ecologies in classrooms, ones that help students practice ethical literacy and treat everyone as fairly as we can. But the exact solution in your classroom will dependent on the particulars of your students and classroom, and what you value more for your students. That is, what compromises and trade-offs are you willing to make? What's more important to you and your students?

Is it vital to define a successful student's labors as ones done in the same physical classroom? Why? Is it because it is easier, because that situation is more knowable to you as the teacher and designer of the educational conditions? What is the minimum classroom time a student needs in order to prosper in your course? Why? In our current COVID-19, socially distant times, maybe this is not an issue, maybe we can see more clearly now what we really want or need from our pedagogies and assessment ecologies. Maybe the magic isn't just in how much time we spend together (although I think there is magic in that), but also in meaningful interactions, which are easier when we are all together in the same room.

Likely, we've all had to redesign our labor and participation expectations in our courses since the pandemic forced most of us to stay at home and teach and learn at home. Have your redesigns focused on meaningful and purposeful interactions among students that afford the same kinds of outcomes that you got previously in face to face environments, or maybe better ones?

Now, in order to get to this new place of rethinking labor and student interaction in my contract graded classroom, I have to do a few things together with my students first. It really amounts to helping us all be mindful and compassionate to each other and ourselves. And we have to resist being selfish. That is, resist the impulse to think: Well, I can follow this rule or guideline for labor and interactions, so everyone should be able to. Or even the impulse that says: Most of us can follow this rule so everyone should have to.

Photo by IƱaki Tejerina Guruziaga, "Valle de Belagua"
Good Participation Guidelines Starts with Compassionate Recognition
In all my negotiations over our labor-based grading contracts, I try to help my students first recognize what they may be assuming. We need to recognize what we assume about participation and attendance guidelines, which are really just the specific shape of some of our labor expectations for our classroom. That is, class participation guidelines (like attendance rules) are just agreements about what the conditions of classroom labor should look like. They provide a structural way for us to achieve those conditions. I try to move us through four phases of a dialogue, which gets us to a decision:
  1. Recognition of the unevenness to accessing time. This means that I want to prompt students to articulate ways that they see and realize that we cannot all meet every single scheduled session, or that some of us have considerably busier lives, more obligations that draw on our time and energies, keeping us from the course in some way. It's also a recognition that we all have good intentions to be fully present, available, and studious, but our lives often keep us from achieving these goals. In this opening discussion, we also realize the paradox in our situation, that the ideal way to learn to ethically and meaningfully communicate is to spent an appropriate amount of time doing so, reading and writing for each other, but we all do not have the same amounts of time available.
  2. Recognition of the unfairness of our conditions. Once we see the unevenness of the access to time among each other, we can recognize that our situation is not ideal. Yet we must address it together productively and ethically, which means we cannot leave anyone behind. Everyone matters. People, no matter who they are or what conditions they must live and learn in, are more important than our personal notions of the ideal classroom or learning environment. So this step is about understanding and articulating publicly in a compassionate way that our situations, our conditions, are unfair, but we as colleagues who necessarily learn in community together strive to be fair to all. We recognize that we are interconnected, that our own learning is always a function of the learning conditions of our colleagues around us. 
  3. Negotiation of attendance/participation guidelines. Now that we know the structural unfairness of our situation in our class, we can discuss and come to some hard agreements, likely with various options for students to fulfill attendance/participation requirements. I usually start by reminding students that their experience in the course is only as good as the guidelines we set for ourselves and how we will hold ourselves to them. So if we decide not to have any attendance and most students do not show up for class, then it not only makes it difficult for me to design classroom experiences, but also difficult for them to have a good classroom experiences. We will not be setting up conditions that will help us achieve the goals of the class. We shouldn't be giving ourselves ways out of getting together, but finding ways to learn and practice language together, ways to engage meaningfully and purposefully together. 
  4. Formalizing of the guidelines agreed upon. I like to do blind voting on any negotiations to our contract. We form any vote at a yes-no question, so students can vote either yes or no. And I prefer a 2/3rd majority for any decision. This way one person cannot decide the guidelines of the course, and most of the people in the course agree upon the guideline. If it is the start of the semester, I remind everyone that we'll renegotiate our contract at midpoint. If it is midpoint renegotiation, then I remind us that this is it. We will not be revising our contract. 
These things may seem obvious, and maybe even unnecessary, but discussing each in turn is a way to reveal everyone's assumptions, and care for each student in the classroom. Items 1 and 2, I feel do this particularly well. Through our voicing of 1 and 2, we are saying together that we recognize the difficulties that some have, that we see the most vulnerable in our midst, that we want to restructure things to help them since at this moment they need it more than others. In 3, we try to focus on the best ways we know how to engage meaningfully with each other's words, and if possible, bodies.

This caring for each other is central to what I hear Erik asking about and what I've heard other teachers asking about in similar ways. The vast majority of writing teachers I've met (and I've met a lot of them) care deeply about their students. So helping our students care about each other and make decisions about how they can best engage with each other seems a good way to navigate any problems with attendance issues or any other aspect of a grading system.

Some Possibilities that Must Come from Your Students 
So what options or possibilities have I seen or come across? I don't want anyone to think I'm suggesting these, and each requires some explanation, which I won't give, but for me, the magic is in the compassionate negotiations with students. Some ideas though likely will be in these areas:

  • Students unable to attend class could participate in a missed session in other ways, or in future sessions. The key for me is in finding ways students might help be a part of the in-class discussions, postings, or activities they cannot attend. 
  • Several students who miss class could engage together in a group with its own process, outcomes, and timelines. Again, I'd want to feed whatever this group did back into the class sessions.  
  • Perhaps there are more open ways for a student to do the 50- or 90-minute in-class participation without being present in the session, such as engaging with Canvas posts from the class session after the session is over. But I'd want to ask students what they think their participation in a 50-minute class session is worth, and what might they expect from colleagues who cannot make it without it being something that feels and looks like a penalty for not being in class. 

Mostly, I think, we are always on good ground when we start by having compassionate and mindful conversations with students about our values, our assumptions about how we will labor (and how we show that labor), and the unfair conditions we must work in that are outside of our control.