A Q&A on Labor-Based Grading Contracts

I'm taking a short break from the blogbook (What Does It Mean To Be An Antiracist Teacher: Cultivating Antiracist Orientations in The Literacy Classroom) to offer a Q&A post on labor-based grading contracts. This post will also appear on the blog of the Teachers Going Gradeless website (found at https://www.teachersgoinggradeless.com/tg2-blog), edited and curated by Aaron Blackwelder and Arthur Chiaravalli. They have a great podcast, blog, and website. 

Arthur sent out a query in his network of teachers asking for questions about labor-based grading contracts. I'll reproduce the questions below and answer them in brief. Most are answered in detail in my book, Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom, particularly in chapter 6, but I'll offer some responses here. If you are interested, you might look in that book for deeper answers. 

If you don't know what labor-based grading contracts are, I'll point you to my previously mentioned book and to an April 11, 2020 post of mine that explains them in brief. In short, they are a set of social agreements among everyone in a classroom that determine how much labor (time and work) it will take for any student to get an agreed upon grade (usually a B grade in my courses), with no attention to judgements of quality of writing; however, quality and how various readers understand and respond to writing is central to all of the work in the course. 

My contracts have a default grade of B in the course -- that is, we negotiated the B grade primarily, with an A final graded determined by more work, which is also negotiated. I negotiate these contracts in the first week and at midpoint. Then they are firm. There is only one contract for the entire class. 

Now, to the questions. 

How will I get buy-in from students? Will they be confused or anxious? Will some students want grades on papers? What are some possible ways to introduce this system to students?

What I hear in all these questions is a kernel question about getting student buy-in and introducing them to the contract system. By-in of course is vital, but I also feel that tending the system with students each week is important to overall success. This tending can be simple reminders about the contract and what turning things in means,  or what a late assignment means, or it could be how you frame feedback on drafts and other work. That is, you (as teacher) stop trying to correct the language and start responding like a reader, talking to a writer about how you experienced their text, not how to change it. 

Now introducing the contract to students in the first week is also important, and I like to do a few activities, some individual and outside of class, and some in class, which are usually group activities. Mostly, I find activities that ask them to do a couple of things really helpful with buy-in. First, my activities ask students to read and reread the first two pages of my contract (the preamble that explains the philosophy and reasons for using it), usually pausing to write their responses or summaries of what they hear in the paragraphs. 

Second, I find helpful group activities that ask students to explain the contract and its details to each other, as well as what benefits those elements have in a grading system for students like them. These activities can also get them to articulate the questions and confusions they have about the contract. In short, we are often articulated to ourselves during our contract negotiations responses to questions like: How is the labor-based contract in our course going to help me learn better or in more meaningful ways? 

Will students stop trying to write well and game the system?

You cannot stop a student who is looking to game a course grading system, no matter the system. The reasons for gaming any assessment ecology has to do with a range of factors both inside and outside of the course in the students' lives. We teachers do not control all of those factors. What I think I can do is create a system that offers a richer experience when you do not game it, or one that doesn't make a lot of sense to game the system. Does it happen? Probably. Again, this is not a unique feature of labor-based grading contracts. It happens in all systems. 

Now, one kind of gaming could be that a student doesn't try very hard to do the writing and work assigned in labor instructions. For instance, they just turn in the 300 words, but they don't address the two questions about the reading asked of them in the labor instructions, or they don't revise much a draft, etc. In these kinds of cases, I record them as incomplete/late, so it does hurt students' meeting our contract, and I suppose that is a deterrent of sorts. But I don't find many of my students doing this. 

Maybe it's because I'm asking them about how they are feeling and experiencing the course all the time, every week. So they know I care about their laboring and am crafting those labor instructions in ways that are trying to respond to them and their material conditions. I think this helps with those students who could take a shortcut. But I could also be seeing things with rose-colored glasses. 

Bottom line: I feel my contract system, when wedded with my antiracist orientation to the course and labor, helps most students find all kinds of reasons to do the labors of course. When they know that we have built a self-consciously antiracist and fairer grading system, then more students tend to work harder, longer, more. All I can ask is time, and usually most students give that to me, and I'm grateful for the gift. 

Most importantly, I'd rather work from assumptions of trust with my students, not ones that assume if given the chance, they'll game the system. I believe most the time students will respond in compassionate and meaningful ways when teachers build with students structures of trust and mutual care and respect. I think, that's what the labor-based grading contract is, a structure of trust and mutual care.  

Does the labor-based grading system increase the workload for teachers?

This depends, really. I mean, if you are a micromanager and like to be over the shoulder of every student in every activity, then perhaps it could. I have found it to be less book keeping. I only mark things when a student doesn't do something or is absent/non-participatory (if I'm in a face-to-face course). I suppose there is an up front increase in labor in order to create more detailed labor instructions on all assignments, but I have streamlined that process by making template labor instructions, so it's just the details that change. It's less time now, for me. 

Now, let me give you some details, and you can decide. I keep track of my own labor in my labor log for all my courses. Currently I teach a 7.5 week course called "The Art of the Personal Essay." It's a 300-level course and is worth 3 credit hours. It's a condensed course, taught online only (asynchronous). It should be about twice the amount of work each week as a normal 15-week semester course for both the teacher and students. I'm starting week five and my average hours of labor for the course is 4.71 hours per week. This means if the course were a regular 15 week course, I should average about 2.35 hours of labor on the course each week in that 15 week setting. 

These labors include my reading and commenting on drafts of papers. This is a smaller enrolled course, so to be fair, I'd double the hours I've recorded currently if it were a fully enrolled course. This means in the 15 week semester, I'd likely be spending 4.71 hours of labor on the course each week on average. This feels about right to me. I suppose each teacher will have to decide how much time they can spend on each course they teach. 

What if this means we’re not preparing students for future professors who will grade their papers for “quality”? 

I think this question assumes an okay-ness with White language supremacy in our world. It accepts it as simply how things are by assuming that the better goals for a writing course is to prepare students for a racist tomorrow dominated by White language supremacy. It also assumes that what we do in our writing classrooms (or any classroom) will not have pedagogical and ideological consequences to other courses later and professions in the lives of our students. 

I think how we assess can change the White language supremacy that is accepted as the norm by neutering it in our own classrooms. This reveals to students a better way. It shows them that shit don't have to be the way it has been. We all just gotta be brave enough to do it. And of course, accept the consequences, whatever they may be. As a teacher, I'm brave enough to do that, and I ask that question to my students. 

Eventually, how I assess matters to how others in other courses assess. And the White standard of language doesn't disappear from my classroom because I stop using it as a standard. It's still there. We still engage with it. Some still work hard at learning it. But we don't JUST try to mimic it. We try to understand it as a political choice with political consequences -- we try to understand that our language choices have politics with racial and other dimensions. 

I don't deny that this is a real problem for our students. We should be talking about this with them, asking our students: How can we prepare best for that tomorrow when others will judge us unfairly on our languaging? That's a political question, not a pedagogical one -- if we are thinking about what is ethical and socially just -- and it's also a question about fighting White language supremacy. 

But this argument also assumes that without grades and the standards that go with them, students don't learn a dominant White standard. Learning and grading ain't the same things, nor are they necessarily related to one another. Your judgements as the teacher are not inherently magical. They do not confer to students the language standard you may be using to judge. What grades and singular standards will do is punish and harm students unnecessarily, mostly for things they have very little control over, as well as habits that are dear to them, gifts from family and others. 

I'd rather invite students to language with me, to think about how their languaging is judged next to standardized Englishes, to play with what we have in our words, to consider the racial politics of languaging and how its judged in the world. I cannot -- will not -- force them to langauge in one, narrow way, making them feel bad about their languaging and themselves when they don't match up, and use the whip and gun of standards and grades to coerce them and force their tongues, shoving ill-fitting and sharp words into their mouths, down their throats, choking them because its allegedly "good for them." Bullshit. 

Learning the White habits of language that oppress so many BIPOC students may be good for them if they want to succeed in our world. But then we must accept the nature of what "success" means, which is mostly about financial success in global Capitalist markets that continue to engage in destroying our environment, killing communities of color all over the globe, consolidating wealth into smaller pockets of White men, waging war on each other, and engaging in genocidal, economic, Capitalistic colonialism everywhere that strip-mines the land and its people of everything. 

So I ask, why would I want to prepare students to succeed in that world? At what cost to us and our communities is that kind of success made? What cost do we pay for losing linguistic and logical diversity, language diversity, or compassionate dissent to really bad ideas, like "the profit motive"? That's a White idea, by the way. We can find it in Hobbes famous theory about the "state of nature" of humankind, in which he says we are all in a "war of everyone against everyone." 

White language supremacy got us all in this shit-hole we are in now. Why would I want any of my students to be successful at replicating that shit-hole? I'd rather they be agents of revolutionary change for a more socially just and sustainable world, one based on love and compassion and living in harmony with each other and our environment.   

Let me alter this question a bit because there is a good center to it. Maybe we should be asking: What is the nature of "preparation" in language for school and how might that nature be racialized, classed, gendered, etc.? What are the racialized and intersectional politics of preparation in your classroom? These are better questions, I think. 

If the purpose of grades is to communicate learning, why does labor-based grading choose to highlight student labor?

For some, the purpose of grades may be to communicate learning, but that is not what they primarily do, and they don't communicate learning very well in a language classroom. Again, grades are not learning. Say you are a student. You get an A in my First-year Writing course at ASU. What does that tell you about your writing? I mean, what does it really communicate to you? How do you use it to help you do your languaging tomorrow? 

At best, assuming you trust that I've taken enough of your future into account (as if I can know your future in any detail), it say that you are more than ready to do well in the next course that asks writing of you. It says by my standard and judgements you have done very, very well at accomplishing our course's goals. But exactly what have you learned about those goals, whatever they are? That grade cannon tell you that. 

So grades are a very poor way to communicate learning about language and literacy learning. A better way is to use words only. When you put words and grades together in a writing classroom, students mostly just look at the grades. There is a lot of seductive power in rankings. The words become less impactful. And students start to care less about learning and more about getting the highest grade. 

Labor is used in my contract systems because labor is the closest measurable thing to learning. Much of our actual labor -- the experience of laboring in a course-- is our learning. This is why it's central. We stop using surrogates for learning in the grading system, in the assessment ecology, and use the actual learning to produce the final course grades. So I see labor-based grading contracts as a more accurate way to communicate learning through an imprecise symbol, the grade. 

How, if at all, would labor-based grading be applicable to science or mathematics? How would it be acceptable for airplane pilots, brain surgeons, electricians, and engineers?

I wish I could solve the White language supremacy and racism in every discipline and field, but I cannot. And it's pretty unfair to ask one system to solve the complicated racist issues in every field. I can speak to Humanities and Social Sciences mostly. I can speak to writing-to-learn activities in writing intensive courses in other fields. But let's not suggest that because there are discrete things to learn about flying planes, building bridges, or operating on brains that labor-based grading is not an appropriate system for language and literacy classrooms. That's the criticism I hear underneath this question. Somehow a grading system, if it is to be useful, is supposed to be useful universally, useful for all kinds of courses -- that's a White habit of language and in this case its wrong. Things like assessment ecologies are not universally good or bad, they are contextually so. These subjects and disciplines are to some degree dissimilar learning activities. 

I've never claimed that labor-based grading can work in a physics class or a chemistry course, but I know elements of it likely can be used in all courses, regardless of the field. Labor is learning. But you have to trust students. I'd probably look to someone like Linda Nilson's "specifications grading" for fields like these, but this could be a good case for hybrid contracts too. 

Why wouldn’t we expect white supremacy culture to insinuate itself into labor-based ecologies too? I think of the Puritan work ethic, Jones & Okun (2001) quantity over quality, progress is bigger/more, objectivity.

Yes, it can. This is why I emphasize that any assessment ecology, any labor-based grading contract system can be racist and reproduce White language supremacy if the teacher's orientation isn't also antiracist. You have to have an antiracist orientation to make antiracist structures and grading practices. Once you have that, then you can counter things like the Puritan work ethic. 

And it should be noted that Jones and Okun's characteristics of White supremacist cultures are directly countered in my labor-based grading contract ecologies. But we should get at least those three mentioned straight. They apply more directly to conventional grading systems, not labor-based ones. I'm drawing on their good work (found here), and I'll translate their descriptions of each to the writing classroom. Here those three defined. I think you'll see how labor-based systems counter each: 

Quantity over quality (producing measurable goals, anti-process): all resources of the course and students are directed toward producing measurable goals or learning outcomes; measurable cognitive outcomes are more highly valued than noncognitive traits in students, such as labor, persistence, reflection, compassion, etc.; little or no value attached to process or laboring in learning activities; if it can't be measured, it has no value; discomfort with emotion and feelings

Progress is bigger, more: progress, success, and rigor in the course is defined only as more, as covering a lot of materials and content, as well as having more students in the course; the course gives little value, not even negative value, to the cost of scaling up lessons, content, and number of students in the course. 

Objectivity: the belief, or working assumption, that there is such a thing as being objective -- grades operate as objective markers of value on student languaging, even when teachers understand them as subjectively produced; the course assumes mostly that emotions are inherently destructive, irrational, and should not play a role in decision-making or responses to students work or grading; the course invalidates students who show emotion, or ignores those contributions; most assignments ask students to think or work in a linear fashion and ignoring or invalidating those who think or work in other ways; impatience with any thinking or working that does not appear logical to the teacher. 

Couldn’t labor-based grading invite teachers to embrace “technocratic” solutions (trending toward panopticism) to measure time on task or engagement?

Yes, this is why I say I feel it is more important to trust students. For instance, I don't use our labor logs that account for labor in a number of ways, as a way to keep track of labor in the course. It's a mindful reflective tool, not an accounting tool for grading. It's not technocratic and panoptic, in the sense that it is not used to enforce polices or labor expectations. I don't use them against students to punish, rather we use our labor logs to understand how the ecology is functioning. And I use them to reach out to students who may be struggling. 

From my view, to be panoptic, a device or structure must function as a coercive device in the way that Foucault discusses the panopticon in his book, Discipline and Punish. Just because a teacher, like me, can have a view of all students' labor in minutes per week or total minutes, does not mean it is panoptic because it may not be functioning to produce more labor, assuming that's what I (the teacher) wants. I use it to ask about labor and understand my own expectations of labor in a course. This is far from technocratic, and definitely not panoptic. 

Negotiating the contract on a case-by-case basis can be a little exhausting. I also worry that it might not be fair to negotiate just with a few students and not the whole class. What are some possible ways of working through this?

I'm gonna leave this one to my book. It goes into detail about this. I never negotiate individual contracts. It's always a corporate or class contract. 

How do you negotiate partner or group work if one partner falls through?

Also a very complex one that requires a lot of understanding about everything else in the course. My answer will always be inadequate here, since everyone's courses are different. What I can say is that I do not punish a student for the lack of work done by another. 

Group work is a more difficult matter. 


Coming soon: Above The Well: An Antiracist Literacy Argument From A Boy Of Color. All royalties for the book will go directly to the Asao and Kelly Inoue Antiracist Teaching Endowment, housed at Oregon State University. Read more about the endowment on my endowment page. You may also donate as much or as little as you can to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.