Monday, December 21, 2015

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!   

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Higher Ed as the Oldest Plantation, Farber, and the Presence of Teachers

This post is going to sound like an encomium for Jerry Farber, and that's because it is. I've never met him, and as far as I know, he's retired from San Diego State University and now teaches at the University of San Diego. But we would do well to reflect upon some of his words. 

Those old enough to have been writing teachers or grad students in the late 60s or early 70s may recall Jerry Farber's infamous, "The Student as Nigger," which was published first in 1968 in the Los Angeles Free Press, then in various other places. It was a kind of manifesto on the way higher education had failed to do what it proclaimed to do, how faculty had failed, how students fail. There's lots to comment on in the essay, the use of the N-word to make a good point by a white, male academic who participated in civil rights work and the lack of response to this rhetorical move at the time (which Mary Rose O'Reilly mentions in her discussion of it in a College English essay in 1989), the plantation metaphor that grounds the essay, and his naming the sexualizing aspects of the student-teacher relationship, but for me, the center of the essay, comes late in his discussion, and it's worth revisiting today, since unfortunately it still applies to us. Farber writes: 
I like to folk dance. Like other novices, I've gone to the Intersection or to the Museum and laid out good money in order to learn how to dance. No grades, no prerequisites, no separate dining rooms; they just turn you on to dancing. That's education. Now look at what happens in college. A friend of mine, Milt, recently finished a folk dance class. For his final he had to learn things like this: "The Irish are known for their wit and imagination, qualities reflected in their dances, which include the jig, the reel and the hornpipe." And then the teacher graded him A, B, C, D, or F, while he danced in front of her. That's not education. That's not even training. That's an abomination on the face of the earth. It's especially ironic since Milt took the dance class trying to get out of the academic rut. He took crafts for the same reason. Great, right? Get your hands in some clay? Make something? Then the teacher announced that a 20-page term paper would be required -- with footnotes. 
At my school we even grade people on how they read poetry. That's like grading people on how they fuck. But we do it. In fact, God help me, I do it. I'm the Simon Legree of the poetry plantation. "Tote that iamb! Lift that spondee!" Even to discuss a good poem in that environment is potentially dangerous because the very classroom is contaminated. As hard as I may try to turn students on to poetry, I know that the desks, the tests, the IBM cards, their own attitudes toward school, and my own residue of UCLA method are turning them off. (6-7) 
The issue: the conditions that grading in the classroom create are dangerous for learning. It's not fairness that's at issue here, although that is a big issue in grading too. The issue Farber highlights is how grading, even evaluation (sans grades), changes our responses to the learning ecologies we are in. It changes teachers as much as it does students. The same non-school analogy (above it is dancing and crafts) has been used by Peter Elbow in versions of his grading contracts that he's shared with me, and that I've used. In Elbow's contract, he starts it by explaining why he won't grade writing, preferring to create a culture and learning environment like a "home studio," a collaborative and encouraging ecology very different from graded ones. 

Today, I think our heaviest problems in writing classrooms have to do with the ways we enact compassion and love, the ways we see diversity and our reactions to it, in the ways we expect our students to do the labors we ask of them, to read, to write in the standardized ways (aka. white, middle class ways). All too often, we don't even care about how students do the work we ask of them. We only care that they give us the product. We demand the product to grade, not the labor. This is the ecology we often create with grades. What else can we grade but the paper, or the exam, or the product that shows they've read, they've written, they've labored, and done so with some kind of results? But we don't really care about the labor, which some call effort. If we did, we'd grade it. We grade what we care about. When we grade, though, we create a harmful ecology, or as Farber suggests, a plantation ecology. We create slaves, and our grades are our whip.

In 1990, Farber wrote a follow-up essay in College English, "Learning How to Teach: A Progress Report." In it, he identifies the grading problem that persists, saying, "[f]or many of our students (and for some of us perhaps), grading constitutes a sort of Marxian base, a bedrock reality, compared to which the actual subject matter itself seems secondary and less real. The grading system tends to drive a class. What it does to students is in great part what 'The Student As Nigger' is all about" (136). And Farber's solution for his own classes? Get rid of grades by using a grading contract system. 

While he acknowledges that contracts don't solve all the problems, or magically make a class or a teacher better. They can open the classroom and writing teacher to seeing and addressing other problems in the classroom, such as seeing the Other, or the power dynamics that may harm learning further, something that O'Reilly laments in her discussion along with love, a part of the issue that she sees in Farber's original discussion. Uneven power relations and love "mess up" her classroom, she says. Farber offers a wonderful response to this and points to the "presence" of the teacher as something worth striving for, perhaps something that can resist the plantation mentality: 
No, we mustn't pretend that we don't have power. I can hardly see how power relations in themselves could be excluded from any notion of community, which is my own understanding of what a class or learning group, at its best, should approach. Nor are they incompatible with "love and admiration." Is love too strong a word here? Perhaps it is. But, though I have often been conspicuously angry at the foolishness of teachers, there have been teachers of mine whom I think I've loved: one whom I saw and heard once for a few hours, and that was all, and enough; one who used to work as a sort of housekeeper half the year and as a visiting professor the other half, moving from one university to another and leaving a trail of students behind her who would write her long letters and for whom she remained more present than the teachers whose classes they continued to attend; one who taught me English poetry and was so overwhelmingly my model of "the professor" that the enormous distance I have had to cover in moving away from him remains as a kind of tribute. (140)
If we are lucky, we all have a teacher or two like these in our pasts, maybe they are the reasons we do what we do -- and that is good, I think. I have more than a few good teachers from my past who have shown me good teaching, good response, kindness, understanding, compassion, and yes, I think, love. How else can I describe my work? I love teaching. I love my students. I don't need them to love me, even though I want for them what I want for my sons, and I want them to have it on their own terms. I want them to change the world for the better. I don't see how grades will help them do these things. 

Like Farber, I continually move away from my past good teachers in various ways as a teacher myself, because I'm not them, and they were mostly white and middle class, two things I was not, and they all graded. I also teach under very different conditions. Those teachers in my past who have exerted the most gravitational pull on me were men, because I grew up in rooms filled with women, and was afraid to talk to men until I was deep into college. I yearned for a father-figure to look up to, one who could be proud of me. What makes these good teachers so present in my own life and teaching is their compassion for me, and their human-ness, their willingness to show their faults to their students. I was not a slave, despite the grades, despite the contradictory messages in the educational system around us. 

So I'm very lucky, and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't reflect upon my good fortune. I was a poor, remedial reader, a dad-less, confused kid from the ghetto of Las Vegas, who had some good luck with a few teachers when he needed it most. And all this despite the damage grades did to me early on. All this. What luck!

Perhaps what grading really does, as Farber's words suggest, is fog up the writing classroom, keeping the teacher and his students half obscured, hard to make out. What we see is the fog, the grades. What we can't see is each other, working for each other, doing things, suffering together in the ways that Buddhist philosophy says we all suffer (i.e. "life is suffering"). The fog of grades keeps us (teachers and students) from each other, keeps us from seeing how we work for each other. So I try each day, each semester or quarter, to walk in the sunlight or the rain with my students, not in fog. It's hard, because some resist, and that hurts (they are comforted by the fog), but others walk along, and that sustains me. Mostly, I think, it's the compassionate thing to do, to resist the fog, to walk in the clear of the day.