Grading Contracts, Laboring to Labor, and Sinclair Lewis

It's been over a month since I last posted something. Winter quarter has been very busy with lots of projects, work, administration, and other things taking up every square inch of my time. So I want to offer a little something. 

I came across this wonderful teaching blog by John Warner on Inside Higher Ed's web site. The article that caught my  eye, which past around my Facebook feed, called, "Students Aren't Coddled. They're Defeated" (posted on Feb 16, 2016). In it, Warner discusses the ills of grades in writing (and all) courses in college and how the desire for them tends to ruin the individual psychology of the student - that is, they have to care about As and not necessarily about learning. In the end, he says to help undo some of the damage that the system creates in students, he uses grading contracts, which he'd written about in the past, twice. The initial post was early in the Fall, a post called, "There Is No Such Thing as An Educational Innovation." All three blog posts are worth reading, particularly if you are not sure about using grading contracts. And the first one quotes me. Yeah, I know, shameless of me to say so, but I appreciate the love by this clearly fine teacher. 

I bring up this series of blog posts because the latest raises a good question about the culture of learning vs the culture of grades in college. Yeah, we (teachers and students) must care about grades, but how do we care about them? I doubt most would argue against the idea that grades harm learning, especially in the writing classroom. Too much research shows this. Just look at Alfie Kohn's good work on this subject, which he's been doing for many years now (a truncated version of his work can be found in "The Case Against Grades").  But it's hard to find a teacher of any stripe who hasn't lamented how she just wants her students to stop asking her "what do I need to do to get an 'A'?"

Just today in my own first-year writing class we were going over some reflections on our own grading contract, a mid-point (re)negotiation time for us. One of my students identified how he'd lost some motivation to do the work/labor of the course. He was doing it, but he found that he was not that engaged. Another student reflected upon his own concerns that because we ultimately had to care about our final course grades, even in a labor-based contract graded course like ours, he struggled to do the labor of the class just for the learning's sake, which he wanted to do. He was able to do this last quarter because our class, the first course in our sequence (all the students in this course were in that course too), was a credit/no credit course. Our grading contract determined only credit or not. He liked that atmosphere better as a learner, reader, and writer. 

So this is the point where I explain why I have a picture of Sinclair Lewis' Pulitzer Prize winning book (sort of), Arrowsmith, in this post. In 1926, the book was awarded the prize, but Lewis refused the award. His words against the award could easily be an argument against grades. He said: 
I wish to acknowledge your choice of my novel Arrowsmith for the Pulitzer Prize. That prize I must refuse, and my refusal would be meaningless unless I explained the reasons.  
All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards; they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for Novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.
Those terms are that the prize shall be given "for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood." This phrase, if it means anything whatsoever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment.
Are grades "alien rewards"? If so, alien to what, learning? When set up as rewards, like prizes, can we escape making them what student ONLY yearn for? 

This is my on-going question I pose to myself as a writing teacher and to my students as learner-citizens: Despite the contradictions that our educational system creates for us, how do we just labor, just read, just write in order to learn. How can we labor in order ONLY to read or write? Think about that for a second? How can we labor only to labor in our courses? How do we get our students to do this, even if only for bits of time here and there?


  1. Hey Asao,

    Thanks for posting this. The inclusion of Sinclair was unexpected but exciting, since it shows that this is a problem that's existed much longer than some teachers like to admit (for some, the influence of grading systems and rewards on learning is a modern phenomenon).

    I do, however, have to disagree with your statement that all teachers see the way grades harm learning. I was told by numerous veteran teachers that grades are necessary to learning. They give students guidance and allow them to measure their own abilities against others and against what "the academy" expects of them. But this point is somewhat tangential to your overall point.

    The question of whether or not grades are "alien rewards" to learning has an easy answer, in that learning clearly happens even in their absence. This implies that they're an artificial intrusion into something that could otherwise take place in a "natural" setting.

    I think the second question of whether or not students can care about both learning and grades is the more interesting one. In my experience, yes, but ultimately the grade means more to the student because of the direct material effects it has.

    I have students who are on their last lifeline. They've failed the course twice, and this is their only hope of supplying that extra bit of income to their family or that slight boost to their GPA, which in turn will take them to whatever goal it is they have in mind.

    Another thing that stands out is this idea that maybe all we can accomplish is being able to labor for labor's sake "for bits of time here and there." It brings to mind a moment that happens every semester for me. I ask my students to bring in a copy of a draft they've been working on. They print it out with the expectation that I'll be collecting it, grading it, and that their labor is ultimately about that grade. Yet, when they bring it to class I only ask that they share it, reflect on it, and try to learn from it. I do not collect the draft. I do not attach their ability to bring in a draft to some grade. I tell them they printed it "for their own benefit and the benefit of their colleagues." This inevitably confuses and even angers many of them. But I like to think that in that moment they're confronted with the idea that sometimes we labor simply for ourselves, simply so that we and others might learn from or do something with the work we accomplish.


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