Building an Authentic Community of Practice

Blog, The System of Grading

Power & Authority: The Grading System

On the first day of class, we were all around the table together, in an informal style, introducing ourselves, listening to each other, reading together, and talking about their ideas about the concepts from the reading. On the second day of the first week of classes, I stood at the front of the classroom with the students facing me. It was the day we were going to engage in some course formalities, like a traditional course, so they could feel the difference from the first class. When prompted, some of them shared their experiences of the first class. Noriya said it felt more intimate and students were better able to get to know each other. Shakeila shared that it was generally different from how she expected the class would go and noted that she liked the fact that they were able to listen more to each other than just the professor at the front of the class. Their perspectives made me think so much about how the traditional format of a classroom contributed to the amount of value students put on each other’s perspectives as opposed to the teachers (or whoever is in front of the class). There are values imbued in how our classrooms are set up and in the distribution of power.

We spoke about the institutional organization of power and how, even though it is seemingly invisible, we could read it through certain elements within the classroom: generally, who is being listened to, who is speaking, who chooses who gets to speak, who is everyone facing, who decides what we do? This led us to talk about the thing that most students care about when taking a course: grades. Who holds the power? The one who grades. I shared that I am not interested in that amount of power. I see my role in the classroom, and being paid (literally near-poverty wages as a contingent worker, but still) to be there, as someone who provides structure, feedback, and guidance (though I am interested in students contributing to these as well- if they are interested). Self-effacing authority has always been central to the way that I enact my role in a classroom. I want to work to distribute that power as much as possible to everyone involved in the course. However, I will be the one submitting grades on CUNYFirst at the end of the semester but I wanted to discuss wth them how we should organize the system of grades in our course and introduce them to some alternatives to the grading system. Some of the alternatives mentioned were: Contract Grading, Portfolios, Peer Assessment, Self Assessment, Pass/Fail, Participation/Completion, Ungrading and, even refusal. So we had a discussion about how grading in this class should go. Some students expressed discomfort with getting rid of the grading system, while others were more open to it. It was decided that ultimately, we will have grades and they are important to students because we are in this particular institution where grades mean a lot.I also brought up the syllabus and the section where the grade breakdown is supposed to be.

Our syllabus just had an empty skeleton of a chart that contained the “graded” elements of the class like participation, blogs (the foundation of the work), and a final project (TBD). I asked them how they think each thing should be weighted toward their final grade. Students had so many different ideas. Seeing the discord, David suggested that each student have a different grading plan based on their strengths. I loved this because it was an interesting suggestion and it initiated a debate about whether it was more valuable to work on your strengths vs. working on weaknesses. Pedro suggested that participation be weighed high (around 50%) so that students would be more motivated to come to class and participate. I was interested in his suggestion both because I want so badly to hear from students about what will motivate them to come to class and also because he held the very widespread assumption that grading was what motivated students-whereas I want students to feel motivated to participate beyond grades. I wonder if they have ideas for how we can do that! Matthew brought up the fact that participation grades usually favor the students who feel comfortable speaking up in class. Ultimately, I placed the 50% value next to participation because it gave us a place to start. I also see our syllabus document and blogs and most everything in our class to be dynamic, not static but able to change in light of further evidence. So if you’re reading this- don’t be alarmed that the syllabus says participation is worth 50% because we will revisit. I’m an abolitionist when it comes to grades. I don’t think they should exist so I want to work to subvert and dismantle them in any way I can while also providing students with what they need in terms of structure and feedback.