7 Pedagogy for End Times: Ungrading and the Importance of Arson
by Jessica Zeller
Original blog posting on August 16, 2020
Tomorrow is my 34th First Day of School. It will have a decidedly different energy than every first day of school that’s come before: no photos standing at the front door in a new first day outfit, no “what I did on my summer vacation” essays, no hugs at my office door as students and colleagues stop by to say hello after a long summer. I’ll be teaching remotely this Fall of 2020, and I’m grateful for the privilege—the personal autonomy. There’s a pandemic on, you know. Equity, safety, and humanity should’ve come first. Everyone should’ve had a choice. This shouldn’t even be a discussion.
To be clear, I never wanted to teach online. I’m an online learning novice, lest you think I intend to offer advice about it. I can’t yet fully grasp the possibilities, and I still don’t know if or how it’ll work. I’ll find out tomorrow, I suppose.
Since Spring, I’ve been doing lots of learning and idea-sharing and what-ifs and maybe-there’s-a-way-tos with a brilliant community of progressive educators and online learning experts.* I’ve come to understand that even though I’m new at online methods, my underlying pedagogic philosophy is pretty damn robust. It has the foundation to withstand the coming shift from hybrid to online again this semester in the highly-anticipated low-budget sequel to Spring’s blockbuster disaster flick; and it has a place among the trauma-aware, equitable, humanistic approaches that sit in stark contrast to those carceral pedagogies that rely on invasive, panoptic surveillance technologies driven by institutional demands for so-called “rigor” and business-as-usual.
When The Great Pivot happened I’d been working without grades for a few years already. Even so, I didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of an ungraded approach until Spring. Ungrading allowed me to preserve trust with students during a pedagogic transition that might’ve exploded even the most collaborative student-teacher relationships. We were gentle with each other through the uncertainty of that moment, and at the end of the semester students looked back and tried to make sense of what had happened. And it’s the reflection that really matters, because grades cause endless harm for no discernible benefit even in the best of times, and these times are… in an understatement… not the best.
As long as academic freedom holds up during and post-‘Rona [crosses fingers], I will never “give” a grade again. Admittedly, I engaged years ago in the deceptive practice of suggesting repeatedly that teachers don’t actually “give” grades at all—that students “earn” them. It’s an odious pedagogic heirloom that gathered dust on a shelf inside my approach for too long before I noticed it and, horrified at myself, promptly set it on fire. If you’re a former student who had to endure that dark period in my learning process, I am so sorry. You deserved better. If you’re an educator looking to get that heirloom or others off your shelves, I am writing this in support of your newfound role as a pedagogic arsonist. No judgment for past deeds. We’ve all been there.
After countless Tweets, emails, and conversations all summer long about how difficult grading was, is, and will be in the COVID era, I’ve noticed lots of curiosity about how ungrading works in practice. In response, I’m adding my perspective to the growing cadre of educators who’ve already shared their approaches. I’ve adjusted my own version of an ungrading policy nearly every semester. At first I tried it incrementally: the 50/50 version, where the student provided half of a grade and I provided the other half; or the single assignment version, where we worked through a three-draft research paper together and the student graded the final draft. It took me some time to understand that doing this work incrementally might seem like it accomplishes something, but as long as it’s situated inside the hierarchy of end-of-semester grading, it’s mostly a dress rehearsal for progressivism. Only when I grasped it that way did I get brave and relinquish my grading authority in full—passing it on to the students. If the institution didn’t require a single letter at the end of the semester, I’d eliminate grades entirely and throw us all a party.
I’m using a few different versions of ungraded policies this semester, and for those curious enough about the “how” to want to start some fires, I’m including two syllabus statements here. The two versions below have different degrees of guidance for students, and they ask for different kinds of reflection. The first is a version I’ll use with students who aren’t yet well-versed in this process—the ones who are still learning about the system they’ve been raised in. The second I’ll use with students I’ve already been in dialogue with about this approach and its implications; those who understand what it means to stand next to me while holding a flamethrower, so I can cheer them on as they take out all their fury at the injustice of grading on the system itself. (If you haven’t asked students about their feelings about grades yet, I highly recommend it. It’s been one of my most essential learning experiences.) No matter what context I’m in, however, the questions I ask in this work are: What am I communicating as being important? Why/To what end? And for whom?
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In this course, you have complete autonomy over your grade. To me, grades are not a true representation of learning, so I’ve given them over to you—handing you my red pen, as it were—to decide what’s best. You’ll assign yourself a letter grade at the end of the semester and you’ll write a narrative statement to support your chosen grade and discuss your learning. I’ve included some guidelines for your narrative below. Individual assignments are not graded, so until you write that narrative at the end of the semester, you’ll be the only one who will know for sure “how you’re doing.” My hope is that working without grades allows you some space to try new things, fail miserably, laugh at yourself, and try again, without pressure. We’ll do the work of the course for its own sake—for the sake of learning something new. I trust you. I trust your work ethic. I trust your integrity.
Learning Narrative Guidelines
Based on your work this semester, and taking into consideration the context of Fall 2020, select a letter grade for your work and your learning in this course. Write a narrative that addresses the following prompts:
Discuss your process as a learner: evaluate your engagement with course content by reflecting on how you handled all aspects of this course. What specific parts of your process worked and what parts would benefit from some adjustments? Why?
Discuss the products you generated as demonstrations of your learning: evaluate how your work has changed across the semester. Did certain elements improve more than others? Did certain elements become easier or more challenging? Describe.
What will you do with this knowledge in future semesters? Make a commitment to yourself.
What have you learned about yourself—as a learner and a member of a learning community—in this course?
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My “ungrading” policy is in effect for this course, and it’s outlined below. Basically, we won’t even think about grades until the end of the semester. You’ll grade yourself and write a Learning Narrative that will allow you to put into words some of the brilliant theorizing you will have done over 14 weeks.
Learning Narrative Guidelines
My guidelines for Learning Narratives usually center around the processes and products that are central to the work in a given course. They usually ask students to reflect specifically on their own learning processes and the work they’ve generated, and they ask students to think metacognitively about themselves as learners in the course. This course, however, seems to need a broader approach. For your Learning Narrative in this course, I’d like you to develop your own approach—to write freely about how you’re thinking and where you are at the conclusion of this course, in whatever format that might take.
Some broad guiding questions (if you need them) might be:
What are your big takeaways from the semester;
what would you like to hold on to and why; and
how do you see this knowledge and experience shaping your work?
Let me know if you need more guidance here, but basically—it’s open-ended and up to you. There are no wrong answers. Just be sure to include a letter grade, which is the currency of the education system but in no way an honest or comprehensive reflection of our work together. This semester is far more meaningful than any letter grade could possibly communicate.
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These policies are works in progress, and they might even change as this semester goes on, with student input of course.** Even as I write this, I see things I might want to adjust, and I’m thinking maybe I’ll offer students an assignment where they could edit this policy or write one of their own… hm. To be continued.
In previous semesters, I required a final meeting to review the Learning Narrative together with each student. This semester, online, I’ll make those meetings optional. The demands on students for certain kinds of synchronous engagement are high enough right now. I trust they’ll learn something, whether or not I’m there to facilitate it. I’ll be present and available, of course, but I’m under no delusion [checks ego] that my presence and perspective are necessary for students to learn.
We are our policies. They show students everything they need to know about us, from our allegiances to our insecurities. In some ways, an ungraded approach can represent the full breadth and depth of our pedagogies; it signals to students that we’ve prioritized their learning and their humanity, which, during this truly extraordinary moment of reckoning for education, are the only things that really matter.
*Sending my warmest gratitude to the village: To Brock Kingsley, for getting more and more indignant with me over the years about pedagogic injustice, and for always wondering in earnest why radical pedagogies haven’t become the norm yet. To Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris for hosting Open Online Office Hours, and to the many thoughtful folx in these gatherings whose investment in pedagogy has been so heartening to be around. I’m deeply appreciative of this space in which to process the moment; to grieve and find hope; and to learn in community about learning in community. And to the educators at Hybrid Pedagogy, Teachers Going Gradeless (TG2), and Human Restoration Project, for all you do to advance these dialogues and to support educators in our attempts to support students.
**Post-semester update: These policies did indeed change. In the course with the more open-ended second version, we decided not to generate a Learning Narrative. Students sent me their grades, and we chose not to document the learning. Rather, we were content to marinate in the experience of learning without producing an artifact that proved its existence. It was organic and liberating, for all of us.