by Christopher Dean
I have been a writing teacher at UC Santa Barbara for 15 years. I teach on the quarter system, and from March through June of 2020 I taught entirely online. I feel lucky that I started the quarter online, rather than having to scramble and convert a previously face-to-face class to an online class on the fly.
In this, I’m like most teachers I know—K-College. We all had to adapt in less than a week to teaching online. So much about the teaching in the spring of 2020 felt wrong and unjust. But what seemed most unjust was grading. I knew, from looking at the “engagement data” in my Learning Management System (Gauchospace) that some students were struggling to keep up with the class online; they were not opening readings, they were missing weekly blog posts, and a number often missing weekly Zoom sessions.
Because of this I began to fear that I was grading privilege, not writing.
The Ethics of Grading Writing in a Pandemic
In an Austin, Texas school board meeting on February 19, 2020, Laura Yeager (2021), who describes herself on Twitter as a “policy wonk, public ed & voting rights advocate, mom,” famously said, “If teachers are assigning grades right now, what they are grading is PRIVILEGE. Without the equalizing force of the school-building and its services, limited as they are, teachers are grading on access to technology, Wi-Fi, food and housing security, and ableism” (Moreno-Lozano, 2020). Yeager’s statement got repeated on Twitter and “memed” relentlessly by folks involved in education. Most of the digerati focused on the first sentence: “If teachers are assigning grades right now what they are grading is privilege.” It’s a wonderful soundbite, but the rest of the quote gets at my unhappiness with grading in the spring of 2020: “Without the equalizing force of the school building and its services, limited as they are, teachers are grading on access to technology, Wi-Fi, food, housing, security and ableism.”
This is the ethical crux. All teachers who are using technology to teach writing right now are doing so without an important agent of potential equity: a school building. This building provides wireless internet, sets of working Chromebooks, free lunches, an understanding of how to implement an IEP, and even a sense of security. We have been living in an imaginary world where the people and resources that inhabit a school building could do everything from provide food security to internet access. We no longer live in that world. I don’t live in the world, and my students certainly don’t. So, what can other educators and I do about this obvious inequity?
Responding in the Moment: Co-creation of Rubrics
In How to Create and Use Rubrics for Formative Assessment and Grading, Susan Brookhart (2013) points out that “Nancy Harris and Laura Kuehn (Higgins, Harris, & Kuehn, 1994) did research in their own team-taught classroom to see what sorts of criteria primary school students could generate for a ‘good project.’” They found that their students, in grades 1 and 2, were able to define criteria for group projects.” So if this can be done in early grades, with support, it can be done in secondary schools and college writing classrooms right?
My experience says that this is so. In fact, I have good success in previous quarters providing students with a previous rubric and access to Rubistar, http://rubistar.4teachers.org/index.php, and then co-constructing a rubric that students buy into. So in the spring of 2020, both of my classes used our last Zoom meeting to co-construct rubrics based on the earlier rubric I designed, and many of the students, in their reflective writing on their final projects, wrote that they were “grateful” and “happy” to have an opportunity to set the standards for my assessment of their work.
I was happy too. Students gave me language I could never have come up with for grading two complex assignments (one was a final research project for a writing for educators class and the other was an infographic assignment—both demanded reflective writing about the process of creating the pieces). Below you can see a “before” and “after” image that shows a small but significant change in language for the rubric for my writing of educators class.
In our Zoom work, students changed “succinct” to “concise” to get at their understanding of what we collectively valued in terms of word choice. It moved the language away from my language to a shared language about word choice–something that felt mutual. These sort of small, but meaningful, changes helped us co-create a shared sense of assessment criteria–as well as fostering a very robust discussion in Zoom about what constitutes “good writing.”
I was also grateful that my students were deeply engaged in the task, and, with my writing for educators class, it helped us to have a serious discussion about the issues around grading period—an inescapable aspect of being a classroom teacher at any level of school.
But, as I turned in final grades for the spring 2020 quarter, I was still left with questions and concerns. I knew that changing rubrics was not enough to ensure equity in terms of grading. Changes in wording are important, in that I was able to find space for students in my grading, but I was still using a rubric that made assumptions about language use, structure, and other things that privileged my take on writing. Ultimately, I found myself asking what I could and should do when I returned to teaching in the fall of 2020.
Responding in the Fall: Labor-Based Grading Contracts
Part of my answer is labor-based grading contracts.
I wrote my first grading contract for a student in 1993. And, again, there is a whole literature on why this might make sense to do in concert with students. If you want to get a sense of that literature and the mechanics of grading contracts you can learn a lot about them via this readable article from Inside Higher Education by John Warner: https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/i-have-seen-glories-grading-contract.
However, Asao Inoue, an important advocate for labor-based contract grading in college writing, has a book that I am reading and thinking about a great deal right now: Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. You can download the whole book for free at https://wac.colostate.edu/books/perspectives/labor/. There is a lot to recommend this approach, but the best statement of why to think about labor-based grading contracts right now is from Inoue himself; he claims that labor-based grading is a grading contract that “calculates final course grades purely by the labor students complete, not by any judgments of the quality of their writing.” (Inoue, 2019, p. 3). Inoue (2019) also points out that traditional grading, even contract grading, is enmeshed racist attitudes, and that any standard exists “within systems that uphold singular, dominant standards that are racist” (p. 3).
As a practical matter, there is a lot of work that has to be done to create and justify a labor-based assessment system in a writing classroom. For my work, which started in the fall of 2020, I worked with three other teachers to develop the labor-based grading contract that you can see here for a college developmental writing class that enrolls first-generation students.
In our group of four teachers, two of the teachers had used grading contracts before, and their advice and counsel was essential to what I created. Also, we are now working on creating a research project around labor-based grading contracts (looking at grade spreads and interviewing students about the use of grading contracts) and we hope that this research will provide evidence what we have seen anecdotally: there is little to no grade inflation around our use of labor-based grading contracts. Grade inflation is a concern that many administrators have, but it appears that labor-based grading contracts don’t inherently lead to this. Our research will hopefully show this, providing us and others interested in labor-based grading contracts with data to show that such grading can be consistent, ethical, and just.
I, and I’m sure the teachers reading this, know for a fact that many lower-income students are struggling with dependable internet access to do school work. This is not just our perception. According to an article by Vogels, Perrin, Rainie, and Anderson (2020) from the Pew Research Center, 43% of parents of lower income students thought it was very or somewhat likely that their children would have to do school work on a cellphone, 40% thought that their children would have to use public Wifi because their internet access at home is iffy, and 36% of mentioned that their children do not have access to a computer at home. As an ethical teacher of writing, I can’t let myself grade based on a privileged notion that every writer I’m working with has access to the tools and means to do their best writing right now. Labor-based contract grading at least is a way to begin to address what I realize was a fiction for me: that every writer could do great work independent of material circumstances.
Looking Forward, Back, and to the Side
I know that I’ll be using student designed rubrics, discussions about grading, and even a labor-based grading contract in the going forward as a teacher, but I am certain that this won’t magically solve my issues with assigning grades during a pandemic. I’m sure that these things alone will not solve all teachers’ issues with grading in this moment of crisis.
My hope is that they will be a start towards moving to assessment, something that will give feedback to students and me about students’ writing, that makes peace with grades, but is not hopelessly tied to grades. I’m realizing that in the face of the Black Lives Matter movement, the uncertainty surrounding the state of the Department of Education, and all the inequities in terms of race, class, and gender that Covid-19 has made manifest, that I have to do more to make all of my teaching equitable, all of my teaching anti-racist. I know I’m not alone in this need. I need to do better.
Brookhart, S. (2013). Chapter 1. What are rubrics and why are they important? In S. Brookhart (Author), How to Create and Use Rubrics for Formative Assessment and Grading. http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/112001/chapters/ What-Are-Rubrics-and-Why-Are-They-Important%C2%A2.aspx
Inoue, A. (2019). Introduction. Laboring toward grading contracts and the inner dikes. In A. Inoue (Author), Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. https://wac.colostate.edu/books/perspectives/labor/
Moreno-Lozano, L. (2020, April 7). After coronavirus closes schools, Austin ISD approves changes to GPA, class rank. Austin Statesman. Retrieved June 25, 2020.https://www.statesman.com/news/20200407/after-coronavirus-closes-schools-austin-isd-approves-changes-to-gpa-class-rank
Vogels, E.A., Perrin A., Rainie L. & Anderson M. 53% of americans say the internet has been essential during the COVID-19 outbreak. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/04/30/53-of-americans-say-the-internet-has-been-essential-during-the-covid-19-outbreak/
Warner, John. I have seen the glories of the grading contract. . .and i’m never going back. Inside Higher Educaion. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/i-have-seen-glories-grading-contract
Yeager, L. (. [@LoloSube]. (2021). Tweets & replies [Twitter profile]. Twitter. Retrieved January 19, 2021, from https://twitter.com/lolosube?lang=en
Christopher Dean is a continuing lecturer at the University of California Santa Barbara. He has written on issues of contingent faculty identity, as well as being a contingent faculty member himself; co-written a textbook on teaching research writing via urban legends, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories; and he is a co-editor of Starting Lines, an annual publication of the best first-year writing at UCSB from the Writing Program and the English for Multilingual Students Program.