[This week I start what is unquestionably the most distinct and strange semester of my 20+ year teaching career. So for my annual Fall previews, I’ll be discussing some of the ways that my classes will and won’t be different this time around. I’d love to share some of what you’ve got going on in a crowd-sourced Fall 2020 weekend post!]
On my tentative embrace of a radical pedagogical practice, and a question that remains.
As I wrote in my Spring 2020 reflection post, when that chaotic semester shifted to online-only after Spring Break, I made the early decision to do away with grades for the remaining assignments in all of my classes. To be clear, I didn’t do so as part of any overarching pedagogical plan, and indeed quite the opposite: as I said throughout those challenging weeks (and in that reflection post), I saw the second half of the Spring 2020 semester not as online teaching at all, but rather as triage and care, as a vital moment to express communal support and solidarity for and with my students (while still hoping to get across at least a bit of the content and skills that were most central to each class). While a few students certainly did less work than they might have if the assignments were graded per usual (likely for very good reasons that were precisely the point of my eliminating grades, of course), the vast majority of my students rose to the occasion as I knew they would, producing work that was not only high-quality, but that to my mind was able to be more individual and creative without the fears of doing it “correctly” that grades inevitably add to the mix.
That last point, the opportunities for distinct and generally richer and more meaningful student work if grades are taken out of the occasion, is a main argument behind the radical pedagogical practice known as “ungrading.” Once I realized that I had (without any initial intention) started to move in the direction of that practice, I asked online if folks had resources on it they could share, and as usual y’all delivered; here are just a few of the many great ungrading articles, conversations, and texts that were sent my way. I also learned that one of our most talented Fitchburg State English Studies alums, Ian Wilkins, has been using ungrading in his classrooms for years. I had ambitious plans to investigate these sources and resources at length this summer, and as a result to become much more intentional and thoughtful in my use of ungrading pedagogies this fall; like many Summer 2020 best-laid plans, I’m sure, those did not come to fruition, and so I’d say that my broader ungrading ideas remain at an early and too-unformed stage, although I do hope to continue de-emphasizing grades in various ways in my Fall classes.
As I work to do so, I do have one main question about the practice—I’m sure it’s addressed in those sources, but I’ll also note it here, both to make clear my ongoing thinking and in case any of y’all have ideas or perspectives to share (including by email if that works better). What I’m wondering about is how to keep student focus on a class’s objectives if that class moves toward ungrading while all their other classes continued to feature regular graded work in a way that demands their attention and effort more consistently. Again, my Spring 2020 students absolutely rose to the occasion when it came to my ungraded culminating work, but that semester was a unique one in which many if not most of my colleagues likewise adjusted their emphases; whereas I’m quite sure that most classes in Fall 2020 will be graded in more conventional ways. So it seems to me to be only human nature that if my class features de-emphasized grades, and all their other classes feature regular ones, students will tend to prioritize the graded work, making it more difficult for us to focus on the content and skills, conversations and objectives, in my classes. Again, I’ll keep looking into ungrading resources myself to find answers to such questions, but I’d love any thoughts of yours on them or any other aspects of the practice as well. Thanks!
Next Fall preview tomorrow,
PS. What are you teaching or working on this Fall? Let me know for the weekend post!