Answering the Call: An Ungrading Journal
Introducing a blog series on the day-to-day victories and challenges of alternative grading.
This blog post is part of an ongoing series of reflections completed during my Spring 2023 writing course. While the post is being published in May of 2023, it was originally written on January 19, 2023.
I challenge the ungrading community to do something that sounds hard but is actually simple: Give us the details. Get unapologetically into the weeds through longer-form approaches of communicating your practice.
He suggests that ungraders start blogging about the day-to-day life of employing alternative grading: what’s working or not working, how students and colleagues are reacting, their own thoughts and insights about the process.
Easy enough, I thought. So here I am, right now, doing it.
When I first decided in early January to blog about my experience as an ungrader, I faced one obstacle: I didn’t want my students to feel self-conscious about or betrayed by my discussion of them in public, in real time. Even if I didn’t share their names or give details, the idea of putting our class conversations on the internet as they were unfolding felt like a potential violation of trust. But I still wanted to share my thoughts and ideas as a process with the hope that others could benefit.
So, what I’ve settled on is this: I will keep a journal, with the commitment of writing once per week, of my experiences and the experiences of my class throughout the semester. I’ll let students know I’m keeping this journal and, at various points in the semester, invite them to share their thoughts about ungrading verbally or in writing for me to record as part of the journal. At the end of the semester, I’ll share the journal in blog form week by week, as if it were happening in real time.
So, you’re probably reading this in May of 2023, but I’m writing it on January 19, 2023, five days before the start of my class. I’m excited to share this journey with you!
But first, a few conditions…
I want to start by saying that I’ll try to be completely transparent with students about what I am and am not sharing. Some things, perhaps some really important things, won’t make it into the final cut of this journal because my first priority is making sure my students are comfortable with what I put out for public consumption. I also won’t share any details about their individual grades or struggles, and I’ll get permission for anything I share about them beyond the most general observations.
I do hope that they’ll be willing to share some things about their experiences in their own words, obviating the need that I speak for them. I will, of course, share my own thoughts and experiences freely as long as they don’t infringe on my students’ privacy.
…And some context
I am an educational developer at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Mississippi. I spend most of my time supporting graduate students’ teaching development, working on inclusive teaching initiatives, and doing faculty workshops and consultations. My background is in English literature and I’m currently teaching for UM’s Department of Writing and Rhetoric, a fantastic and supportive unit.
I have some experience with implementing ungrading. Last spring, as a postdoc at Notre Dame, I taught a gen ed writing/literature course called Premodern Texts, Modern Problems: Literature and Public Life. In the course, I and about 20 students–from freshman to senior, English major to engineer–examined how premodern literature informs and interacts with modern concerns. We talked about Beowulf and white supremacy, The Canterbury Tales and sexual assault, Julius Caesar and authoritarianism. We not only wrestled with the complexities of these texts and their reception histories but also thought deeply about the function of literature, and literary scholarship, in public life. The class culminated in pieces of public writing that my students shared on a course website.
Throughout the semester, I gave students extensive feedback on their writing, but no standard number or letter grades. For their larger assignments, the students and I co-created a rubric, which I used to inform my feedback. I indicated to students whether I thought their work was “developing,” “proficient,” or “excellent” across each category. (I know, I know; I’m conflicted about this too, and I’m sure I’ll get into that later.)
I also met with students individually at the beginning, middle, and end of the semester. At midsemester, they filled out a self-assessment form and then emailed me to tell me how they would grade themselves based on their progress so far, and why. If my thoughts differed from theirs, we discussed it, but mostly they didn’t differ. At the end of the semester, they filled out another self-assessment form, and during their meeting with me, they explained what grade they thought they should receive and presented evidence for why they thought they should receive it.
You can read more about my reflections on ungrading this class in a Twitter thread I wrote last May. The method for my Spring 2023 writing course will be very similar. But before I get into the details, there are a few other things you should know about.
About my class
This is a first-year writing course, the second in a sequence here at UM. Typically, students take WRIT 101 followed by either WRIT 102 or LIBA (liberal arts) 102. WRIT 102 and LIBA 102 have the same outcomes; the only difference is that LIBA 102 courses allow instructors to be more creative about the course theme and assignment sequence.
I am teaching a LIBA 102 course called Examining Higher Ed: Teaching and Learning in the College Classroom. (I know–you’re shocked by the choice of theme.) We’ll tackle questions like, what’s the purpose of a college education? What individual and collective benefits does it provide? And how exactly are those benefits engendered in the classroom? Throughout the semester, the students will investigate and write about current debates in higher ed, with an emphasis on the ed.
This class is an ungrader’s dream, for a number of reasons. For one, we can spend considerable time discussing grading as part of the course content rather than purely in relation to the course’s grading system. For another, it’s a writing class that lends itself to assignment revision and portfolio assessment. But perhaps most importantly, it’s capped very low. Lots of room for individual attention here.
These are not my only advantages, of course: I’m teaching just one course this semester, and though I have lots of work in other areas, I have some flexibility and control over how much time I can devote to my students. I’m also a youngish (but not too young) white woman, which means I will likely find it easier to employ some of the practices that ungrading demands than will my colleagues in less privileged positions. Also, I have no children, very few domestic responsibilities, and an embarrassing dearth of hobbies–thus, lots of free time.
I’m aware that these circumstances may sound like a dream for those of you trying to employ alternative grading practices in much less amenable contexts. And you may decide that given the difference in our contexts, there’s not much you can gain from reading about my experiences. Very possibly that’s true. But I’ll try to be aware, as I’m writing, of all these different contexts and hope to be able to emphasize things that folks in a range of positions will find useful.
I’ll wrap this too-long post here. Next week, I’ll provide more detail about my ungrading system and share how I introduce it to students in the first week. I may also be able to share some of their initial reactions. Stay tuned!
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