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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Continuing Adventures in Ungrading

There are always lessons to be learned.

December 8, 2019
 
 

I suppose because I have written about ungrading and grading contracts here in the past, I am occasionally taken as some kind of authority on the practice.

I’m not so sure about that. If authority implies having answers, I’m not an authority. That said, I’ve had some experiences that may be useful to others, including in the recently completed semester.

As every semester teaches me, there is no endpoint to the experiment. You make a plan. You do your best. You learn.

Rinse and repeat.

This semester I ungraded my first-year experience course in humor writing, and I struggled with a challenge that I think others who attempt ungrading/contract grading are likely to face. When you have an ungraded course embedded in the midst of a system of traditional grading, it may feel like students are neglecting your course.

At least it felt like it to me at points during the semester as students under pressure of more severe deadlines or high-stakes tests prioritized those courses over mine with its more flexible deadlines and complete/not-complete standards.

It is tempting to take this personally -- Why aren’t students interested in my course above anyone else’s?

Rather than relying on strict attendance policies to enforce compliance, I put effort into making class meaningful so students would want to attend of their own volition, but when students choose to dedicate their time to someone else’s class, it hurts. And because it hurts, it is tempting to fight fire with fire -- to break out my instruments of compliance from the bottom of the tool chest and get student minds back on my course where they rightfully belong.

But this is ego talking, and I besides, I believe it is a mistake to think of it as “my” course. It is “our” course, and students are living “their” lives, complicated lives with competing interests that they are constantly juggling, many of which have nothing to do with school. If you have a study session for that big chemistry test the next day that conflicts with your evening first-year experience class, then making the choice to skip that class is sensible behavior. If you can pick up an extra work shift that means you have to leave class a little early, but it’s going to put a little extra money in your pocket, you might need to do that.

Fortunately, I had committed to the grading contract at the start, and to shift policies midsemester would’ve been both grossly impractical and unfair. I vowed to get over myself, to commit to the principles I believe to be integral to meaningful learning, most importantly freedom and respect for student agency. I’m committed to playing the long game of learning, rather than the short game of schooling.

That long game extends beyond the length of the semester. Missing a class or failing to extend maximal effort on an assignment are small things relative to that timeline. It’s hard to know when a lesson is going to land.

In the course policies, I discussed how analyzing and attempting to create humor are exercises in better understanding humanity. When someone laughs, it is often a little truth bomb detonating in that person’s head, a moment where something they didn’t previously consciously know to be true is revealed. Knowing how this is done and then attempting to do it in return is great practice in writing and thinking, and I believe it extends to anything students will attempt to write in the future.

My temptation to make the complex simple was rooted in a desire for simplicity, for control, for comfort, primarily my own.

I’m glad I did not give in to these worries, because the end-of-semester reflections from students about what they learned made manifest what I could not be certain of during the semester -- learning happened.

Different students learned different things, which is as it should be in my view, particularly in a writing-oriented course. Every student is starting from a different place. It feels counterproductive to try to make them run identical routes. My approach is to provide writing experiences that will hopefully engender a spark and then provide sufficient fuel to send students on their way.

E. B. White famously said that analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog -- few people are interested and the frog dies of it.

He is not entirely wrong. The student reflections revealed that the mystery they had previously imbued humor with had been punctured, but I like to think it was in the service of good.

Many students were impressed with how complicated it was to analyze and create humor. They had figured that being funny is something you simply are, rather than something that can be created through study and careful work. They seemed to have a deeper appreciation of how, on all occasions, writing is meant for audiences.

Ungrading is no panacea. It comes with tradeoffs, and inside a system where its practice is an outlier, it will be even more challenging, but every semester I’m more convinced it’s the right choice for the courses I share with students.

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