As I prepare to launch my experiment in contract grading – largely relinquishing my control over student grades - I find myself increasingly anxious.
There’s an obvious irony in that my original motive to explore contract grading was to begin to address a rising tide of student anxiety, which I believe has reached levels that now often interfere not only with academic performance, but day-to-day well-being.
And yet, I’m wondering if I’m setting myself up for failure. I asked my colleague, Chris Warnick, a rhetoric and composition specialist who is ahead of me on the contract grading curve, “What happens if too many of them get A’s?”
He asked me what I meant by “too many.”
I’m excited too. This new approach brings my teaching practice into closer alignment with my values. For years I’ve told students that grades don’t “matter” nearly as much as school and society signals, and that focusing on getting a particular grade often gets in the way of the kind of deep learning I hope they experience.
In examining my feelings and anxieties over this shift, I’m recognizing some bigger-picture tensions in my work, particularly the intersection of ego and control and how it relates to teaching. I realized that I’m worried about “too many” A’s because I’m concerned it would be a comment on the rigor of my course, even though one of the possible routes to an A requires students to do twice as much writing as those who receive a B, a more rigorous experience by any standard.
Still, I wonder why I'm experiencing so much angst over a change that should be liberating.
My relationship with grading has pretty consistently changed over the years.
On first contact with students as a TA in graduate school, I initially used grades as a shield, Captain America-style, something I could thrust in front of me and deflect anything dangerous coming. I was very aware that I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I could always fall back on this authority (whether I merited it or not) for protection.
Later, as I gained confidence as an instructor, heavily formalized grades seemed like an unnecessary burden. As an expert, as someone with students’ best interests in mind, didn’t I just know how they were doing? I fiddled with approaches that maximized my discretion in student grades, setting myself up as the ultimate arbiter, supposedly capable of a holistic assessment of each student, each semester.
The paternalism inherent in this attitude soon sat poorly, and I feared my judgments risked approaching the arbitrary. So, I went the opposite direction, more rubrics, more metrics, an attempt at objectivity.
This didn’t work particularly well either. Students wrote to the recipe. I wanted them behaving like young, experimental chefs, but they acted like line cooks at the Olive Garden. Proficiency and efficiency weren’t inspiring or meaningful to any of us.
Eventually, I migrated towards a kind of hybrid, where students were given many freedoms – no formal attendance policy, wide latitude on subject matter for their writing – but I still retained the power of the graded assignment. There might be multiple paths for each student, but the destination was the same for everyone. They were free right up until I herded them into the corral so I could stamp them as prime, choice, select, or future dog food.
At last, I’m giving up almost, but not quite all of that power.
It seems to me that this anxiety is very much wrapped up in ego, and the way that exercising control can stoke that ego. I have to now admit to myself something that’s probably always been true, part of my enjoyment of teaching is wrapped up in others (particularly students) seeing me as a locus of authority.
But as I’ve learned over the years, authority can take on many forms. I’ve seen this in my McSweeney’s Internet Tendency editorial work, where the authority to accept or reject others’ writing does indeed deliver a little charge of excitement. I’m making careers!
However, the far more enjoyable part of the job has proven to be a different kind of authority, that of editor as facilitator, someone who can help others bring their ideas to fruition. Doing this well has required a gradual shedding of ego. I need to maintain enough to remain faithful to our editorial standards, but I’ve also had let go of my notions of how I might work a particular piece, and instead, offer feedback that will help the original author find their way through the thicket.
My anxiety over the switch in policy is probably good for me. I think it also means my students will teach me much this semester. I don’t expect it all to go smoothly, but I know we will make discoveries and will adjust course as necessary.
And moving myself further and further away from the center of my students’ learning just feels right for me, the person I am or wish to be, and the subject I teach.
It’s hard, though. I’ve absorbed a lot of the systems I’ve been asked to labor within.
Even as I’m confident I’m doing right, I worry that I’m wrong.
 While the structure of the course significantly values student “labor,” I will still be putting grades of “proficient,” “above proficient,” and “below proficient,” on what I’m calling the “core assignments” and those ratings, will have some effect on their end of semester letter grade. That said, it is possible, through additional labor, to receive an A, even if their core assignments get the functional equivalent of a B (proficient). I’m hoping the experiment goes well enough that I can move to a model where I give the feedback on the assignments, but I need not count those ratings as part of the grade, but I’m just not there yet.
 Not really.
 This is not the only model for successful editorships. For example, Gordon Lish seems to have dragged Raymond Carver (and others) towards his particular aesthetic, rather than necessarily helping those artists find their own paths, and yet, the art produced in this way is undeniable.