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A labor-based grading system, as I argued in my previous post, is fairer for a diverse student population because it does not measure all students according to a white, middle-class standard. But what makes it preferable during COVID-19?

Labor-based grading shifts students’ attention away from the reward (an A), asking them to attend mindfully to the work of the moment. In a time of instability, often the best we can do is get through the day or even the hour. If we can help students focus on the work at hand and enable them to feel they’ve accomplished something by completing an hour’s worth of labor, that is beneficial. The work itself, the ability to focus on it, becomes its own reward. This grading model cultivates respect for time spent on labor and makes teachers more conscious of the work we are asking students to do.

Equally important, the labor-based grading model acknowledges that in this chaotic and frightening time, we -- teachers and students -- may not be capable of doing our best work. Asao Inoue points out that the word “failure” derives from the French failler: “‘to be wanting’ or more accurately to almost do something.” In the era of COVID, we must give ourselves credit for working toward a goal, if not always meeting that goal. Rather than measuring the worth by the outcome, we can appreciate the fact that we took some steps closer to the goal -- and that we learned something in the process. In other words, the labor-based model can help students learn to value failure: almost doing something.

As Inoue argues, labor-based grading is a more compassionate model. It doesn’t unfairly privilege those students who already speak standard white English. Also, instead of pitting students against one another in competition, the labor-based grading model encourages students to think of their labor as something they contribute to the class as a whole, and to regard the class as a community, working together. Inoue uses a Charter for Compassion, which lays out the values he hopes to foster in an explicit way. Although it will probably be harder to build in virtual classrooms, students need this sense of community more than ever.

Receiving grades is stressful. It seems like an inevitable part of classroom culture to be constantly evaluated, and so to be perpetually anxious. But it does not have to be this way. Grades can be set aside, and students can feel more control over the outcome of their labor in the class. In this era of upheaval, students do not need additional reasons to feel anxious. So don’t grade them.

What if I’m Just Not Ready?

Faculty may agree with the underlying antiracist principles but hesitate to implement labor-based grading. “I’m just not ready” is a common refrain, as Inoue acknowledged in his 2019 chair’s address at CCCC. The system may seem arcane, and instructors worry about being at odds with the practices of the university as a whole: doing students a disservice by not preparing them adequately for the demands of other instructors or employers, who may expect standard English. I was among those teachers who felt compelled by Inoue’s arguments about antiracist assessment, but I hesitated to implement the system. To discuss these concerns and support one another through the process, our first-year writing program founded a labor-based grading collective. It began as a forum in which to discuss Inoue’s work and remained a locus of support for faculty implementing labor-based grading for the first time.

Before COVID, we had the luxury of wavering about new teaching practices; we could put off what we didn’t feel ready to try. But as universities shifted abruptly to online learning, we experimented and failed, experimented and failed again -- or sometimes felt pleased with the results: a productive online conference about a paper or a new assignment that helped students make sense of their situation. Regardless of how well we were able to make the shift, this period shook up our old ways of doing things and opened us to more change. Of course, you may feel that given all the upheaval, you just want to stick with what you know, which I also understand. But on the other hand, maybe this period has actually given you courage to experiment and fail again, or adopt a system that seems radically at odds with conventional practices at the university. Everything seems open to question right now, so it might be the ideal time to try a labor-based model.

How Can I Get Started With Labor-Based Grading?

You might begin by watching Inoue’s chair’s address from CCCC (link provided above), which galvanized a group of colleagues from my program and inspired us to form our labor-based grading collective. Reach out to colleagues you think might be interested in creating antiracist ecologies; support is essential in this endeavor, which may feel risky. I also recommend looking at Inoue’s own Grading Contract as a way of envisioning what yours might look like.

You definitely cannot hug your students right now. But you can offer compassion and support, and you can refrain from grading them.

Sandie Friedman is assistant professor of writing at George Washington University, where she has helped to direct the Writing Center and the First-Year Writing Program.

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