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In any ordinary semester, some students fall apart. They overextend themselves with extracurricular activities, fall into depressions, drink to excess, weather their parents’ divorces or their own wrenching breakups. Their performance in class suffers as a result, and we often find ourselves listening to their tales of woe. We can’t hug them, as my colleague Jessica McCaughey observes, so we make do with listening sympathetically, granting extensions, helping them figure out what they can do to catch up in our class, connecting them with resources such as the university counseling service.

That is in an ordinary semester. In the spring 2020 semester, the world fell apart. Beyond the typical kinds of crises, students dealt with unimaginable upheaval, and now, their families may be beset by anxiety over health and finances. It’s unclear what the fall will look like at our universities, and it’s bound to be unsettling, if not downright chaotic.

What can we do? We can give them the virtual equivalent of hugs: kind words, the assurance of presence and support, flexibility and creativity in instruction. We can also refrain from grading them.

A quick Google search reveals how many universities have instituted policies that made grading softer in the spring semester. For example, at George Washington University, where I teach, students could choose a pass-no pass option, even after the semester ended and grades had been assigned. First-year students could take advantage of a first-year academic forgiveness policy. P/NP policies go a certain way toward making grading less stressful, but we can go farther, rejecting conventional grades altogether. And perhaps not just for now.

How to Refrain From Grading?

I feel fortunate that when COVID hit, I was in my second semester of using an alternative grading system, developed by writing studies scholar Asao Inoue. To develop his system, Inoue has drawn from the work of pioneering writing teacher Peter Elbow and educational theorist Alfie Kohn. (Elbow’s and Inoue’s arguments are specifically addressed to teachers of writing or English, but Kohn’s work suggests that the model could be more widely applied.) Any rubric that evaluates students’ language according to a single standard -- which is invariably a white, middle-class standard -- is reinforcing racism, he argues. Rather than evaluating students’ work according to a quality-based rubric, Inoue advocates grading students on the labor they complete. By “labor,” he means all the work that goes into writing: reading, drafting, giving and receiving feedback, revising, polishing.

Students receive a grade only at the end of the course, based on the labor they have completed. During the semester, teachers and students do discuss and try to improve the quality of students’ writing, but the final grade is not dependent on characteristics of the writing. Rather, the final grade is based on whether the student completed the expected labor on time and in the spirit asked.

What Does Labor-Based Grading Look Like?

The foundation of the labor-based grading model is the Grading Contract, which lays out the basic requirements students must complete in order to receive the desired final grade. Inoue establishes a baseline level of work for students to receive a B (while I have followed him in this, I have a colleague who sets the baseline at A-minus). He provides a chart (titled “Breakdown of the Main Components” in the Grading Contract) that specifies exactly how much work students can turn in late, or miss, for each grading category. If students wish to raise their grades above this baseline level, they can complete additional labor, most of which benefits the class as a whole: offering presentations, leading discussions or writing additional responses on classmates’ drafts. They can also write longer papers. These options are also laid out in the Grading Contract, which is negotiated with students at the beginning and middle of the term; if the terms you agreed on at the beginning don’t seem viable by midsemester (we can probably anticipate more turbulence in fall 2020), you and your students can elect to change them.

Since the death of George Floyd and our renewed concern with racial violence, you may be asking yourself how you can begin to make your classroom a more explicitly antiracist space. These unprecedented circumstances can become the occasion to take a more radical step toward fighting racist practices in education. This is a good place to start: don’t grade 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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