The two weeks before the semester begins is a busy time, a time of fresh starts, new pencils, and crisp back-to-school-outfits. Now that I’m a parent, the fall begins with a joyous parade to my daughter’s school, collecting other parents and their children as we walk the four blocks of our tree-lined street.
As a professor I feel keenly the responsibility of creating the perfect syllabus, of designing the perfect course. One January, I reread Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do, composed my own checklist of excellent traits, and then methodically tweaked and retweaked my syllabus until it was in danger of resembling an over-seasoned stew. Of course, this was a maddeningly doomed task, since there is no perfect syllabus; a course is a chemical compound composed of many variables. Instead of aiming for perfection, perhaps, as Edward Burger recently argued,  we should be modeling “productive failure” for our students: showing them the benefits of risks and the willingness to make mistakes in the process of discovery.
There are many powerful reasons why instructors might not take risks in teaching. Many institutions still measure teaching effectiveness primarily on the basis of student evaluations. There are few incentives for changing what works or support for admitting failure.
However, I am trying to model a saner and more experimental attitude toward teaching and change one aspect of my course at a time. This fall I’m tackling what is to me the most onerous aspect of teaching: grading. It’s not that I dislike reading student papers, nor am I particularly besieged by students lobbying me for higher grades (our students are respectful and hard-working). But I believe that grading is antithetical to authentic learning. I started my own formal education in an experimental school and my daughter attends a similarly progressive public elementary school that uses narratives instead of grades. I believe deeply that grades encourage us to value ourselves in relation to the number of people who have been judged to be “below” us; this is not a value I want to encourage in my child.
However, since I’ve always taught at institutions that have grades, I’ve always tried to make the best of it – making my assessment measures as straight-forward and transparent as possible.
That said, after reading recent articles  about “grading contracts” and “crowd sourcing,” I’ve decided to create a grading contract for my upper-level English Novels course, wherein students complete a set of assignments that must be judged “satisfactory” (according to a carefully articulated rubric that describes what satisfactory means in the context of an upper-level course). Assignments that are not judged by me as satisfactory (I’ll save the “crowd sourcing” of grading for another semester perhaps) can be redone and resubmitted.
My hope is that this will allow students to take more risks on assignments, to be more honest about their initial limitations and their sincere interests. Of course, there is the possibility that this new system will backfire, that instead of striving for “excellent” A-level work, the students will aim for the lowest level of “satisfactory.” This is what I’m eager to discover.
Either way, my daughter’s back to school outfit rocks.