Week 5

Oh, sigh. How are we going to talk about grading– which is a pressing subject!– when the vileness of our political situation is so pressing, too?

I don’t know about you, but I had a hard time getting anything done yesterday, and today isn’t much better. And on Tuesday, I think we might still be asking this question: How are we supposed to move along with the work of the day (which is, imho, work on the right side of history) when we might rightly want to riot/strike/riot/cry/yell/go back to bed?

These are questions that you will confront in your classes, too, and by the looks of things lately, the world will put them to you with some regularity. So it’s right as well as inevitable that we should confront them here, too.

We have just begun to talk about the ways our classroom practice is shaped by chronic political problems like the structural violence of institutional racism, for example, and the casualization of academic labor. We will continue to talk about those things. And we’ll also want and need to talk about the best ways to teach amid political crises that happen in real time, as they do.

And as we talk about this, I still want to talk about grading. This week isn’t the last time we’ll talk about it, so we don’t need to complete the conversation (and we couldn’t, anyway). Let’s just make sure to get your biggest questions, concerns, insights, and anxieties about this on the table so we can prioritize the right things as we continue to talk.

As you look ahead to your first round of papers, what questions do you anticipate, and how do the articles for this week alter them? What insights seem valuable, and what do you want to make sure to raise in this discussion?

Also, remember: I’m going to ask you next week to give me a draft of a student paper that we could all read and discuss, so keep an eye out (when you get your first drafts) for a paper that challenges your ability to comment on it productively. And ask your students for their permission to share their papers for this kind of faculty development.

With best wishes & solidarity 4-eva,

Gloria

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17 Responses to Week 5

  1. Farrah Goff says:

    In reading “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching” by Danielewicz and Elbow, I definitely like what they are saying in theory, about the idea of implementing a “contract” with your students. The idea is that by clearly laying out the expectations of the course and engaging with the students, they feel as though they have some more control over their grades, such that “the contract removes or at least diminishes helpless feelings that the grade is a subjective judgement made by a teacher that is entirely out of [their] hands” (11). One part early on in this reading that feels especially poignant to my classroom environment is the quick mention of the debate on attendance; “Students wanted me to eliminate the attendance requirement. After explaining my teaching philosophy (and the necessity of creating a community in the class in order to enhance learning) we added to each grade- contract the possibility of one additional excused absence..” (3). I am personally struggling with my 8am class to have students show up on time, to the extent that on Wednesday of last week, I had 12 students show up over 30 minutes late to the class. I have previously stressed how not only will the actual lateness effect their grades per mine and CUNY’s attendance policy, but the students are actually missing valuable lesson time and work that would improve their own writing. Thus, their grades are dually negatively impacted by their lateness. Elbow writes that the goal is “inviting students to take more control over their lives” while simultaneously having the educator “give up as much power over course requirements and student behavior as they can manage” however, another issue I take with this is that it assumes that the students lack control over their grades in the first place. As both a student and now a teacher, I feel as though MOST of the grade is in the students control. Tasks such as submitting homework completely and on time, participating in class discussion, and simply being present for class are all parts of most grading criteria that are completely dependent on the student. Simultaneously, it leaves me as a teacher now (even so early in the semester) in a difficult position as I already have students who are falling behind through no fault but their own.

    Moving on to Elbow’s other piece “Ranking, Evaluation and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgement” he breaks down the reading (and grading) of students writing. He presents the idea first that those who are reading and grading students writing should avoid ranking by which he means “the act of summing up one’s judgement of a performance or person into a single holistic number or score” and moving towards the idea of evaluating by which he means “the act of expressing one’s judgement of a performance or person y pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of different features” (1). He presents the difficulty of ranking and the limitations of such in order to tote the benefits of an evaluating system. However, I perhaps was most strongly impacted by the point he makes about “liking”. “If [one] like[s] someone’s writing it’s easier to criticize it” is said tied with the idea the teachers who sit down to like student’s writing or genuinely like their class in general have an easier time giving strong feedback and getting through what can sometimes feel like an onerous and difficult process (12). In truth, that may be the unspoken universal idea that ties each part of this together, because whether one is grading, evaluating, or ranking, the process of providing feedback on student papers is time consuming and an effort that can be made “better” if one enjoys or even just simply likes the student or the class in general.

  2. I agree with Farrah that The “Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching” article was interesting as the authors, Peter Elbow and Jane Danielewicz, compared their view of grading papers to other educators (specifically mentioned were Shor, Thelin, and Moreno-Lopez). I had never heard of the term “contract grading” but it surely makes sense. It was intriguing to read how these three wanted to “democratize the classroom” and “work against the ideology of capitalism and class privilege” (1). However I’m not so sure that course policies like attendance and work load would be able to work via class voting… I do like the idea of a guaranteed grade of B though, as I think this would take a lot of stress off of students. It struck me that this notion of a guaranteed B as part of a contract very much sounds like the same idea as universal basic income for all citizens that many progressive (read socialist) countries around the world have implemented or are implementing as an experiment. In the same vein as receiving a guaranteed minimum wage giving people a social safety net, the guaranteed B would also leave students with the same kind of educational safety net. This in turn would, I believe, “encourage and reward behaviors that improve writing while at the same time maintain some standard related to writing quality” and both teachers and students could “think more about writing and less about grades” (5). The article is extremely useful in its details on how to go about executing contract grading. The quote on page 11 is something that I’ve often told the students in my class–though not exactly in the same words–and I think still worth stating: that students should “stop experiencing themselves just as students trying to satisfy teachers–and to begin experiencing themselves as writers engaged in trying to have an effect on readers” (11). I believe the guaranteed B contract can make this happen. I may try this out in my Tuesday 8am class and see what they think about making this contract happen as their first essays are due this Thursday. I might be a very revealing experiment…

    Peter Elbow’s article “Ranking, Evaluating, Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment,” is an important analysis on how we judge and how we attribute value to students’ works. Elbow’s essay is an examination on “assessment–the different
    ways in which we express or frame our judgments of value” (1). Elbow makes a differentiation between ranking and evaluating and highly favors evaluating. He sees three problems with ranking it is inaccurate, does not give substantive feedback and is “harmful to the atmosphere for teaching and learning” (2). He equates ranking and grading with judgments of value and makes a strong point that this can be highly destructive for students (3). In contrast, he favors evaluation and give examples of how we can go about this using portfolios, doing a little bit of ranking using an “H” or “U” which stand for Honors and Unsatisfactory, or use an analytic grid, having students share their writings, or use a “kind of modified contract grading” (8). He also suggests using evaluation-free zones like freewriting and writes about the “benefits and feasibility of liking” (11). His concluding thoughts are that “good teachers see what is only potentially good,” and that getting to know students a bit improve chances of liking them and better work being done (12). There is a strange line on page 15 that needs to be mentioned “it strikes me that we also need to have permission to hate the dirty bastards and their stupid writing.” This sentence seems so out of place in the whole context of the tone of the article that it really stands out and perhaps should be talked about?

    In John Bean’s Chapter 14 “Using Rubrics to Develop and Apply Grading Criteria,” he really hits the mark by stating that our goal as teachers is to “maximize the help we give students while keeping our own workloads manageable”(267). Bean makes it clear how difficult it is for educators, past and present, to set criteria how to evaluate students papers (268-269). In order to try to help solve this problem, he gives us several options such as: creating writing rubrics using analytic methods, holistic methods, task-specific rubrics, and many more (271-277). Even though he proceeds to write about the controversies and problems of each rubric he also gives his own approach to using them (279-282). He also gives examples of rubrics not only for English literature but also for physics and chemistry papers. His conclusion (288-289) is really helpful as he tells us how he assigns letter grades. This entire chapter was extremely useful because it is practical in every way.

  3. Jacqueline Cornetta says:

    After doing the readings for this week, I would like to adjust the rubrics I had originally included in my syllabus. I am particularly interested in applying some of the ideas discussed in Elbow and Danieliwicz’ essays, though at this point it would be too late to use the grading contract. I hope to combine their contract with a partially student-designed rubric for paper grading in the future.

    The Sample Rubric 1 fits more closely with what I’d like to adapt to my class, though I hope to go over and adjust these guidelines with the students when it’s time for peer review. It uses very simple language to explain what is expected for each letter grade. The issue I took with the Sample Rubric 2 on the website (and mine, which I pulled from Christopher Williams’ excellent Monsters syllabus) is some of the language used. Words like “ambitious,” “compelling,” even “grace” and “subtlety” seem pretty advanced for what we’re trying to tackle, especially in the first few essays. Though those are definitely goals to work towards in the longer-term, straightforward language seems more appropriate for my students. I am interesting in finding out what kind of language students will use to define an “A” essay and adapting my rubric accordingly.

    I am committed to this idea that has come up in other readings (such as Lu’s), which Elbow and Danielwicz term a “subtle but powerful change in role: for students to stop experiencing themselves just as students trying to satisfy teachers—and to begin experiencing themselves as writers engaged in trying to have an effect on readers.” (11) As we’ve discussed at length, this is not something that is likely to happen in a matter of weeks, but it is a stance I can take and consider as I write lesson plans and think about ways of evaluating their work.

    Part of what Elbow and Danieliwicz advocate for is not only more constructive evaluation from the teacher (and less grading), but more evaluation from their peers as well as more opportunities for attentive self-evaluation. As I’m planning peer review days, I hope to give structure and guidance during those sessions so that time is used to the greatest effect. Questions like those posed on page 8 (“What do you want readers to see, know, or understand about your subject” and “What was your stake in this paper?”) are perhaps useful conversation starters for engaging students in peer review. I also plan to adapt the three questions they pose on page 12 for giving feedback to students as questions for the students to pose to each other’s work. Mine will be something like, “Does this satisfy the assignment,” “What is effective in the essay,” and “What is not so effective.” I’ll include a list of things to look out for (structure, thesis, rhetorical devices, etc.) relating to what is outlined on the grading rubric. It seems imperative to get students well-acquainted with the grading criteria (which has been ideally been written very deliberately) since understanding the purposes and goals of assignments will be necessary throughout their undergraduate careers. However, it does seem quite difficult to get them invested in their own writing outside of a grading system. I am eager to hear how others will be approaching the peer review in order to see ways of involving students more directly in the evaluation of both their own work and their peers’. The hope is to get at least some students to find the merit in that process.

  4. Elaine Housseas says:

    Before getting to my post about grading, this quote stuck out to me based on this current historical moment and my current mood:
    “ Also, decisions about assessment are often made by people even less professional than we, namely legislators.” (Elbow 1)
    Now, to my post. I found the readings for this week particularly thought provoking. Grading is something of which I’m very concerned. My students are submitting their formal drafts in this week, and I know my comments for these drafts will need to consider the type of revision and development students will have to make in order to receive certain grades. I believe the majority of work we do in our 110 courses is evaluation as Elbow defines it: “By evaluating I mean the act of expressing one’s judgment of a performance or person by pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of different features or dimensions” (Elbow 1). As Elbow goes on to explain, we do this through our comments on students’ drafts and low stakes writings. As I constantly remind my students, I’m far more interested in the development of their work than the end products. I agree with Elbow that this kind of approach requires me to consider my students’ work as well as them as people (something I’m sure we all do). This is essential in a college like Queens where we have students that come from a variety of backgrounds who live with a variety of responsibilities, concerns, and needs. However, we eventually need to assign grades. I think we can agree that there is no form of objective or universal grading for writing. As I’m sure we will find out in our class next week, we will probably assign different grades to the same paper. This is greatly due to the “highly variable nature of the reading process” (Elbow 2). As our students bring in their lives and experiences into their writing, we do the same in our grading. I know Elbow in both articles is invested in moving away or providing alternatives to ranking or holistic scoring, finding it greatly detrimental to student learning and the classroom experience. I in part agree, being a student now still hung up on maintaining a certain academic standing. However, Elbow goes as far as saying, “Students often care more about scores than about learning…” (Elbow 3). This is going a little too far. I do believe our students are grade-focused at times but this doesn’t mean they’re not interested in learning. Many students at Queens College are one of the first in their families to continue on into higher education, a fact and opportunity I don’t believe they take lightly. Many of them come with the knowledge of it being a financial burden to them and/or their families. They are here to learn, to have experiences that many in their families or communities may not have had.
    I do think grading takes away from the experience of a course, creating hierarchies and assigning ranks which are not necessarily fair. I believe we craft our syllabi with in the intent to give our students as much opportunity as possibly to receive grades on the higher end of the scale. We give them the opportunity to do a minimum of two ungraded drafts and a series of ungraded low stakes writing before assigning a grade to a final project. We inform them the grades they receive on their final submissions are based on all of the assignments that contributed to their final submissions, trying to reassure them that this one piece is not the sole basis of their grade. Then, I give them the opportunity to revise to improve their grades after the initial ones are given. We tell our students writing is a craft that needs continual practice and tuning. We as writers are constantly changing and developing. I know I can never ever assuage their concerns over grades. This is impossible in the kind of educational system the vast majority of our students have been raised in, being assigned grades or ranking since age 4. Elbow’s continual reference to a golden star only reminded me of my kindergarten chart where gold stars were used to create a display and daily reminder of class ranks. Like Elbow, I believe conferences with students are as important as our written evaluations of their work. Unfortunately for us, many students do not have the opportunity to meet with us individually after class hours. I am a big fan of the conference hour because of this situation. Students need the opportunity to discuss and defend their writing. This is something we touched on last week in our discussion of the “comments to comments” assignment. We don’t want our students to feel like sell outs who just revise around our comments solely to receive an A (Elbow 3). We are trying to combat this “knee jerk acceptance” (Elbow Jane 10). This is what I’m still working to incorporate into my evaluation and grading process. After returning their formal drafts, I plan to discuss again with students the importance of defending their work when they believe it is being misunderstood or undervalued.
    I have a feeling I will be a “soft” grader, a fact that I have no shame in admitting (Elbow 14). This doesn’t mean I want the majority of my Rate My Professor comments to be something like, “She’s an easy grader. Take her class!” But I do think I have a tendency to grade on the higher scale, finding potential in all student writing. I like “bad writing”, writing that shows possibility and innovativeness (Elbow 14). I often find myself giving more positive feedback to this writing than writing others may consider far better. Elbow suggests this could be that it is easier to criticize writing that you like (Elbow 12). I don’t think it is that I like this writing better, but think it is not as in need of encouragement as much as criticism to take it to the next level.
    I’m not a fan of the contract suggested by Elbow and Danelewiscz. I love the idea of my students feeling they have a “voice in the classroom…and a sense of responsibility” (Thelin 127). However, I feel like this could be accomplished in the current structure of my course and classroom. Students are provided with syllabi, which I see as an agreement in itself. Students are told what is expected of them both in participation and completion of work. I can’t be onboard for this, “B for behavior and insistence on quality for higher grades” method (Danelewiscz 5). There is no way to avoid ranking, and I’m uncomfortable with this definition of behavior, which includes onstant creative and structured writing processes and peer and instructor interactions. This is far more than just an expected behavior. I also think there is too much ambiguity in the contract, which is a subject the writers touch on and try to clear up. As they say, “how can we defend ambiguous and arguable criteria like “conscientious effort,” “thoughtful feedback,” and “conscientious participation? (7)” To my understanding, they pretty much say they will be lax about such parts of the contract, having loose definitions of the terms. I don’t personally find this a strong argument. I understand they have evidence that shows students end up meeting these expectations as time progresses but my question is to what extent? These criteria are as important in my evaluation of students’ performances as their written work, and I don’t define them as lightly.
    Lastly, I think about the students who come in and want no grade other than in the A range. As Elbow and Danelewiscz say, “Contract grading can’t magically transform students’ values” (13). I was one of these students, one of them because I knew what grades I needed to continue on in my graduate studies. These students are still going to demand a higher holistic score, demand ranking. Elbow and Danelewiscz know this and say they’re prepared for such situations; however, I wonder if an “elite level” of writing will be needed to receive an A in these kinds of classes. There is a point where they say some of their students who received Bs would receive grades of a C to A- from other professors. This too made me uncomfortable. It is not because I see them as being overly lenient but it makes me think: what is deserving of this elusive A?

  5. Weiheng Sun says:

    As the first round of papers is coming, I’m wondering how I can grade in an efficient and effective way when I am given limited time and energy. By effective, I mean that the ultimate purpose is that students will get a useful feedback and learn something from this assignment, which will be instructive for their further studies. I think rubrics are helpful objective tools for grading when instructors need to provide a rationale for students how the grade comes from. It has an instructive function in that it provides a standard for students before they hand in their papers. In addition, it saves time when grading. But making a detailed rubric (like the ones on pp. 273-275) may cost much time. Therefore, I think I would follow a simple rubric like the one on page 283 to illustrate some key elements in grading, while at the same time I’ll give a descriptive evaluation to each paper so that the feedback would be individualized. I agree with Elbow on the possible harm by ranking and grading and his proposal for evaluation and evaluation-free zones, as well as his emphasis on liking students’ papers and works. Sometimes it is the change of use of the language that makes a difference, like the example he gives, “This terrible …. But I like it. Damn it, I’m going to get it good enough so that others will like it too” (12). I’m not sure if his several hypotheses (13) are true or not, but I would love to follow his suggestions and try out some suggestions, which sometimes only requires change of attitudes and perspectives. For a similar purpose, Elbow argues for contract grading, which shifts the focus on grade to the effort in the processes. The emphasis on the processes rather than the outcome provides an interesting perspective to what proper attitude we as instructors should hold towards the grading process.

  6. In response to (the always wise) Elaine, my students turned in their Formal Drafts late Wednesday night. I’ve read them all, and following Bean’s advice, made a few marginal notes and highlighted “strengths and weaknesses of different features or dimensions,” while trying to be sensitive to the “highly variable nature of the reading process” (Elbow 1, 2). However, now that it’s time to actually assign a grade to their papers, I’m hesitant. Since we’re going to be discussing grading this week, I’ve opted to wait until after class to assign them. However, since I know they’re anxious about their grades, so I’m going to provide some general feedback in class tomorrow/Monday, a la Zeli, providing “a kind of active push to continue.” I’m hoping that my delay in grading their essays will not only help me through what I learn in class, but will facilitate the understanding that writing, as Elaine notes, is “a craft that needs continual practice and tuning.” I realize that after this first round of essays, I’ll become more comfortable with the idea of ranking and grading, but today, I’m admittedly somewhat apprehensive about doing it.

    In looking through Bean’s selection rubrics, I’m wondering if the rubric for the three different essay drafts—Zero, Formal, and Final—should not have different requirements that build as the stakes get higher. We’ve talked about developing trust with our students, and while I don’t get the sense that they don’t trust me, I think some of them are having a hard time trusting the writing process that doesn’t request of them a final perfect paper with a perfect thesis statement, because they are worried about the ranking grade. I agree with Elaine’s questioning Elbow’s assertion that: “Ranking leads students to get so hung up on these oversimple quantitative verdicts that they care more about scores than about learning–more about the grade we put on the paper than about the comment we have written on it” (4). I think they do care about learning, but they are also in a new world of college that carries a whole new set of expectations to which they are becoming accustomed. When a handful of my students expressed worry that they don’t yet have a good thesis and, in some cases, no thesis at all, I reassured them that I would not be grading them on anything that I have not yet assigned them. I don’t expect them to have a perfect thesis yet, so why would I give them a poor grade for not having one? There’s nothing up my sleeve, I promise!

    However, like Elaine, I also think I may be viewed as a “soft grader,” though I’m concerned about it. As I’m going through the Formal Draft essays, I’m ‘drafting’ my own grades, which I will revisit after our class on Tuesday. I’m especially concerned, again, with grading students on what they have been assigned in each draft, rather than looking at the current draft through the lens of the criteria for the Final essay: “The basic principle in contract grading is simple but radical: what counts (“counts,” literally, for the grade) is going through the motions” (Jane, Elbow 17). How much authority do I have in my first semester teaching to make determinations about rubrics and still ensure that the Final essay meets the requirements of the course. While Jane and Elbow recognize that the contract method may not be effective for first-year writing programs, I’m wondering, as always, what we can implement. They note that “Even teachers who are not free to depart from a conventional grading system can experiment tentatively with a contract for only certain assignments, or for certain features of a course—perhaps for all course activities except major essays—or even for everything except final drafts. This would give students and teachers a feeling for contract grading with very little risk” (Jane, Elbow 17). “Risk” is the word with which I am concerned, because I want them to take risks with their writing. That’s where all the best thinking comes from! The percentage / weight / ranking is there in black and white in the syllabus, but my rubric is not. Like Elaine, I’m wondering what is deserving of this elusive A? And, conversely: what is deserving of anything less than a B?

  7. Caleb Fridell says:

    I’m sympathetic to the soft graders above especially for the reasons Elaine gives, namely, wanting to look for potential in all student writing, wanting to encourage rather than discourage, wanting to do away with rank and hierarchy and all the other meritocratic lies. But I would like to make the case (though my own soft-grading instincts might win out in personal practice) for grade inflation as an institutional concern. I’ve been thinking about the comment Audrey made on the blog last week: “It is painful, in a certain way, to debate whether or not grammar should be drilled into incoming college students. It reveals that our education system does not necessarily place its faith in reading early on.” It is painful, and it also reveals how little faith we as teachers of “college writing” are asked to place in our students. The unspoken premise of these debates is that we cannot expect high achievement from every student because the structure of these classes doesn’t permit it. For example, if we were teaching significantly smaller classes of students who did not have their own pressing financial burdens, and were able to give close, sustained attention to their learning, would we be describing grammar instruction in these terms? In this utopia, wouldn’t we save the high grades for the perfectly grammatical, well-argued essays that are not beyond the innate ability of any of our students? And give the writers of lesser essays, you know, the time and instruction to learn and improve? Instead, we do what little we can with inadequate time and resources before they pass by us on the higher-learning conveyor belt; and instead, assessment of student learning is bureaucratized, so has become inextricable from various financial incentives. When a student protests a poor grade, their complaint is not (principally) that the teacher has inaccurately assessed their work, but that she has interrupted the efficient accumulation of credits necessary for an attractive CV. Those credits having become the currency of undergraduate education––with every incentive for the student gather as many in as short a time as possible––the trend of grade inflation, with such practices as giving no grade lower than a B, seems part of an implicit admission that students are not here primarily to learn and we are not here to try to accurately assess the extent of their learning.

    My point only is that in our discussions we are necessarily not arguing about pedagogy from first principles. We can never ask what would be the best way to teach young minds to write. Because you would be insane to answer: the way things are. (I know I go on about this, but here I admit that I too have been infected with an all-consuming hopelessness!)

  8. Tyler says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the tension between grading and providing useful feedback (or maybe, instead of “useful,” I should say: feedback that students read, internalize, appreciation and apply to future writing). Of course I have been considering this tension in the context of 210W and creative work, but in terms of improving writing – be it poetry or essay writing – I would guess many of us would agree that generally it is primarily best to encourage self-analysis and self-editing in students.

    Elaine addresses the Elbow argument that “Students often care more about scores than about learning,” and I agree with Elaine that in my experience so far, this has not been the case. To this point, I have only given grades out for response papers; for student creative writing, I have only provided written feedback to pieces (and have assured them that these early drafts will not be graded). Not a single student has contacted me in any way about the grades I have given, but a number of students have wanted to talk more about the feedback on their poems. Additionally, a few students have met me during office hours or found me after the end of class to further discuss poetry I assigned to them. The sample size is limited, but to this point, my students have appeared at least equally invested in learning as they are in their grades (and I know I’m a broken record here, but I do wonder how much this may be specific to 210W versus 110 or another essay-focused course).

    On a separate but related note, I have struggled with the choice to not grade creative assignments (other than as “complete” or “incomplete”). The following passage from “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching” reminded me of this decision-making process. “While our contracts don’t directly counter the social injustices existing outside the classroom, they do resist the capitalism that seems to permeate the classroom air that students breathe. Since the time period during the semester is grade-free, students can experience the value and true pay off of their “work”: the intrinsic rewards and pleasures of writing and learning, tangible growth and development as they move from draft to draft, without being under the shadow of a grade.” (5.) The writers in my class are very diverse in their backgrounds and vocabularies, but also in their levels of confidence in themselves and their writing. My belief is that avoiding grades other than on a pass/fail basis for creative writing will allow them to feel less inhibited by their perceived limitations and more open to fail (in any and every way, other than, of course, in terms of their grades).

  9. Woo Ree Heor says:

    This week’s readings address the challenges and/or problems that we will encounter, or are already encountering, while grading our students’ papers.
    Danielewicz and Elbow understands syllabus and grading rubric as a “contract” that the teacher and students enter into. What I intend to do is using the rubric as the basis for peer review, something which I’m finding Jacqueline is considering as well. That way, rubric will serve as guidelines for what to focus on in another student’s essay, and help each student to see what he or she should focus in his or her own essay as well. Of course, it also works towards solidifying the idea of “contract” — we will abide by it better by understanding it better.

    I agree with Farrah that, although the instructor should take caution to make students feel they have control over their grade (hopefully working towards raising it), there are a lot of elements already in place that are actually in students’ control, especially in terms of attendance. With regards for “participation,” I am personally putting more emphasis on on-time submission of drafts and submission, but I do feel that attendance is one of the factors that students can manage to favorably impact their grade. During the past two weeks or so, I’ve had some conversations with a student who claimed that he’d submitted his draft, although I don’t see anything from him in either my dropbox folder or my inbox. This student was not particularly agitated about this situation (or care for that matter), but I feel that the lack of understanding for the syllabus as our basic agreement was the reason here, something I must address when I work on revision of my current syllabus. At the end of the day, it boils down to the basic “contract”-like understanding of my syllabus; although I try to accommodate my students’ situation to the best of my ability as I did in this case (reminding him of the missed drafts, giving him extra time to send them, etc), it is the students’ responsibility at some point. Another related, but distinct, policy that may serve as “contract” will be absence; this Wednesday, I am set to see with another student who has showed up only once until now to discuss essay submission. Since this student missed most of our classes, he missed valuable opportunities to work through multiple drafts to improve his writing, making it difficult for him to get a good grade for the final draft which will be due soon. I feel that policies about missed classes and late submissions works much more as actual contracts compared to some other aspects (like learning goals?); namely, that students are responsible for catching up with the missed material (although I will be there to help them further during my office hour), and late submission of final grade will negatively affect their grade.

    Similar to Elaine and Rachael, I feel I might be a “soft” grader as well, but I’m worried about grade inflation happening as Caleb points out. In my case, this might be complicated by the fact that I’ve attended non-US universities as a student. In both my BA and MA institutions, some of the courses had set amount of percentage for each letter grade that students can get. For example, only 25% or so of the class will get an A, 30% or so for a B, and so on (not sure if the numbers are accurate!). Professors tended to clarify that policy in the syllabus, but from what I’m seeing Queens doesn’t have that kind of rule implemented. What I’m assuming that I just have to grade students according to their performance without worrying about percentage, which is nice in itself. But I’m wondering whether there is some sort of a general rule of thumb, regarding how many students should get an A or a B in an English 110 class of 20 people? I know this is a very subjective and amorphous thing to ask about, but I’d like something to work by in order to not have an inflation, making my students feel that hard work doesn’t really have point.

    • Woo Ree Heor says:

      Correction: “among others, I do feel that attendance and timely submission of assignments are the factors that students can manage to favorably impact their grade.” I was writing this response somewhat carelessly on a tablet device in public. Oops!

  10. Elbow’s myriad issues with “ranking” are superbly laid forth, and it is, initially, difficult to argue against his position, even when his motivations and reasons are laid bare. That said, reasons for his three prime aversions to ranking are easily understood, and it is difficult to disagree with his distaste for numerical, oversimple evaluation, though, even in his own investigations, these issues are frequently subverted by simple applications of directly stated rubrics. While the subjectivity of arts, like writing, certainly calls for more variance in appreciation, grading rubrics, while not for everyone, is but one place where consistency can be attempted. Not only that, but I believe there is possibility for further, in class and conference hour, comparison and workshoping of papers based on a clear scale with defined characteristics. Of course, much of evaluative value of grading rubrics can get lost in other writing intensive courses where more value is placed on actual intellectual and critical/analytical content, rather than a course focused more on formal elements.

    As for Elbow’s second issue, that “ranking or grading is woefully uncommunicative,” I agree that this can be the case, but, once again, despite his argument that some papers don’t fit some rubrics, rubrics, depending on their appropriateness to the assignment, can functionally assist with direct communication and terminology. Ths issue, even becomes less of one, as our program allows for more interpersonal communication through the conference hour.

    Finally, I have to admit that I do not have much to answer with in regards to student’ concerns with grades over actual learning. This might be near the core of a substantive issue in academia, but, perhaps, this concern is one that starts to fade as students leave the confines of core curriculum and become freer to study as they see fit, essentially becoming active learners, rather than the passive ones who care only about the numerical value given to their work and not their intellectual or creative growth.

    Even though I see grading rubrics as a positive tool for evaluation and ranking, I know it is imprecise and problematic. “By ranking I mean the act of summing up one’s judgment of a performance or person into a single, holistic number or score” (Elbow 1). While this section of our academic investigation reiterates the generally understood definition of ranking, or perhaps “grading,” I recognize that an issue perhaps arises from phrasing and a narrow definition: while, especially in the case of writing courses, performance might be an overwhelming element to be judged, performance doesn’t exactly equal knowledge gained, which, when all is said and done, might be a more important factor to one’s grade.

  11. Audrey Wollen says:

    This past week has been very difficult (“all consuming hopelessness” definitely rings a bell) and the practicalities of grading already depress me! As someone who was kicked out of my first college, a fancy East Coast liberal arts school, for mental health struggles that, on paper, read as ‘flunking out,’ I have deep sympathy for those (often vibrant, articulate) students that Elbow mentioned that just “don’t seem to care” about grades. I also have sympathy for those whose anxiety cause overwhelming focus on getting As, even if that isn’t my neurotic symptom of choice. I left the more strict environment (unwillingly) to go to a school that didn’t have grades at all, and I flourished. This is all to say, I’ve experienced both poles of Elbow’s argument, and in my experience, the less grading, and the softer, the better — it offers a certain spaciousness that is in everyone’s best interest, I believe. I see Caleb’s point about grade inflation, and I definitely agree that higher expectations tend to produce better performances — for example, I was told that the reading level of my syllabus might be “above” the level of 110, but I think the worst thing you can do is dumb down the content and bore everyone (including yourself). I think my class has responded well, because the challenge can also serve as a vote of confidence. I guess I’m trying to say there are other ways to raise the bar, without it being purely held in letter grade ranking.

    I really responded to Elbow’s writing about “liking,” especially when he says, “I’ve found that when I deal only with my classes as a whole–as a large group–I sometimes experience them as a herd
    or lump–as stereotyped “adolescents”; I fail to experience them as individuals” (p.15). The project of liking your students is so rarely spoken about, and so much depends on it! I really struggled in my first few classes with seeing the class as a faceless mass of teenagers, which, in certain ways, is an actual nightmare for those of us who did not enjoy being a teenager. I came away a little stunned and on the defensive: they are staring at me, and there are so many of them! I can see how that defensiveness can be really harmful, especially in grading; it breeds resentfulness, the worst lens to view student work from. I appreciated Elbow acknowledging that “liking” student work and liking students in general is part of grading, part of the job, in fact, and can be a conscious choice that fosters open and generous discourse and pedagogy.

  12. Zeli says:

    I love Peter Elbow’s “Ranking, Evaluating, Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgement.” As someone who was once a student and often felt alienated from grades I have received, since the first grade(s) I can remember, it is clear why Elbow so strongly resonates. Not to mention, the teachers and professors who have been most exquisite to me throughout my life, are the ones who see through and passed the quantitative, linear, module of letter grading. This “seeing through” typically looks like the kind of evaluative efforts that Elbow encourages and describes. Most vital, in my past, have been the educators who have genuinely performed the task of liking my work in active and multi layered ways.

    One of aspects of Elbow’s argument that especially resonated with me is when he writes, “good writing teachers like student writing (and like students). I think I see this born out–and is really common sense….. Good teachers see what is only potentially good, they get a kick out of mere possibility– and they encourage it”(12). It’s so crystal clear for me to trace this passage toward the memories of writing teachers whom I’ve actually learned from in the past. I felt like the entire world was cracking open the first semester I ever took a creative playwriting class. This is absolutely because my professor was carefully engaged with my work, enthusiastic about it, articulated the merits for her enthusiasm, and curated classes where students could grapple with the “potentially good” (in spite of whether or not it is there yet–) qualities of their work. Somehow, this work felt so much more complicated, mysterious, nuanced, and thrilling than any other kind of staunchly revisionist, or critical writing approach I’ve ever tried.

    I’m honing in on this one moment in Elbow’s thesis, however I feel like it might speak to his larger critique of linear grading. It seems to correlate, directly, with Elbow’s adamancy that evaluation is a stronger and more active took than grading. I love how he characterizes student writing as “complex performances(2)” that evade the impulse to rank or quantitatively delineate via letter grade. It almost feels overly simple to arrive at the conviction that liking someone’s work will generate richer evaluation of said persons work. I have found this really necessary so far, as I navigate english 210. I have many students whose work I genuinely enjoy, and for those whom I have a less easy time, I have to somehow will myself to appreciate and like their drafts. This is the only way I have found myself able to give oral or written feedback in any kind of compassionate, constructive, or rigorous way. This feedback, I hope, can spur movements toward revision and deeper appreciation of craft and process.

    • Zeli says:

      and speaking of Grammar! Apologies for any run on’s + other errors I make here, as I am short on time to revise for this blog! ha…

      • Zeli says:

        But let me quickly revise the last sentence of my first paragraph to —

        “Most vital, in my past, have been the educators who have EXPLICITLY performed the task of liking my work in active and multi layered ways.”

        Thx!

  13. Saba says:

    Hi everyone, I am joining the blog a bit late in the semester. I am catching up with previous readings and blogs as I go, so please accept my apologies if some of the issues I raise here, have possibly been addressed in previous weeks:
    ————
    In Elbow’s “Ranking, Evaluating, Liking”, a good number of issues are raised to dismiss the idea of ranking which are among my innermost concerns and headaches. I completely agree with him. The abhorrence Elbow strives to articulate regarding ranking component of grading, which ends up in a soulless evaluation of writing without much description, is a valid anxiety: “Ranking or grading is woefully uncommunicative. Grades and holistic scores are nothing but points on a continuum from “yea” to “boo”–with no information or clues about the criteria behind these noises. “(3) I am going off at a bit of a tangent here but in a book I was recently reading by Cathy O’Neil called “Weapons of Math Destruction”, she argues that big data and its aggregation increases inequality and threatens democracy in favor of creating models. During the first chapter she criticizes the creation of models based on data:”To create a model, then we make choices about what’s important enough to include, simplifying the world into a toy version that can be easily understood and from which we can infer important facts and actions.” (21) She then adds: “Models are opinions embedded in mathematics”(21). Modeling and grading are of course two very different subject matters, but they both involve subjective evaluation based on numbers and that, in my opinion is a fundamental and problematic approach in our perception of world which determines social stratifications with solid lines. Which brings me to another part of the same article by Elbow: “But perhaps more important, we see around us a deep hunger to rank–to create pecking orders: to see who we can look down on and who we must look up to, or in the military metaphor, who we can kick and who we must salute.” (4)

    Back to reality: I haven’t been grading my students on their papers so far, although emphasizing the necessity of turning in all the papers for each class on time and according to deadline, in addition to creating a spreadsheet to keep track. Instead, I wrote each and every one of them personal evaluations on their poems and their responses to their peers’ poems in addition to their papers so far (I teach 210 and my first chapter is poetry). I am interested in “liking” my students works, hearing their voices and have them bring the work that they also “like”, so I worked hard towards establishing the kind of trust, connection and atmosphere which enables them to share their creative work and especially poetry which can be a vulnerable arena. But as the semester goes on, I am obviously faced with a decline in quality of responses and writings. Emphasizing the one-page assignment and underlining the deadline for submission clearly emailed after each class, has not been very helpful in this regard. I went as far as explaining the reason behind a one full page response to classmates and not one single paragraph, to no avail. So inevitably I am faced with the question of grading and how that might work for my class. As a result I was interested in reading this part in Elbow’s: “The best way to begin to wean our society from its addiction to ranking may be to permit a tiny bit of it (which
    also means less unreliability)–rather than trying to go “cold turkey.”(7) In the same article I find the grid (7) to be a very helpful suggestion which I’m planning to utilize this week. I also found Elbow’s argument on “too much evaluation” eye-opening in case of my own class: “Constant evaluation makes students worry more about psyching out the teacher
    than about what they are really learning. Students fall into to a kind of defensive or on-guard
    stance toward the teacher: a desire to hide what they don’t understand and try to impress.” (9)

    Having spent all of my academic life in art schools, I agree with Elbow that portfolios are an excellent way to sum up the whole semester’s efforts in to a single project. They grant the opportunity to (1) reflect on all learned during the semester and (2) produce a cohesive body of work as a response to efforts of a semester. In case of 210, final portfolio is what I expect from my students. As Elbow mentions in his essay: “Portfolios permit me to refrain from grading individual papers and limit myself to writerly evaluative comments–and help students see this as a positive rather than a negative thing, a chance to be graded on a body of their best work that can be judged more fairly.” Portfolios have many other advantages as well. They are particularly valuable as occasions for asking students to write extensive and thoughtful explorations of their own strengths and weaknesses. (6)

    In the same article, Elbow’s argument about “liking” and the solutions in which he proposes to create a “time-out” zone, has naturally taken place while opening our class with poetry, so it was interesting to me to see it formulized in the article.

    In “Unilateral grading contract” I am most interested in the economization of time for both students and professors and the criteria for a B. I am most probably trying this contract for next semester. It also allows for debunking the mystery around grading and a certain clarity which in his own words can save us from many hassles down the road: “Using
    contracts, we find we can approach each new semester knowing that we will spend
    more time and energy on what we like doing—responding to papers, talking with
    students about writing, and inventing activities that produce more good writing.” (17)

    I also agree with Alan about John Bean’s “maximize the help we give students while keeping our workload manageable”(267) with aid of rubrics. Although in case of 210 I often find myself feeling the need to modify the rubric criteria for each writing assignment as each class in my given units (poetry, drama, fiction) necessitates the very specific paradigms based on what’s discussed in class.

    Having said all this, I think I might be viewed as a “non grader” (for papers during the semester) and I wonder how I can, at this point, modify some of the criteria to induce better performance in my class.

  14. saba says:

    Hi everyone, I am joining the blog a bit late in the semester. I am catching up with previous readings and blogs as I go, so please accept my apologies if some of the issues I raise here, have possibly been addressed in previous weeks:
    ————
    In Elbow’s “Ranking, Evaluating, Liking”, a good number of issues are raised to dismiss the idea of ranking which are among my innermost concerns and headaches. I completely agree with him. The abhorrence Elbow strives to articulate regarding ranking component of grading, which ends up in a soulless evaluation of writing without much description, is a valid anxiety: “Ranking or grading is woefully uncommunicative. Grades and holistic scores are nothing but points on a continuum from “yea” to “boo”–with no information or clues about the criteria behind these noises. “(3) I am going off at a bit of a tangent here but in a book I was recently reading by Cathy O’Neil called “Weapons of Math Destruction”, she argues that big data and its aggregation increases inequality and threatens democracy in favor of creating models. During the first chapter she criticizes the creation of models based on data:”To create a model, then we make choices about what’s important enough to include, simplifying the world into a toy version that can be easily understood and from which we can infer important facts and actions.” (21) She then adds: “Models are opinions embedded in mathematics”(21). Modeling and grading are of course two very different subject matters, but they both involve subjective evaluation based on numbers and that, in my opinion is a fundamental and problematic approach in our perception of world which determines social stratifications with solid lines. Which brings me to another part of the same article by Elbow: “But perhaps more important, we see around us a deep hunger to rank–to create pecking orders: to see who we can look down on and who we must look up to, or in the military metaphor, who we can kick and who we must salute.” (4)

    Back to reality: I haven’t been grading my students on their papers so far, although emphasizing the necessity of turning in all the papers for each class on time and according to deadline, in addition to creating a spreadsheet to keep track. Instead, I wrote each and every one of them personal evaluations on their poems and their responses to their peers’ poems in addition to their papers (I teach 210 and my first chapter is poetry). I am interested in “liking” my students works, hearing their voices and have them bring the work that they also “like”, so I worked hard towards establishing the kind of trust, connection and atmosphere which enables them to share their creative work and especially poetry which can be a vulnerable arena. But as the semester goes on, I am obviously faced with a decline in quality of responses and writings. Emphasizing the one-page assignment and underlining the deadline for submission clearly emailed after each class, has not been very helpful in this regard. I went as far as explaining the reason behind a one full page response and not one single paragraph, to no avail. So inevitably I am faced with the question of grading and how that might work for my class. As a result I was interested in reading this part in Elbow’s: “The best way to begin to wean our society from its addiction to ranking may be to permit a tiny bit of it (which
    also means less unreliability)–rather than trying to go “cold turkey.”(7) In the same article I find the grid (7) to be a very helpful suggestion which I’m planning to utilize this week. I also just found Elbow’s argument on “too much evaluation” eye-opening in case of my own class: “Constant evaluation makes students worry more about psyching out the teacher
    than about what they are really learning. Students fall into to a kind of defensive or on-guard
    stance toward the teacher: a desire to hide what they don’t understand and try to impress.” (9)

    Having spent all of my academic life in art schools, I agree with Elbow that portfolios are an excellent way to sum up the whole semester’s efforts in to a single project. They grant the opportunity to (1) reflect on all learned during the semester and (2) produce a cohesive body of work as a response to efforts of a semester. In case of 210, final portfolio is what I expect from my students. As Elbow mentions in his essay: “Portfolios permit me to refrain from grading individual papers and limit myself to writerly evaluative comments–and help students see this as a positive rather than a negative thing, a chance to be graded on a body of their best work that can be judged more fairly.” Portfolios have many other advantages as well. They are particularly valuable as occasions for asking students to write extensive and thoughtful explorations of their own strengths and weaknesses. (6)

    In the same article, Elbow’s argument about “liking” and the solutions in which he proposes to create a “time-out” zone, has naturally taken place opening our class with poetry, so it was interesting for me to see it formulized in the article.

    In “Unilateral grading contract” I am most interested in the economization of time for both students and professors and the criteria for a B. I am most probably trying this contract for next semester. It also allows for decoding the mystery around grading and a certain clarity which in his own words can save us from many hassles down the road: “Using
    contracts, we find we can approach each new semester knowing that we will spend
    more time and energy on what we like doing—responding to papers, talking with
    students about writing, and inventing activities that produce more good writing.” (17)

    I also agree with Alan about John Bean’s “maximize the help we give students while keeping our workload manageable”(267) with aid of rubrics. Although in case of 210, I often find myself feeling the need to modify the rubric criteria for each writing assignment as each class in my given units (poetry, drama, fictions) necessitates the very specific paradigms based on what’s discussed in class.

    Having said all this, I think I might be viewed as a “non-grader” (for papers during the semester) and I wonder how I can, at this point, modify some of the criteria to induce better performance in my class.

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