I Would Prefer Not To

Jesse Stommel

Assessment and standards are elephants in almost every room where discussions of education are underway. My goal here is not to demonize assessment but to dissect it — to cut right to its jugular: Where does assessment fail? What damage can it do? What can’t be assessed? Can we construct more poetic, less objective, models for assessment? In a system structured around standards and gatekeeping, when and how do we stop assessing?

A while back, I tweeted, “Education needs more conscientious objectors,” and I want to build upon that.

Taking a cue from my mentor Martin Bickman, I’ve chosen never to grade, or at least almost never. While I still submit grades at the end of a term, I’ve foregone grades on individual assignments for over 12 years, relying on qualitative feedback, peer review, and self-assessment. In “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment,” Peter Elbow writes, “assessment tends so much to drive and control teaching. Much of what we do in the classroom is determined by the assessment structures we work under.” My goal in eschewing grades has been to more honestly engage student work rather than simply evaluate it. Over many years, this has meant carefully navigating, and even breaking, the sometimes draconian rules of a half-dozen institutions. And I’ve brought students into meta-level discussions about these choices and have encouraged the same sort of agency among them. I tell students they should consider our course a “busy-work-free zone.” So, if an assignment doesn’t feel productive, we find ways to modify, remix, or repurpose its instructions. And when our assessments fail us (as they often do), we don’t change our learning, we find new tools for assessment.

This is but one example. In “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Herman Melville writes, “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.” More than just assessment, this is where our discussions must increasingly aim: the ways we respond (both actively and passively) in the face of institutional demands we find unethical or pedagogically harmful. The reference to Bartleby here is more than a coy nod. With its incessant refrain, “I would prefer not to,” the story critiques the change in labor at the turn of the industrial age, the same age still attempting to drive a very different educational landscape.

The answer to Bartleby today is not to throw up our hands, but rather to ask: “Okay, what would you prefer to do?” How can we work together to make a guide — a how-to manual for saying “I would prefer not to…” in a grander and more collective way? How can we turn a simple act of civil disobedience into a rallying cry? And when we put our tools down and stand back from the furnace, the letter press, or the paper mill, what will we turn to build instead?

If we object to the increasing standardization of education, how and where do we build sites of resistance? What strategies can we employ to protect ourselves and our students? What work-arounds can we employ as we build courage and community for revolt? What systems of privilege must we first dismantle? Finally, what kinds of assessment can or should we bring to our own strategies? If we write manifestos as a form of active resistance, how do we determine if they’re working? As we organize, how do we measure the impact of our assembly? When we muster our pedagogy as a form of activism, how do we decide what counts as talk and what counts as action?


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An Urgency of Teachers Copyright © 2018 by Jesse Stommel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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