I have this memory from my childhood, from elementary school. I must have been in kindergarten — or first grade at the latest — and my brother (five years older than me) was performing in the choir. My family had returned to the school in the evening to watch the performance and I recall it felt strange in the dark: empty hallways and classrooms, teachers standing about like normal adults (instead of teachers), the building somehow more public and less particular. The cafeteria had been transformed into a music hall, and all my brothers’ classmates stood upon risers where earlier there had been lunch tables, spilled milk, peanut butter sandwiches, and kids trading snacks. The pungent smell of children with tin lunch boxes and sticky hands remained in the air.
I only remember one thing from the concert itself. I’m sure there were popular songs sung — some American childhood standards alongside a weird selection of contemporary music, and probably some medleys — but I don’t remember the singing. What I remember is my brother and his best friend taking a bow. That they were the only kids who took a bow. It was choir horseplay, and kidding around; they had wide smiles on their faces and laughed at each other when they did it, while all the rest of the choir stood stock still listening to their parents’ applause.
Add to that memory one more: my brother and his friend chastised by the music teacher for their horseplay. Taking a bow was not acceptable, not good manners, not what members of a choir were supposed to do. I don’t know if my brother has these same memories, but I suspect they impacted his sense of play, pride, and what’s appropriate nonetheless.
In a talk I gave some time ago, I remarked:
Grades hamstring us by their very nature. Grades get soaked into the learning identity of the student who gets them … [and] we continue to talk about grades long after they’ve ceased to matter because they mark us indelibly. (“When We Talk about Grades, We Are Talking about People”)
The grades we get tell us something about who we are. No matter how much teachers talk about grades as representative of someone’s work, or about rubrics as objective tools for measuring comprehension, the person who gets 100% feels differently about their capacity to learn and succeed than the person who gets 70%. The same goes for chastisements from music teachers, careless remarks from English professors, implicit gender bias in STEM classes.
I witnessed the impact of this — both with and without regard to grades — as a first year graduate writing teacher. That first semester, and every semester that followed, I heard stories from students about their elementary and secondary teachers who told them outright, “You’ll never be a good writer,” or “Writing isn’t your thing,” or “Let’s just try to get through one essay, shall we?” And, of course, the punctuation at the end of those stories always came down to grades. Bad grades. Failing grades. But it started with the commentary, with the casual judgements of (probably overworked) teachers. The students telling these stories considered themselves bad at writing, failures. To come to my writing class was to confront a horror, a certainty of being inadequate, a time in their lives when trying to be better wouldn’t amount to any success.
I think teachers generally don’t know how intimidating they are, nor how permanent their judgements of a student can be. Summative comments about a person’s work are formative lessons about that person’s worth.
Ungrading doesn’t change this, and that’s because there’s “larger work” that needs doing, as Jesse Stommel writes earlier in this book. “We need to re-examine our pedagogies when we remove grades, because grades (control, compliance, over reliance on extrinsic motivation) have too often been structuring those pedagogies.”
But I would take this one step further — or perhaps one step closer. Because grading doesn’t start with the teacher, it starts with a culture of expectations of excellence that oppresses everyone in education, from student to teacher and on up.
Grades are means to only one end: they are designed to keep people out. We mask them as progress reports, as neutral evaluation tools; but the point of grades is to tell someone whether they belong or not, whether they have earned belonging. An “A” or a 100% means a student is the closest to belonging as they can get: they are looked at by their teachers as someone they respect, someone intelligent or capable; and they are welcome in the classroom. But slip once, slip twice, and their standing is in peril, and in some cases only an act of forgiveness will maintain their status. A “good” student who begins earning low grades, doing unacceptable work or who, once or twice, fails the academic integrity test will need to start proving themselves all over again.
When we grade, we teach students to rely less on their own thoughts about their worth than upon ours; but in turn, we also learn to devalue self-reflection and self-knowledge, and instead accept the unspoken and ubiquitous dictum that our value is better assessed by another.
We do not grade but that we also grade ourselves. We do not assess except that we assess ourselves. An academe that perpetuates grades is is fueled by a culture of continual litmus testing, yardsticking — a culture of competition and self-competition, doubt and self-doubt, criticism in the name of bettering others and self-criticism in the name of bettering oneself. This is the trap of the double-blind peer review, this is the dissertation committee, this is the 7-year audition for tenure.
There is no upside here. There is no world in which establishing criteria for another person’s worth does not also result in our establishing criteria for their worthlessness. And when we establish that criteria, we, also, become subject to it. We should not strive to be the purveyors of ignominy.
Just as grades are designed to keep people out, so is a culture of constant evaluation and judgment designed with the same intention. The idea that permission must be given to enter into a scholarly community, that arbitrary achievements like time spent in a classroom or the number of publications can certify a person as eligible for that community — we cannot think that ends when a person is granted access. Indeed, it doesn’t; the battle for worth and respect is an ongoing one. Grading becomes integrated to one’s experience of self.
Once we start grading, we never stop.
When my brother was chastised by his music teacher, he was subject to an expectation of excellence utterly unfair to a fifth grader. When students were afraid to enter my classroom and begin writing, they were likewise subject to the same unfairness. We need to dismantle the power of grades, and this means recognizing the ways in which we have, ourselves, suffered under that power.
Academics should not be terrified of one another’s judgments, just as students should not be afraid of their teachers.
I have never been fond of the term “ungrading.” Lexically, it does little to dismantle power or the centrality of grades. “Going gradeless” isn’t much better. We need a new word, a new concept, to describe an approach that honors rather than evaluates. As Maxine Greene would encourage, we need to imagine things as they might be otherwise; in this case, a world where evaluation of others isn’t part of the daily work of teachers, academics, or students. A world instead where worth is assumed — where great worth is assumed — and where everyone is allowed to take a bow.