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On Ungrading

Presented as part of an event on Ungrading at the University of Edinburgh.

There are three things that I would like to address with respect to ungrading. The first is the relationship between grading and notions of fairness. The second thing is the issue of motivation. There are already ongoing debates around whether grades motivate and whether we should be using grades to motivate. But what I am interested in is complicating the idea of motivation itself; to question the notion of motivation. And the third thing is the practise of marking as a colonial practise. I will discuss this through the notion of reciprocity.

On the problem of fairness: At the start of each term, social media is full of academics asking various kinds of questions and sharing various ideas about pedagogical practice. This may include questions about assessment practices. I recently happened upon one that requested thoughts on how to mark alternative forms of assessment. How do you assess disparate products? For example, last minute artwork versus careful podcast or video creation versus interpretive dance.

It is necessary to acknowledge here that the poster is concerned with fairness. What the person seemed to be asking is how do I make my process fair? But this also raises the question of why we actually equate process with fairness? The underlying assumption here is that if we have a good process, our practises are going to produce fairness. I think in many ways because of our investment, rightly, in fairness, we are interested in processes that we can put in place in order to ensure that we're being fair in assessing students. And I suspect that, to some extent at least, we have an investment in grading because it is a process which, if followed ‘correctly’, can help us implement fairness.

Of course, once we have fairness or grading as a form of fairness, we invest in processes that would seem to make our practises even fairer. So, we use things like rubrics: we may think to ourselves, if we break down every assessment into its component bits and make each component fair than the whole will be fair as well. We moderate each other's work to ensure that there isn't any kind of positive or negative bias, that there is a certain kind of standardisation. This is intended to ensure not only in our own work, but also within our colleagues’ work, that there is a certain kind of standard that we're able to abide by.

Now the truth is that, we all know, on some level, that things don't in fact work this way. Discussions in exam boards about some courses having marks that are too high or too low – but being approved anyway – are as good a proof we need that this risks becoming fairness theatre. This is not to discount a genuine desire to act fairly. And yet, the act of grading, and all the processes that surround it, fundamentally perpetuate the notion of grading as fairness. Not perhaps for everyone, but in many ways, at least institutionally, it perpetuates the notion that these processes are a means whereby we can assure fairness.

Then of course, for those of us that are academics, there is the problem of our past selves: i.e. it worked for us. Surely, our “good grades” were a fair reflection of our efforts and capacities? If it worked for us, why not for our students? And so, for many of us who perhaps experienced ourselves as good students, we see it as a duty to replicate this possibility in and through our teaching relationships.

But as I said, one, we know it doesn't quite work. And, two, it produces or reproduces various kinds of systemic inequalities. If we go back to the earlier question: how do we assess last minute artwork versus a careful podcast or video. This notion that lastminute is necessarily a problem, is something that merits questioning. It is not uncommong to equate last-minute with lack of motivation or interest or discipline. But, as we know, there are all kinds of issues around students having caring or employment responsibilities, or experiencing chronic illness. There are all kinds of reasons – that have nothing to do with motivation or discipline – that require people to work last minute. We know, too, that there are systemic inequalities in relationship to class in terms of how people's capacities are cultivated. We know there are inequalities related to language – not just with respect to international students but domestic students, too, who may be raised bilingually or more. There are varous issues around disability.

The point here is that we're not really, at all, in any way, on a level playing field. And so, grading as if we are on a level playing field merely facilitates the reproduction of various kinds of systemic inequalities. I also that this practice disciplines capacity. Imagine that you have two pieces of work in front of you. One that is very well “academically” argued. And the other, although perhaps not as academically nuanced in terms of its argumentation, deploys creative, evocative language that has a meaningful impact. What is the basis here of fair evaluation? We tend to grade a particular kind of writing or a particular kind of work as more appropriate. And in so doing, we discipline various capacities into producing a particular model of “good work”.

Then there is the issue of motivation; or rather of demotivation and disillusionment. I very often have students come to me after marks have been released or at the end of a course, saying: I really loved your course, I worked incredibly hard on this, and I'm really, really disappointed with the grade that I received. I'm sure it’s not just me that experiences this, but I find this to be a regular occurrence. And it is really disheartening to have such conversations. So, as much as I don't believe in grading, insofar as I do grade, it does have an impact on people, the ways in which they understand their capacities and the ways in which they understand how I value their work. As much as I might want this to be a positive “learning experience", there is the possibility that grades have actually become de-motivating.

For all of these reasons, from an EDI perspective, grading can potentially have negative impacts.

On the problem of motivation: The second issue is questioning the idea of motivation itself. I want to present here three excerpts from messages I’ve received from students:

"Your lectures has made me realise my fascination in all kinds of power relations. Your speech and articulation of power gave me the courage to question the realities that I have long been confused and sceptical about. Had I not taking your course, I probably would have shied away from the dissertation topic on disability, as it were so rarely discussed and not so business pertinent. I had decided that if this topic had negative feedback in the research methods assignment, I would change the topic. However, it was recognised twice by you, which was a huge encouragement."

"I wanted to share with you that I highly value our second semester and the topics we've discussed, especially in terms of conflict and how misrecognition plays its part in it. From your lectures and topics helped me reflect and understand the underlying patterns of my situation"

"I often refuse to seek support from others having you as my PT has completely changed this mindset and my graduating is a testament to its importance."

What I wish to highlight here is that, although unassessed, each of the above represents an important aspect, and I would argue much more important aspect, of learning. Learning how to ask for help, learning how to read one’s situation or experience, learning what it means to be an empowered agent in society, how you choose to exist in the world, how you choose to interact with people around you – all this is a huge part of learning.

And you cannot grade that. It would be vulgar to do so. If we tried to grade that, we would be instrumentalizing what it actually means to exist in the institution, to exist in the world, as a conscious, empowered person. Now, in the situations I’ve presented above, students experienced this despite the fact that they were being otherwise graded. What I'm interested in is how many students perhaps didn't have this experience, didn't have this kind of learning, because they were focused on grades. To what extent does this kind of learning become limited precisely because of the ways in which grading or marking frames the ways in which students understand what it means to be “a good student”, to “do well”?

Meme: Image of Bruno Mars in still from video to Uptown Funk - donning white hat, pink jacket, white shirt and black trousers. Top text: "This isn't an assignment you can do the night before it's due." Bottom text: "don't believe me just watch"

And, also, I wonder: so what if students aren't motivated? Why does it matter? Why is it our responsibility to motivate students? Students might, while at university, be having the best relationship of their lives. They might be experiencing joy that they have never known before. If because of that they pull an all-nighter and submit something last minute, why should that matter?

Academics, especially those of us that are part of the Union, are keen that our jobs not demand so much of us that we are required to put the rest of our lives on hold. So why ask the same of our students? Why should we ask students to put their lives on hold just so that they can be motivated or demonstrate motivation. So, what does it really matter if they pull an all-nighter?

On the problem of coloniality: Very simply, what I mean by coloniality is this way in which we understand the world by producing categories and hierarchies. Itamar already referenced marking as a practise of winning and losing. What we're doing with marks and grade bands is, in essence, producing categories and hierarchies.

This is a quote from a text called "Braiding Sweetgrass" by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It has both, nothing and everything to do with marking:

"Following the path of science trained me to separate, to distinguish perception from physical reality, to atomize complexity into its smallest components to honour the chain of evidence and logic, to discern one thing from another, to savor the precision, the pleasure of precision."

I want to suggest that what we're actually doing in the process of marking is also producing this relationship between observer and observed. What we're doing is distancing ourselves, standing apart, in terms of our relationships with our students. What we are doing is “atomizing complexity”. Trying to get as precise as possible in evaluating students in the name of fairness.

Kimmerer further writes: "Each person, human or no, is bound to every other in a reciprocal relationship. Just as all beings have a duty to me, I have a duty to them. An integral part of human education is to know those duties and how to perform them." And she refers to reciprocity as a bundle of responsibilities. So, if we think about our relationship with students, not as a relationship between observer and observed, but in terms of reciprocity, in terms of a bundle of responsibilities that we have to them and they have to us, then marking, at best, is a vulgarisation of that relationship, and, at worst, is a really deep violence that we perform.

If we're really interested in the individual, then we must be interested in responsibility and relationship and reciprocity. These are not realisable through marking. Since notions of measurement, categorization and hierarchy, that are embedded in marking, can be deeply wounding practises.


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