The Trouble with Grading
As you no doubt know, grading can be a contentious issue in college courses, particularly in writing- and discussion-based courses, where grades can seem arbitrary and contestable. Grading in school does not much resemble the way you will be evaluated in your lives or careers, where you will define many of your own goals and be measured by how responsibly and effectively you achieve them. For these reasons, in my undergraduate classes I have moved toward contract grading. To quote Cathy Davidson, a professor at CUNY from whom most of my ideas about contract grading are adapted:
The advantage of contract grading is that you, the student, decide how much work you wish to do this semester; if you complete that work on time and satisfactorily, you will receive the grade for which you contracted. This means planning ahead, thinking about all of your obligations and responsibilities this semester and also determining what grade you want or need in this course. The advantage of contract grading to the professor is no whining, no special pleading, on the students part. If you complete the work you contracted for, you get the grade. Done. I respect the student who only needs a C, who has other obligations that preclude doing all of the requirements to earn an A in the course, and who contracts for the C and carries out the contract perfectly. (This is another one of those major life skills: taking responsibility for your own workflow.)
In graduate courses, however, these issues are even more acute, as you professionalize away from away a system in which you are assigned letter grades and toward a system where you must take ownership of your own work, ensuring it meets the standards of professional performance, service, research, and writing. Your professors will give you feedback and guidance—and will at points decide whether your work is sufficient to move to the next stage—but your theses, comprehensive exam papers, or dissertation chapters will likely not be given A’s or B’s. In your work experiences, you will certainly not be given letter grades, but instead be evaluated in other ways, often with your own participation.
In addition, BookLab is an experimental course in which I want you to feel empowered to experiment and even sometimes to fail. I want to create an environment in which intellectual risk-taking and creative scholarship can be rewarded, even when it does not pan out as hoped.
Ultimately, the university will require me to assign a grade to your work this semester. In order to address the concerns outlined above and create space for experimentation, you will assess your own work in this class in dialogue with me, as mentor rather than judge. You will ultimately grade your own work based by assessing your effort and performance across the course assignments as they relate to the goals you set for yourself, your work to meet those goals, and your intellectual growth during the class.
Formally, this means that I will ask you to draft self-evaluations a few times during the semester, including a final self-evaluation through which you will assign yourself a grade. Barring extreme circumstances (see the Adjustment Caveat below) this self assessment will determine your grade for the semester. Ideally, knowing this process in advance will free you to do more ambitious work from the beginning of the semester.
In order to foster your progress this semester, I commit myself to:
- Providing substantive and timely commentary on your assignments aimed at cultivating your research skills, analytical abilities, and scholarly voice.
- Making myself available for in-person consultation and practical help during office hours and at other scheduled times, including virtual meetings if we cannot find a mutually-agreeable time to meet on campus.
- Assuming no technical expertise from students going into any of our laboratories. We will begin at the beginning, so that no one feels left behind. In order to ensure this happens, I will listen carefully to students if they feel lost and adjust a given lab plan as necessary to keep everyone together.
- Allowing students with expertise in particular technologies to challenge themselves and craft their own laboratory experiences beyond our work in class.
- Working with you to understand your goals and methods when you take intellectual risks in assignments, even if the final product does not turn out as expected.
- Respecting your identity, perspectives, and intellectual commitments in class discussions and assignments. I may push you to consider other perspectives, but I will not dismiss your thoughts or take them lightly. If you feel I am doing either of those things, I will listen and adjust my responses as necessary. See our class code of conduct for more details.
This system will only work, however, if you also commit to:
- Holding yourself to the highest standards. You should work to the best of your abilities throughout the semester in your reading, class-room conversation, and assignments.
- Taking intellectual risks when possible, pushing yourself to think, write, and create in new modes and grown as a scholar and teacher. This may prompt anxiety, which you can work through by doing and with my help (see above).
- Experimenting with new tools and learning new technical skills with enthusiasm and an open mind.
- Assisting your colleagues with our laboratories when you have prior expertise, or if you acquire it more quickly during the lab itself.
- Clearly articulating your goals and methods when you take intellectual risks in assignments so that I can understand what you are seeking to do, even if the final product does not turn out as expected.
- Respecting your colleagues’ identity, perspectives, and intellectual commitments in class discussions and assignments. You may push them to consider other perspectives, but you should not dismiss their thoughts or take them lightly. If someone feels you are doing either of those things, you should listen and adjust your responses as necessary. See our class code of conduct for more details.
- Meeting with me, in person or via Skype, at least two times during the semester to discuss your work and ensure you are meeting expectations (my own and yours) for work in the class.
I do reserve the right to adjust grades as appropriate, if a student takes undue advantage of the consultative grading paradigm. However, I have never needed, and do not anticipate needing, to exercise this right.
Students must initiate an incomplete request by contacting the instructor. The instructor and student must agree on a due date for completion of coursework. The student must fill out the Incomplete Form and get it signed by the student, the instructor, and the student’s academic adviser.
A request for an incomplete grade is most often granted to students encountering a medical emergency or other extraordinary circumstances beyond their control. Students must request an incomplete grade from the instructor. The instructor and student will agree on a due date for completion of coursework. The student must submit an Incomplete Form signed by the student, the instructor, and the student's academic advisor to the front office: https://uofi.app.box.com/s/sx7arobhr0gfw12teaetmp1qq32ifdrd
Please see the Student Code for full details: http://studentcode.illinois.edu/article3/part1/3-104/