Toward a Non-Dogmatic Pedagogy: On Susan D. Blum’s “Ungrading”
By Ryan BoydDecember 5, 2021
Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) by Susan D. Blum
Trouble is, not only are grades a historically recent development, they’re also insidious. Far less “objective” than most assume, they don’t usefully measure much about learning. They reflect pernicious biases cooked into American society and institutions. They make students depressed and anxious and passive. They make it harder — more painful, more punitive, more desperate for credentialed approval — for people to learn anything. The research is clear, and it is ample. Indeed, it has been accumulating for 100 years — or in other words as long as grades have been used in the United States. (For the record, Mount Holyoke College was the first school to roll out an A–F — at the time, A–E — system, in 1897. Letter grading was not widely adopted in the US until the 1940s.)
In the early 1910s, two researchers named Daniel Starch and Edward C. Elliott studied college grading in a variety of disciplines and found conclusively that grading across classes and between instructors was arbitrary and inconsistent. Scholarship since then has confirmed this. Grades are pretty much useless in terms of learning. Yet they persist — juiced over the past few decades by a growing technocratic-neoliberal emphasis on data, measurement, and surveillance — because they serve a function that is much bigger than determining how “well” a student performed in a particular course. Alfie Kohn, in an essay in Susan D. Blum’s new anthology, Ungrading, calls grading “the strychnine of competition,” and it is, I would add, the substrate of American life under capitalism. Grading helps to produce obedient consuming and producing subjects, the kind the market runs on, and it does so along preexisting lines of racial and class privilege.
As Blum’s anthology demonstrates, grades are hegemonic not because they have some intrinsic value for teachers and students; rather, they serve an enveloping “audit culture” and what Jerry Z. Muller calls, in his 2018 book The Tyranny of Metrics, a “metric fixation.” Blum, an anthropologist at Notre Dame, argues that grading “promotes a deleterious focus on an appearance of objectivity (with its use of numbers) and an appearance of accuracy (with its fine distinctions), and contributes to a misplaced sense of concreteness.” In other words, it is pedagogical theater. Blum opposes this approach to a “nondogmatic” pedagogy that understands how teaching and learning comprise “a multidimensional, human set of interactions” that cannot be reduced to any standard practice or algorithmic certainty, to any instrumental or managerial approach.
The subtitle of Ungrading underscores the book’s scope and principles: “Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead).” This is not just a critique of grades and grading; it’s a polemic against a whole spectrum of rating-obsessed structures that inhibit good teaching and real learning and that strangle American life. Moreover, the book does not just diagnose and criticize: it is a working collection, drawing from both K–12 and college teachers in a range of disciplines, from math to philosophy to composition, and presenting specific curricular models, practices, activities, and assignments. Ungrading is rooted in deep scholarly research, and it has a clear unifying vision of gradeless schools, but the volume does not offer iron dictates, universalized prescriptions, or procrustean theory. Its contributors underscore “care” and “the nonpredictability of learning” — as one contributor, Jesse Stommel, claims, “pedagogy is personal and idiosyncratic” — and instead offer a spectrum of ways to think and teach without letter grades or number scores or hierarchies. Customizable approaches for diverse classrooms, in short, rather than mandated practices.
But powerful forces of reaction are arrayed against the anti-grading revolution. The teacher/student relationship, supposedly the beating heart of education, is not — particularly at the college level — imagined that way by power brokers. In higher education, administrators and governing boards (i.e., the people who control the money) are demonstrably not very interested in the vernacular magic of learning and teaching; they instead manage a regime that is credentialist, transactional, and extractive. Students provide tuition dollars to an institution; in turn they are promised a degree that will supposedly (though many millennials would beg to differ) secure them a place in the economy — and allow them to pay back the debt they took out to afford school at all. The more elite universities, meanwhile, devote themselves to growing their endowments, which never seem to be spent on things like instructional costs.
But long before college — if a student reaches that stage — they inhabit a grading panopticon that rigorously sorts and ranks them (with far more breaks and second chances for privileged students), and which is often enabled by surveillance technologies that closely resemble those used at Amazon warehouses. Not coincidentally, the whole system lines the pockets of standardized-testing companies, prep providers, and textbook conglomerates like Pearson. Those who survive to become undergraduates (far more likely if you’re white, affluent, and neurotypical) are socialized to see education as the means to an economic end, something you endure for a few years, getting scored and evaluated along the way, and if you learn anything meaningful, well, that’s almost accidental. As Blum puts it, “College promotes credentials, obedience, and the sorting of haves and have-nots, but not necessarily learning.”
Thus, the entire liberatory humanist project of teaching is at odds with the extractive, exploitative, market-addled ethos of most American schools, which are generally controlled by people with little incentive to change course. The pedagogical revolution theorized and practiced — often surreptitiously — by the authors of Ungrading and their fellow travelers is up against forces that have held the high ground for decades. Pretty much every concept and claim in this anthology is true, and it all has the force of professional passion; the writers are teachers to their bones. But how do you implement something that your bosses, most of whom don’t teach much or at all, might stridently oppose, despite all the evidence that grades have been a disaster for students?
The problem isn’t just inside the university. It’s an American illness. Not only do students get indoctrinated in “a near-mercenary mindset” that frames education as a route to higher post-grad incomes, but much of the broader social world they inhabit prizes speciously objective and quantifiable outcomes. This is the question that grades beg — as Blum notes, “Just because there is a number doesn’t mean it is objective. That is simply scientism” — but it is also behind complaints about “useless” majors or out-of-touch instructors in “soft” disciplines that just won’t embrace the methods of the sciences (or the business school). It is present whenever someone opposes the putative imprecision of qualitative or narrative knowledge to the cool satisfaction of data and marketable outcomes. The American consciousness is primed to accept that grading, and stuff like it, constitute the natural state of things.
Ungrading rejects the scientism of grades and argues instead for giving students assignments — whatever the course or field — that receive trustworthy, detailed feedback, that can be revised, that are based on both individual and collective labor, and that are linked to actual student experiences, including the excitement of learning things that aren’t usually taught in traditional classrooms. According to this philosophy, education is a lifelong, fluid, unquantifiable process, and slapping a grade on somebody at the end of a single term doesn’t make much sense. Employers and graduate schools might request transcripts, but transcripts tell you little about anyone’s mind. “Education,” argues Starr Sackstein, a former New York City high school teacher, “should be equipped with an endless feedback loop rather than a terminal grade.” The Cleveland State philosopher Marcus Schultz-Bergin even goes so far as to create an “anarchist classroom” that dispenses with the conceit that you can score learning or use grades to breed competition between students.
Close feedback isn’t feel-good romanticism. It demonstrably leads students — and, again, there is plenty of research on this — toward becoming spirited, inquisitive thinkers. Nor is it localized within individual assignments. Rather, what another contributor, Laura Gibbs, calls a “culture of feedback” is the basis of a “pedagogy of equality” — a concept that Christina Katopodis and Cathy N. Davidson derive from Paulo Freire’s work — where teachers and students are, if not exactly perfect equals, then co-writers, co-scholars, co-scientists, co-engineers, co-philosophers. “Joyous cooperative learning” (editor Blum again) is possible, and it is still genuinely rigorous, and, crucially, it doesn’t turn students into bundles of anxiety obsessed with outcompeting their peers.
Jesse Stommel contends that “[g]rading is something we should never have allowed to be naturalized.” Agreed. But then, who really controls classrooms? Who has the power to force changes? Absent a massive cross-institutional effort to “organize and mobilize our colleagues to work for the abolition of letter and number grades,” an effort that would hopefully involve unions, individual instructors can’t make much of a dent in the status quo. In fact, they can be punished for it. John Warner — who has been beating this drum for a decade now — is right that “the labor structures of academia are likely the biggest barrier when it comes to improving writing instruction,” because it is harder for overworked, precariously employed adjuncts to teach effectively. His remark applies to other fields as well. Most American schools have a bureaucratic structure and ideological posture that are hostile to gradelessness.
Ungrading, to its credit, understands that the fight for a post-grading world isn’t a project for individual teachers. Nobody can go this route alone. It requires systemic, collaborative, collective work. But the anthology is also somewhat hazy about what concrete shape this work would take, and it is in places strangely optimistic about the open-mindedness of deans, provosts, vice chancellors, and other managerial types.
Stommel notes that any curricular revolution “requires administrators and institutions to defend the academic freedom of teachers, especially adjuncts.” So, what happens when some of them inevitably don’t? Laura Gibbs emphasizes that “administrators should give teachers the support they need in their ungrading experiments,” and that “every teacher, tenured or not, must have the freedom to experiment.” But should and must assume that management cares about those things, which, if history is any judge, it does not. “Always make sure what you are doing meets the formal rules of your institution,” advise two other contributors. But what if you flout those rules precisely because you ungrade? And Blum remarks that “even if your supervisors are skeptical, as long as the process serves the central goal of contributing to student learning, they shouldn’t object. This book may help. Don’t risk your entire career, however.” But what if they do object? What if adopting that approach does endanger your career? Because it will at many places.
In her conclusion, Blum notes the role of younger teachers as innovators and movement builders, writing that “it may be that new faculty are much more drawn to ungrading and may have less unlearning to do.” Unfortunately, newer teachers at all levels are more likely to have precarious contingent jobs. I know because I’m a non-unionized, non-tenured associate professor who finished graduate school in the long tail of the Great Recession, and if my forward-thinking home department and the unusually enlightened administrators above it hadn’t supported a shift to contract grading in our writing courses, I would still be using traditional letter grades, however reluctantly, because my contract might go unrenewed if I didn’t, and like most people I have bills to pay.
Our profession needs radicals and revolutionaries. Our profession, as currently structured and managed, systematically weeds out such people. As Ursula K. Le Guin has said, “We have good reason to be cautious, to be quiet, not to rock the boat. A lot of peace and comfort is at stake.”
But coasting through an unjust poisoned world without doing anything to change it is no way to live, and besides, few teachers have much peace or comfort anymore. There is little left to lose. What Ungrading calls “a growing movement” has awoken to the fact that “because we invented [grading], we can uninvent it. We can remove it.” Human beings make human worlds, so they can make new ones, together, and that means teachers from kindergarten to college who are prepared to reject the zombie status quo of grades and build collectives like labor unions. Ungrading is the most coherent early salvo in a long rebellion. Rebellions often falter, of course, but thanks to this collaborative polemic, we — the many publics and practitioners invested in the idea of democratic education — have a better shot.
Ryan Boyd (@ryanaboyd on Twitter) lives in Los Angeles and teaches writing at the University of Southern California.
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