You’re Doing It Wrong versus Safe Places to Fall

A carved wooden hand emerges out of the ground to support a collapsing tree.
Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

Last week, before I found my way back to the land of the living, there was post on Times Higher Education about ungrading. Even in my shocked, grief-addled space, it found its way to me. Nothign like a tablespoon of rageful hate-reading to cut through the fog of mourning. Anyway. Ungrading is a way of de-centering the grade as the central focus of the classroom experience for students, and it takes a lot of forms, from more to less structured. My colleague Jamie and I engage in a kind of ungrading of our for-credit professional development course with a semi-structured choose-your-own-adventure portfolio style of primarily self-evaluation, for example. Ungrading tends to trade heavily on reflection, which I like because it is useful to help students build an internal locus of assessment. I always thought the joy of ungrading is that it decouples something very stressful — the grade as punishment — from the educational experience and makes space for, well, learning. The freedom and the grace, one might imagine, is the point.

Not if you read that Times Higher Ed piece, which was penned by an edtech executive who once travelled in pedagogical circles. The thesis of the article seems to be that about five people in the world — conveniently, established names in the field of faculty support and conveniently, white-presenting — are doing ungrading right and everyone else is doing it wrong.

I mean, it’s a patently absurd thesis and I don’t need to spend time debunking it. Twitter did a good enough job in the intervening days. Learning is contextual and learners need greater or lesser amounts of structure depending on all sorts of factors (read the brilliant Karen Costa for more on this). And educators range dramatically in the freedom around assessment and grades that they can access. There are many ways to challenge the supremacy of the numerical grade.

But I instead want to look at the impulse underlying the article itself, and why it’s unhelpful: the impulse to assert that some people teach “right” and others teach “wrong” in a postsecondary system where almost none of us were actually trained to teach at all is prima facie alienating. Working in faculty support, even more than my life as a classroom teacher, has taught me that the number one thing I can do to facilitate learning is to be a safe place to utter the phrase, “I don’t know.” We implicitly understand this in the classroom: foregrounding the impossibility of or rampant failure to achieve a task is wildly counterproductive. No one likes to feel mocked or derided, but this dynamic can be even more acute when working with faculty: while students might at least reasonably expect to not know something, many faculty are acculturated to really fear admitting that.

So when I read an article that purports to tell the story of a better way to approach learning that is entirely framed by the premise that only a small handful of people are even in the ballpark of worthiness to use the term “ungrading” (which is a term and concept much older than that article suggests), I wonder who it is trying to reach.

Many pedagogical innovations in their early moments feel, and sometimes are, impossible for so many of use, due to curricular requirements, relative power or role, department culture, institutional policy, or a zillion other factors. No one is swayed or supported by someone descending from the mount to say, “If you don’t ascribe to my vision, you’re doing it wrong.” Turning it into a zero sum game means that the potential benefits of critically reflecting on learning or accurate self-appraisal or increased empowerment — all of which can be achieved with shades of ungrading, or with babysteps towards any number of innovative practices — are abandoned.

As so often occurs, perfect is the enemy of the good.

Anyone purporting to help faculty revise practice needs to recognize the importance of words like “support” and “development” in our titles. They also need to recognize the very real structural issues that stand between well-meaning faculty and ideal practice. And they need to recognize that they may only be seeing one part of the picture. (Like, as an example, if the only positive examples you can think of are white people, you might possibly not have the broadest possible perspective on the topic.)

It’s not only our learners we meet where they’re at. We meet our colleagues there, too.

Or, I guess, we don’t. The edtech executive in question works for Course Hero, which as an organization has shown much disdain for faculty: there’s no collegial process for getting your work taken down once Course Hero has it (unless you find the DCMA a collegial process) and they flatly refuse to engage with their critiques in any meaningful way. I appreciated Matt Crosslin’s outline of those issues. The approach of this article seems similarly disinterested in actually engaging with faculty or any meaningful effort to revise practice.

I don’t want to tell people they’re wrong: I want to be the safe place to disclose the real difficulties many of us experience in the classroom so that we can solve the problem together. I don’t respond well to scolding. Does anyone? I ask this after a fight to retrieve two pairs of socks from the mouth of the family dog. Scolding didn’t work there, either. A chewy milk bone though? Magic.

Am I asking you to be the chewy milk bone you wish to see in the world? Maybe. I think mostly I’m reminding all of us who hope to revise, renovate, or burn down the institution that we cannot do it without friends, and we cannot do it from a limited scope.

Holier than thou feels great sometimes, but it doesn’t move the needle in the places where it matters.

There’s a giant poster over my desk in my home office that reads, “Do the work.” The work is meeting people and conversation and iteration and gentle nudges. Save “you’re doing it wrong” for the people and policies and systems that are causing real harm — not the well-meaning folks aligned to your cause and trying hard within the same unforgiving system.

Be the chewy milk bone. Do the work. And don’t tell me you’re the only one who sees clearly, especially if you’re demonstrating a studied attention to whiteness. I simply will not believe you.


  • I had not read this so called article and only caught a whiff of the twitter response.

    More than the self praising piety and stewed righteousness expressed, it’s utterly devoid of any detail, fact, example of what this “right” way is done. Every claim is vague, generalized, un cited. And of course, the allusion to secret “internal research” inside the CH facilities just reeks of the old news clips of some politician clutching a piece of (blank) paper declaring the evidence “in my hand”.

    Look how concrete the methodology is;

    “ Ungrading is about rearranging the room, placing the teacher among the students and requiring steady engagement with one another. Teachers and students share both roles; they should learn together.”

    In related news, the sky is blue.

    What a waste of pixels. Blecccch.

    Enough of this puffery- I think you know what I do makes a real difference—- making the experience not dull, make it meaningful, not some donkey Kong game to perform to get through it. I had lots of teachers who created an environment so interesting, grades and assignments faded in importance.

    Grading or not seems to be a distraction from teaching like it matters.

    Thanks for ripping into it, I hear a parody brewing in my grey space.

    See? I’m reading as you are writing. And trying to keep my own writing pace. Thanks

    • I’m glad you picked up on the “internal research” piece — I didn’t want to get into it in this post, but I have to say that gave me hives. I know informed consent is demonstrably unimportant to CH, but the idea of what preconceived conclusions they will be underwriting with this “research” worries me greatly. Because SMM has a lot of credibility with the not-terminally-online classroom educators and he is trusted. Which, of course, was always the point…

  • There’s a new THE maybe in the works:

    “The problem with educheating? Everyone’s doing it wrong”

    “The vast majority of applications of what is referred to as educheating rely on grey markets, a lack of cheating goals and cheats by other names, says the research labs at Course Zero. Only our holy cabal can show you how it’s done.”

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