When failure is an option

At Now-Times Alexei has opened an interesting discussion by firing a shot across the bow of grading: he’s not sure it serves any good purpose, he sees that it’s prone to ideology, and he’s concerned that pedagogically useful failures will be discouraged by failing grades. In short, he thinks grades aren’t good for much. I mostly agree, but only because I think we tend to do it wrong. I’ve begun to comment there and I’ve also said a lot of relevant stuff here, here, here, here and here. But I’ve also had this conversation in other venues and wanted to use this opportunity to retrieve a point I made a while back at the excellent but now-dormant Paragraph City:

I don’t get complaints about grades, for the most part. Of course this might just be the luck of the draw, but I think it’s because I do explain, in great detail, exactly what I’m looking for in their work, why I’m looking for it, what’s in it for them, how to do it, and what consequences to expect if they don’t do it (including ‘failure’). All of that is explicitly open to negotiation by mindful students who can explain the equivalent value of a different set of tasks or criteria. If they learn nothing else from my classes, they learn how to connect desirable skills and knowledge to standards and standards to performances.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that for many of my colleagues the strategy seems to be to present themselves as authorities pronouncing mysterious olympian judgments, which is not very ‘human’ either; and students with even a smidge of critical thinking do well to question this authority. If we teach standards as reasons, not just rules or arbitrary commands, we get much farther into recruiting the students into the kind of thinking that we know how to do and wish they could too, by enabling them to make their own principled judgments.

It would be great if grading turned out to be the reason our students don’t learn and we could turn them into eager learners by not grading them. I believe actual experiments along these lines have been programmatically conducted with mixed results, e.g. at U.C. Santa Cruz. It’s worth talking about why the results were mixed. But in any event, as part of a mindful pedagogy grades can be useful. Given that they’re the industry standard anyway, I think we should figure out how.



  1. The problem isn’t the “grade” per se, it the perceived mediated relationship between the work and the grade, in otherwords the dependence upon an often arbitrary feeling interpersonal relationship either to a professor/teacher or in the case of large classes and teaching aids, a faceless model of aptitude (good work has these specific stateable qualities, check them off an import them/mimic them in your work…).

    This lead to valuable lessons for how to get along in a deputized world: it is how you interelate to the real person who holds the standard (power), by proxity, that determines if you succeed (one day you too can hold that power)…or, it is how you are able to accommodate yourself to pre-existing forms of behavior regarded as marks of intelligence or even comprehension. In either case these relationship to the grade often give us the content of the class, what we really take with us in our bodies, and carry forward. The subject matter on the other hand becomes something more of an accident of the course, something that randomly sticks to you in parts. Removing the grade, although it destroys this essential interface, does nothing to replace the essential process. There is no new architecture of development, rather than, often the twin negotiations tend to rise up into forces in their own right, abstract marks of apitude and interpersonal engagement press themselves harder, but without focused consequence.

    This is a difficult scenerio for personal connection and abstract standards are two of the teacher’s primary tools for instruction. It seems that it is not ultimately a question of grade or no-grade, but rather a question of the professor/teacher showing in their person the effects and products of the abstract standard. And foremost in this is the display of the teacher as someone who is currently learning, there, in the classroom or lecture hall. One cannot systematically induce teachers to continue learning (or act like they are learning) in the classroom, rather than simply “profess” knowledge, but one could benificently transform the culture of the profession into one where students learn what it is to learn through watching it in their examplar…real teachers learn from their students.

    The grade itself, given, does have a tendency to undermine this neglected, often dying, aspect of instruction.

  2. Been chewing on this Kvond, you say a lot to think about. I agree that the interpersonal dimension of education is critical, and that grading tends both to abstract and mask this by shifting content into affective judgment. What you say about merely removing grades in this case seems exactly right to me.

    In principle I agree about a more mutual transformation in which teachers model learning from their students. In practice it’s very easy for this to degenerate into a play of validation gestures, so you’re right again that the standards have to be there to anchor the process to a coherent praxis.

    Where I’m not sure I agree with you is in projecting such praxis into a dying past. I think education has always happened that way, and still does, in those limited situations where the students produced by it are in demand or at least tolerable.

  3. Carl, thanks for your considered response.

    I don’t see where I projected this praxis into dying past, but if I did, it was not my intent. I don’t really know enough about the variety of historical pegagogies in order to make that kind of judgment.

    As to the danger of a “degeneration into a play of validating gestures” I would suppose that anyone who would denerate into such is really someone who would do well in other methods as well. Teaching students (by example) how to wield authority is not in my mind much different than that teaching students (by example) how to fake interest in what a speaker (student) is saying. They are still getting a “meta” lesson. One can’t really effectively fake the reality of learning from students. Learning by observation and imitation is so hardwared and honed in the human animal, whatever you are investatively doing is pretty much what is going to be read.

    In my mind there are two main processes of learning that a professor/teacher has to daily experience and therefore exhibit.

    1). Learning from the material.

    2). Learning from students.

    Most teachers have stopped learning from whatever the subject they are “professing”. They are no longer suprised by anything in it, and have beached themselves onto the safety of a few reefs (a sophistication of recursive answers) which protects them from ever having to originally engage the material anew. When they relate the substance of the subject, students see the rehearsed, unintimate, dull interaction, often. They see the comfort of being on sure enough ground, and thus they learn that this kind of comfort (or the ability to fake it) is a firm goal of learning. One learns in order to stop learning, and start telling. A shame.

    Related to this of course, with the professor rightfully ensconced in her or his interpretation or understanding, safely tucked into a hard earned height of knowing designed to repell questions rather than compell them, their ears naturally are closed to what they might learn about the material from their students. There is nothing, or at least very little that a student could show to a teacher, no fleck or glint of alternative. Students read this one-way communication, the unlistening eyes of the professor, hunting only for incomprehension in other people, and they too learn that to ascend to this perspective is a goal of learning. Learning not to listen, and so they too acquire this learnt unlearning, by imitation, cutting off much of the content of what the teacher might otherwise teach.

    All in all, it is only the rare teacher who exhibits what learning is in a LIVE a way, literally showing the students what it is to engage and listen to originally both an subject matter and speaker. Unless the teacher is looking for something new when opening up the page they have seen many times before, the students will seldom see something new. Unless the teacher has at least the possibility that a student might (however imprecisely) shed new light on a well-trod path, few students will see them as shedding light on the well-trod path of their own mental activity. And unless a teacher finds students themselves to be teachers, reflections of real, and not just mistaken, perceptions, students too will dull themselves to the real teaching perceptions of the person in authority.

    Learning, in my view, is much more a contagion of mutual experience than is often assumed, and not simply the transfer of either content, or even skill.

  4. Thanks for this. Re: your first response, I probably read too much into “neglected, often dying.”

    It looks to me like we share an ethos here. This is a good conversation to have, so picking up on your lesson / meta-lesson point I’ve just done a new post burlesquing the ‘dark side’ of teaching by way of provocation.

  5. Ha! Yes, thanks Owen. “But I said those things in my other papers! [follow links]”

    Your punctuation elisions offer another useful interpretation. In his own (much more developed) recent post on grading, the easily distracted Timothy Burke reflects on the information content of grades, finding it contextually good but decontextually quite low. So when you say that c+ could use more development, I see you proposing that C+ is a grade with usefully informative liminality that could be better exploited for pedagogic communication. To which I would agree.

    I have a couple of stories to illustrate. The first is an old teacher who never gave me more than an A- even though I was doing the best work in the class. He thought (rightly) I could do better and wanted to send that message. Unfortunately I never found grades very motivating, but I learned something from how he used them. The second is another old teacher who informed his classes that D+ was the “dipshit grade,” as in, “You dipshit, if you’d worked just slightly harder you’d have gotten a C-.” So one semester a student earns a D+ and complains to the department chair that her professor called her a dipshit. Bingo.

    The C+ says something very nice about an especially honorable or effective sort of mediocrity, doesn’t it? If only we could figure out a way to use grades to communicate trajectory, as in “Just a little more push and you’re over the hump into B” or “You seem to have topped out here, but honorable mediocrity is not a bad life, kid.” But as Timothy says, decontextualized grades just can’t hold that much information. Filling them out is what the comments are for, so thanks for yours!

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