Magazine article Radical Teacher

"A Practice of Freedom': Self-Grading for Liberatory Learning

Magazine article Radical Teacher

"A Practice of Freedom': Self-Grading for Liberatory Learning

Article excerpt

From my earliest days as a university instructor, I have been troubled by the grading system and its demands on both students as producers of knowledge and instructors as arbiters of the value of that production. It is a personal, professional, and pedagogical necessity for me as an instructor in gender studies to be preoccupied with issues of power, and a great part of my distress as a person interested in serving as a catalyst for students' breakthroughs in thinking, feeling, and acting in the interest of social justice stemmed from my discomfort wielding the institutional power that has been vested in me through my assigning of grades to their work.

If ever there was a time when we need mechanisms through which students may be activated to "claim an education" (Rich) and to operationalize "education as the practice of freedom" (Freire; hooks), that time is now, given the social, political, and economic injustice and instability that shape our students' lives. I work to catalyze this claiming through a comprehensive self-grading model. With this strategy, I mean to disrupt the ways that students "get" a grade and, instead, to inspire them to claim every aspect of their learning--their thinking, their feeling, their doing, and their reflecting on doing--through grading themselves for their efforts and the results of their efforts within our learning community.

What follows is an articulation of the current form of this self-grading process. I make no claim here as to "best practices" but, rather, offer this snapshot as a jumping-off point for the reader's reflection on their own "best practices" in grading. As to the particular context within which my teaching practice is situated, I serve the students at Portland State University (PSU) through the faculty of both the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department (part of a just-formed School of Gender, Race, and Nations) and University Studies, PSU's general education program. PSU is a large urban-serving access institution with many students who are the first in their family to attend college. Students of color, particularly Latino/a/x students, contribute to a continuing diversification of PSU's student body relative to race and ethnicity, and both my departmental and general education courses welcome PSU's many students who are queer- and trans*-identified.

In the earliest days of my courses, we begin with introductory activities highlighting the philosophical, political, and pedagogical foundation for the class: that this is a co-created space in which all of us will be actively learning from and teaching each other. This includes sharing power over the choosing of course content (with students directly bringing content into the course in a variety of ways) and the facilitation of class time (with students individually and/or collectively leading sessions). I then introduce students to the concept of self-grading. We talk about how most, if not all, of us in the room have been thoroughly socialized to appeal to the purported expert in the room to prove the worth of our academic output. Dislocating that dynamic requires each of us individually to assume a different set of responsibilities and a strategy for becoming accountable to ourselves and each other. Far from being an "easy" way to complete a class, self-grading and the processes associated with it will challenge them to assume an active role in their learning that they may have experienced rarely, if ever, before. What's exciting about self-grading is also what is terrifying about it: to truly engage in it with integrity, we've each got to reflect deeply and honestly on who and how we are, what we've brought to bear on our learning, and what the meaning and value of that effort has been for us.

My role, I say, will be to provide in-depth learner-centered feedback on every aspect of their work in the course. Self-grading does not mean that I take a vacation from the effort of building and holding the space within which we will engage, nor that I remove myself from the responsibility to respond to their work. …

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