Blog Post

How to do Grading With Words: Weekly Writing Assignments and Descriptive Rubrics (Part 2)

An altered image of J.L. Austin's book cover "How to Do Things with Words" with the word 'things' crossed out and replaced with 'grading.'

Written in conversation with T.L. Cowan

I walked into T.L.’s Facebook post around comment 25 because the conversation deeply resonated with my own mixed feelings of dedication, anxiety, and resentment about teaching, evaluating, and labor. The flip comment I posted at the time does, in fact, represent my pedagogical-emotional state, but needs the kind of elaboration, explanation, and collaboration that motivated T.L. to ask if I’d write a HASTAC post together. So here we are. I’m motivated by those mixed feelings to try to describe how feeling overburdened by so-called ‘low stakes’ assignments is actually pretty indicative of how teachers like T.L. and I work. While trying to make things “easier” for students to track their own development, we’ve supplemented and complicated our workloads. Because time management is a real thing in academia and I am bad at it.


An important distinction: the student communities with whom I work are very different from those at a ‘Research 1’ level institution. I transitioned from an R1 to an art and design school about three years ago, and have had to reconsider teaching and grading strategies in light of the change. In particular, rather than teaching large lecture sections, I only have about 70-80 students spread out over three classes each semester. While these numbers are significantly lower than large lectures, and reflect cultural differences between the types of institutions, the same learning outcomes apply. Teaching in the liberal arts at art school, however, means that whenever I have to assess students I have to make it count, not only in terms of their intellectual development, but also in light of students’ investments in visual culture and progress toward arts-related degrees. I’m also expected to support their studio work, which means that they need a lot of feedback in order to develop connections between my media studies courses and their individual projects. So I struggle with the balance between generating useful feedback and being overwhelmed by the amount of it I should give on small assignments.


Additionally, on a small student-focused campus such as mine, many students see their liberal arts courses as either distractions from their studio work or obstacles to overcome on their way to jobs or professional practice. So another part of my job is to reinforce how integral writing, critical reflection, and theoretical application are in artistic practice, which is actually not really different from their roles in other scholastic endeavors.


To address these challenges, as well as to moderate (and try to manage?) students’ skill development, I have found that short, developmental assignments (often revolving around keywords or important terminology) are the key to getting students to participate in big ideas outside of studio time, and with actual other people (if you teach at an A&D, you’re probably nodding. If not, I can tell you that student artists are special people who prize their alone time, sometimes above all else). So, filled with a mix of anxiety about being behind in grading handfuls of these assignments, and resentment for having grading take up so much time and energy (even when I was avoiding it), I improvised a quick scale to get “lower stakes” assignments graded. The scale is below, with reflection following.


For the smaller assignments, I use a 5-point scale, which is only meaningful because at the end of the term Blackboard can easily tally the points, which makes my life easier and lets students do the math to figure out what their grade is at any given point in the term. BUT...the points represent locations in a more quality-affirming, skill-building universe. They see the terms in their feedback or in the comments. So:

5 points equals “Flawless.” Innovative work that maybe deconstructs or at least critiques the question or keyword, is written poetically, uses textual references to enhance the experiential, and probably made me, as the instructor, feel at least a little undereducated. 5 means that there is nothing else I can do for the student. It is game recognizing game. Comes with sparkle emoticon.

4 points equals “Solid.” Well-played, tactically strong, other sports-winning metaphors. The student will wonder why it is not a 5. I will probably note that it doesn’t have the kind of first-person curiosity, headed for grad school, so-catchy-it-should-be-a-meme thing going on. I will ask this student to explain how the ideas in the assignment are relevant to her/their/his life. After a few minutes (or days) of thought, the answer the student gives will cause me to say “You are this close to flawlessness. Keep going.”

3 points is “I’m Here for You.” This student is struggling, probably with comprehension and composition. If I allowed the assignment to be completed in a different format besides writing, this student would do something interesting. But, with this grade, we’re going to have to talk it through, in office hours, which will make this student very nervous. But it will also result in a clearer understanding of expectations, and probably a nice walk over to the campus learning center, in advance of the assignments coming up. This student needs A LOT of encouragement. She probably has some intellectual confidence issues. She probably complains about the “big words” in the readings/discussions/lectures. She will need to be held accountable as a knowledge producer, and we will talk about this while she’s drinking her first ever cup of coffee. It’s a big day for this student. Next semester she will show up on campus with THE HAIRCUT. Or she will write me a terrible eval. Maybe both?

2 points is “I Just Can’t.” Maybe there is a learning model with which this student is working that I just don’t get. I will resort to taxonomy when we talk (“Analysis means blah blah, which is a higher-order function than description, which is so forth and such…”) Maybe this student did (or will) not try. Probably workload and/or time management problems. A “So what are your goals, and how do you think we can get there?” conversation will ensue, if the student shows up to office hours, which is, you know, a crap shoot. Sometimes students with these scores drop the course in a timely fashion, sometimes they don’t. Even though these students stress me out so badly that one encounter with their work can ruin my entire day, I have to remind myself that I do not have the tools or energy to actually provide the kind of support they need. It’s hard.

1 point is hidden and reserved for students to apply to their grades at the end of the semester IF WE NEGOTIATE AND THEY ARE AWESOME. If there are like 3-5 low-stakes assignments, that’s 3-5 points they could potentially add to their grade. Surprising how often this makes a difference, especially with plus and minus grades.

0 for not turning anything in. Automatic after the assignment is due.


What I hope this scale shows is that I really like the idea of dialogue in evaluation, and have been making efforts to be transparent with students about the grade pacts we have to make while living with institutional oppression, rising tuition, precarious employment, not to mention the variety of ways that our campus (like all others) foments sexual violence, white supremacy, ableist exclusion, food insecurity, colonial mentalities and general skullduggery...


And while my reflex is to diminish the value of grades because of how artificial and even dangerous this whole set-up feels, I have to pause and breathe into my belief in the power of naming to stimulate growth, communal belonging, a sense of ownership in the face of exploitation.


What can we build? How can we explain it better, with a slimmer, more curve-hugging fit and room to glow? I love the extra-gayness of “T.L. Cowan’s extra gay Keyword Portfolio Rainbow Rubric 2018,” and find it quite fitting for this generation of mostly young students who are looking to us elder queermos in precarious times like these. With diagnosed or undiagnosed anxiety as probably the biggest issue my students face, getting grades for writing is a big influencer on their comfort levels. By trying to make my grades more conversational, my hope is to deflate at least some of their anxiety about what grades mean and how they can work.


I also have quite a number of feels about Blackboard and other learning management systems, and would love to share them with others who experience learning management as both evolutionary and weaponized.



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