By Chy Sprauve
Evaluating student work can be a stressful undertaking for instructors. Figuring out how to assess a student’s understanding of work done in a course can be difficult. We all know people learn and interpret things in different ways, but because educational institutions often tend to measure student understanding (or, rather, retention—understanding is more subjective) in narrow ways—via letter or numeric grading, we (instructors) may feel that exploring the ways in which students contribute to knowledge-building cannot be recognized via a grade. Some of us might have strict interpretations of what each letter grade means and stick to our rubrics faithfully. In this moment, however, I would like to invite us to consider that certain kinds of grading practices are rooted in much larger, more punitive systems of oppression.
Zero-tolerance policies championed by prominent figures in the U.S. government during the 1990’s had direct impacts on the lives of students (particularly black and brown ones). These draconian policies meant to “crack down” on crime lead to the increased presence of police officers in schools and increased suspension rates among students. These draconian policies, I argue, also show up in how we evaluate student work—especially the work of poor and working class black and brown students. Though these policies ostensibly mostly impact students in K-12, some of these punitive policies find their way to higher education as well. They may simply show up in one’s teaching philosophy or, again, one’s approach to grading. It can also show up in approaches to “classroom management” or in one’s syllabus. It can show up in departmental or institutional conversations about academic integrity and “rigor.” These standards can act as policing forces for students who are often not operating from spaces of economic or racial privilege and can really harm their ability to accomplish the goals you may lay out for your course. In other words, “rigor” and “academic integrity” can mean entirely different things in say, an Ivy League institution (heavily resourced) often serving students with deep ties to institutional power. What do these terms mean, and what are their implications for our pedagogical practices and for our student’s contributions to the classroom? I am suggesting that there are ways to center the contributions of our students without leaning on standards that are often arbitrary and disciplinary as opposed to generative and supportive. Finally, the use of surveillance as tool to monitor student activity is also rooted in carceral logics and requires our examination. Activities or assignments that publicize student work without their consent, using technology like Turn-it-in, and emphasizing the measures we as instructors may take in order to monitor our students’ work process contributes to an atmosphere of distrust, anxiety and unsafety. If we are interested in protecting the work of others by emphasizing that students produce original work, celebrating our students’ contributions, creating assignments that encourage students to think more deeply about ideas they feel strongly about, and not comparing student work with others’ work are how we start. Immediately treating students as if they are hostile actors by highlighting punishment for perceived infractions only establishes an adversarial relationship between you and your students.
The time we are living through currently has touched us all in profound ways. If we are wanting to respond more profoundly to the strident calls for less punitive ways to address infractions, decrease harm, and address collective trauma, we might consider thinking of restorative justice as a lens for us to use here. Restorative justice, defined by The Center for Justice and Reconciliation, “repairs the harm caused by crime.” The Center goes on to state that “[w]hen victims, offenders and community members meet to decide how to [repair the harm], the results can be transformational. [Restorative justice] emphasizes accountability, making amends, and — if they are interested — facilitate[s] meetings between victims, offenders, and other persons.” Reparative work is not always about addressing an immediate harm—it is about, also, acknowledging historical, structural harm. Using a restorative justice lens in our pedagogical work allows us to build-in frameworks that address that historical and structural harm. I would also like to acknowledge here that we as instructors have been harmed in our lives and we have also been affected by policy that shapes us—this reparative work can also help us to work through our own traumas, if we are willing to let it.
There are, as you may be aware, several approaches to modifying the way we imagine student evaluation. Asao Inoue, Professor and Dean for Academic Affairs, Equity and Inclusion at Arizona State University and author of Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future, describes ways in which we can evaluate student writing using an anti-racist lens. Inoue discusses contract grading in another book, Labor-Based Grading Contracts. Much has been written about contract grading and alternative grading assessment, such as this new collection from Susan Blum: https://wvupressonline.com/node/844. Rather than describe these approaches in detail, I prefer here to describe a more holistic pedagogical approach I call restorative evaluation. The difference between restorative evaluation and singular “fixes” to student assessment is the difference between, say, for those who write fanfiction, worldbuilding and writing a one-shot. I think that the best way to contribute to building a less punitive system is by developing non-punitive habits throughout one’s course and journey through the academy.
The areas we might focus on if we are worldbuilding are syllabus development (which often includes “rules” that address classroom disruption, participation, grading, protocols to address disability, perhaps statements around childcare, etc.), personal pedagogical approach, evaluative strategy (which includes rubric development and / or assignment directives), and finally, an intangible: how one reacts under pressure or stress in the often-exacting space of the classroom.
- Is there a way to stretch our current understandings of learning, “retention,” and growth? What associations do we make between “retention” and growth? Are these helpful linkages? Who are they helpful for?
- How might we understand practices students might undertake in order to “succeed” or “pass” as strategies for achievement as opposed to pernicious acts? How might a change in our evaluative practices acknowledge this?
Considering what we know about the relationship between carcerality and education, especially as it pertains to poor and working-class students of color (reference footnote one for more information on this), how might we re-imagine the syllabus? Ostensibly, it is simply an instructive document for students—however, the ways in which the parameters of the course are laid out can often be quite confrontational for them. Because the syllabus is often the first document your students come into contact with, its importance cannot be understated. While it is true that the syllabus is not always a salient document for students, depending on how you lead your class, it may be a central document. Regardless of whether or not your syllabus is a principal document in your class, chances are your students will be engaging with it on some level. Depending on your institution, the structure of your syllabus might be very flexible regarding modification or somewhat inelastic. Consider what is possible for you in the way of editing and then think about your values. What theme or message might you want to impart to your students? Is this message clear in your syllabus? if not, how might you make it clear?
What you can do now: Choose one guideline or “rule” in your syllabus that was unclear. Is it essential? If so, how might it be made clearer? Think about how this guideline may have impacted the work of your students and consider releasing that directive until you achieve clarity on it.
What you can build toward later: Engage your students in a close reading of your syllabus. This activity gives your students a chance to work with your syllabus as an object of study and helps them to become more acquainted with the vision you have for your course, which can help to create trust and confidence among your students.
Personal Pedagogical Approach + Evaluative Strategy
Understanding your own pedagogical approach might be useful when developing an evaluative strategy and understanding how you respond to stress. You may have written a teaching statement before. Perhaps you might review it now. Does the philosophy that you describe match up with your real approach? What are the values you center in your classroom? Why do you center these particular values? What impact might they have on your students? Do these values show up in your evaluative strategy? Or might the focus on measuring a particular “success” take up most of the space? For most of us, we are working within a system that is inflexible in the way of grading in that we must assign a number or letter to a student’s work. Knowing that, how might we understand these number and letter assignments in ways that affirm the contributions of our students? What values can numbers and letters obscure? How might these values be centered in our grading?
What you can do now: Part I: Do a values activity here (https://www.cmu.edu/career/documents/my-career-path-activities/values-exercise.pdf) or here (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/changepower/201811/6-ways-discover-and-choose-your-core-values). Are there any immediate but small changes you might make to any of your pedagogical work based on the results of the activity?
Part II: What are the assumptions you make when developing directives and guidelines for your students to follow? Put yourself in your student’s shoes. What areas might feel unclear? Can you be aware of the assumptions you made as you evaluate papers and assignments?
What you can build toward later: Part I: What might an ideal classroom space look like if you could express all of your values? For the moment, do not focus on limitations. You might make a list of descriptive words, draw your dream space, or make some kind of collage. Now, which items will you be able to act on when building your course? You might also engage your students in the activity by asking them what their ideal classroom looks like as well. Where can you collaborate?
Part II: Make space for students to express confusion about course content. You can build this space in via reflection essays (see article here for further information), built-in classroom discussions at the top or bottom of class, or as a part of regular assignments. This practice can help students to feel more comfortable expressing themselves in general in your class, creates a sense of openness and trust among students, and can engender feelings of safety.
Finally, the classroom sometimes presents challenges in the way of student-student conflict and / or student-instructor conflict. Our reactions to these conflicts can shape the contours of our classroom long-term. How might we uphold our values when presented with direct challenges? Perhaps the impulse, when confronted with conflict in the classroom, depending on the nature of it, is to engage measures that result in severe consequences for the student. What is important to recognize here is that the punitive measures we may engage in the name of control or obedience are, again, rooted in larger, institutional impulses to contain specific student populations. In the article “Developing the Prison-to-School Pipeline: A Paradigmatic Shift in Educational Possibilities During an Age of Mass Incarceration,” scholar DeWitt Scott writes: “[a]s minority students face intensifying sanctions for unacceptable behavior—behavior that is typically assessed through subjective lenses—these students are inevitably headed toward a future of increased probability of arrest, conviction, and incarceration. This is the core process that creates the school-to-prison pipeline [emphasis added].” Again, though college students are not the targets of the school-to-prison pipeline, some of them can still be targets of an overall penal policy. Working to break down the rootedness of the carceral in the classroom requires our acknowledgement of these histories.
Ana Clarissa Rojas Durazo (Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Davis), in her article “In Our Hands: Community Accountability as Pedagogical Strategy,” argues that the state’s “response to violence is unidirectional, retributive, and uninterested in addressing the root causes of violence…Reliance upon criminal justice responses seizes our creativity and the possibility of achieving profound social transformation at the roots of violence [emphasis added].” Let’s read “violence” here as any type of harm: physical, emotional, and spiritual, to aspirations. Though we may not perceive our reliance on punitive measures to address what we might consider to be “disruptive” behavior on the part of students as engaging the “criminal justice system,” the dynamics it engenders can be similar. If we agree with Scott that our assessment of “disruptive” student behavior is often subjective, perhaps we can agree that creating “consequences” for the perceived disruption ought not be our first step. Engaging in a one-on-one discussion or small group discussions (for a larger disruption) might prevent more harm occurring. While we all may not feel equipped to address the root causes of harm in our classrooms (for various reasons), if we understand that corrective measures used to address conflict tend to fall short in the way of engendering fundamental change, perhaps we can be inspired to move away from them and participate in that work by examining how we measure the contributions of our students.
If harm is directed at you, it might be helpful not to detach and to find time to really feel your feelings. If you have access to a care network of any kind (self-care activities, therapy, willing family and friends), use it. If you have the ability and time, doing some research on restorative justice could be helpful in addressing the harm as well.
What you can do now: Reflect on a conflict, big or small, that occurred this or a past semester. Were there any steps you took to address it? How did the event make you feel? Spend some time (any amount that feels comfortable for you) writing and reflecting about it or discussing it with a trusted colleague or friend. How might this conflict impact your evaluative style? Practice being mindful of any stand-out feelings around this conflict as you evaluate student work.
What you can build toward later: Part I: When developing your next course, think about activities you might engage to inspire feelings of trust and safety in your classroom. These activities do not have to be complex. Think about something you might do for five minutes in every class. Establishing a sense of constancy in your classroom, especially during these times, could be vital—not just for your students’ sense of wellbeing, but for your own as well.
Part II: When you have time, engage some work around restorative justice to build your own structures of accountability to address harm in the classroom. Consider developing a “community contract” if that is something your class is interested in. A community contract is a document that you and your students develop to address different kinds of behavior in the space of the classroom (and perhaps larger community). The group should agree on the contract’s terms. Ensure that this contract is in conversation with work in reparative action.
Chy Sprauve is a doctoral student in English and Composition Rhetoric and a Fellow at the Teaching and Learning Center.
 “[The] Justice Department’s ‘Cops in Schools’ program…gave out $750 million to hire 6,500 new school-based police…the overall approach of relying on armed police to deal with safety issues has led to a massive increase in arrests of students that fundamentally undermines the educational mission of schools, turning them into an extension of the larger carceral state and feeding what has come to be called the school-to-prison pipeline…This increase in the number of school-based police is tied to a variety of social and political factors that converged in the 1990s and continues today.”
(Alex S. Vitale, The End of Policing, (Brooklyn: Verso, 2017), Retrieved from Apple Books).
 “These punitive and increasingly normalized practices [zero tolerance policies] have had an adverse effect, particularly on African American boys and other minority, poor, and non-gender conforming students, that is documentable, leading to increased detention, suspension, and expulsion rates of poor, minority, and LGBTQ populations (Cregor & Hewitt, 2011; Goss, 2015; Meiners, 2011; Schept et al., 2015; Snapp et al., 2015).” (Scott, “Developing the Prison-to-School Pipeline,” 42.)
 To read further, look at this reading list: https://www.transformativejustice.eu/en/transformative-justice-reading-list/.
 “About Restorative Justice,” Centre for Justice and Reconciliation, http://restorativejustice.org/restorative-justice/about-restorative-justice/#sthash.vnGwqbbd.dpbs.
 One-shot: a short fictional work.
 Scott, “Developing the Prison-to-School Pipeline,” 43.
 Ana Clarissa Rojas Durazo, “In Our Hands: Community Accountability as Pedagogical Strategy,” Social Justice, 37.4 (2011-2012), 78.
 If the harm is very significant and you have the space to do this, it may be helpful to try to find a party that your student trusts who can engage you both in a reparative exchange that does not employ penal measures.
 You cannot guarantee absolute safety in your class, but you can take steps to establish it as much as you can. Think of establishing safety as an ongoing, elastic process.