Friday, February 5, 2010

de-grading for real.

markus kip, a teaching development graduate assistant from york university, organized a pretty great event a little while back called de-grading: sociological and pedagogical critiques of grading and alternative teaching practices at york university.

you might think that at a university like york, events like this would be happening all of the time. but that just isn't true. more often than not people just ignore the politics of grading, take cues from their professors, and follow policies that don't exist.

here is an excerpt from the discussion:

"I am a second year Ph D in the School of Women’s Studies. I completed my MA at the University of Toronto where I worked as a Teaching Assistant twice. Currently I work as a graduate assistant because as of May, 2009 I am not allowed to teach at York University in any capacity. When people ask me why I’m not TA-ing this year, the majority of them are tentative. Because, honestly, what do you have to do to be barred from teaching? Be a sexual predator(unless you’re a tenured prof)? Get arrested for doing something crazy? Threaten a student or the course director?

It seems like you have to do a lot to get banned from teaching so people are a little relieved when I say that I’ve been banned from teaching for giving high grades.

Officially, one of the reasons for my dismissal as a TA is because I had one “atypical” grade profile. But, as I’ll discuss, grading serves a greater purpose than simply being an evaluative tool, and as it was explained to my tutorial group after I was suspended from the course less than a month before the final exam, I was dismissed for the larger problem of my “non-compliance.” I didn’t cooperate.

Before we went on strike last year, my students-part of a large first level foundations course(Women and Society)--received the exact copy of the midterm they would write when we returned from the strike. So, when I finally got down to grading the midterms post-strike I wasn’t really that surprised when my tutorial group had a high proportion of As and A+s.

According to what I understood to simply be a guideline at the time, no more than 50% of my students should have had a combination of As and A+s. But guidelines aren’t official policies, and York has no official grade curving policy, so I went ahead and assigned the grades I believed my students had worked for.

Believing that my prof-an esteemed feminist professor who writes about critical pedagogy, power in the classroom, and labour movements- would be in a position to understand the circumstances of this midterm, I sent in my grade profile and thought nothing of it.

Since sending in that grade profile, events have unfolded that have taught me more about grading than I ever could have learned.

Larry Lyons, Undergraduate Program Director of the Division of Social Sciences, succinctly described to me York University‘s ‘unofficial‘ grading policy: “We cannot allow atypical grades to stand.”

Since receiving this email I have filed a harassment grievance against my former course supervisor, had disciplinary action filed against me as retaliation, been denied fair and due process, and been dismissed from my position as a TA. Not only was I removed from this particular course, but according to the then Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts(Heather Campbell), I am not able to be “in charge of a tutorial group, or in any way involved with undergraduate students.” Effectively, this bars me from teaching in any capacity at York University or engaging in any kind of employment that might involve undergraduate students.

As a PhD student, I’m sure you can see how this might be a bit of a problem. Part of our education as graduate students is “learning” to teach. As (hopefully) future professors at universities, teaching assistant experience is vital to those of us who want to focus on educating. But what I have learned first hand is that while the University(and especially progressive disciplines, under the supervision of leftist professors) seems like a good place to test our ideas about critical pedagogies and radical education, to counter the often oppressive hoops we were all forced to jump through in our undergrad careers, we really aren’t meant to succeed in any of these endeavors.

Grades aren’t only used to categorize students or to represent the quality of their work. They have an important significance in the training, monitoring, and disciplining of graduate students. In my case, my grade profile indicated to Professor Briskin that I was not following the 125 page book of rules she gave us at the beginning of the year and that I had not ensured that my students would fall into a specific profile.

Jeff Schmidt writes that an “important role of schools is socialization: the promulgation of an outlook, attitudes, and values. The employer trusts the teaching professional to manage interactions in such a way as to advance the proper values. The professional teacher is one who can be trusted to extrapolate to new situations the ideology inherent in the official school curriculum.”

While I have been told numerous times that I have not been expected to curve grades and that York doesn’t curve grades, what my atypical profile told professor Briskin, the department of social sciences, and the faculty of arts was that I wasn’t a “good” teaching assistant because I wasn’t voluntarily curving my grades. A good worker doesn’t need to be supervised, because they voluntarily discipline themselves and ensure that their behaviour is institutionally approved. While simultaneously acclimatizing teaching assistants to being in a position of authority over their students as well as encouraging the solidification and deployment of this power, grading allows administrators and tenured professors to monitor how well their t.a’s fit into the system. Larry Lyons told me that my professor was to judge everything I did, that she is “an eminent professor” who tells other people “what the york standards are, its not up to her to compare, she knows, she’s an expert,” so if she tells me that my grades are correct, then they’re correct. This attitude towards the assigning and surveillance of grades ensures that students and graduate students understand their role in the hierarchy.

And most of us try to fit into the system, much as we claim we don’t. We conform to the expectation that we will grade hard, either for the time being-until we have freedom to grade our own classes- or we really swallowed what they told us about students only learning when we force them to. It’s common knowledge that first time TA’s mark too hard in many cases. I know I did. Eventually I realized that my students actually didn’t learn more when I gave them bad marks, they just cried for a week. Giving bad grades becomes a kind of badge of honour for some TA’s: that they somehow don’t give free rides, and their students are better off for it. Bad grades become their pedagogical standpoint. However, I think that more often than not bad grades serve as their way of indicating to professors and authorities within the university that they can play the game, that they fit in and that anyone who says that TA’s giving bad grades for no reason is about education and not about power tripping is a liar.

Jeff Schmidt also writes that “the willingness shown by the new graduate to function harmoniously with the system is usually not the disingenuous kind shown by people who have fundamental reservations but who are reluctantly going along with the only choice available. The new graduate often feigns reluctance so as to maintain appearances, but it is usually painfully obvious that deep down something has changed. The individual has taken a step toward adopting the worldview of the system and goals compatible with the system. Students who once spoke critically of the system are now either silent or fearfully "fair and responsible" in their criticism. They are careful not to be provocative -- not to do or say anything that might displease individuals in authority. Any opposition is now sufficiently abstract and theoretical to not be provocative”

We can write about critical pedagogy and activism in the academy, but we only practice what we preach to the extent that it doesn’t really affect our position in the university. So we “put up” with the rules so that “later on” we can be radical. But somewhere along the way we realize it’s easier to just keep pretending to put up with the rules, because we gain more that way. Why, throughout this entire process, was I told over and over again (from union reps and administrators alike) that nobody does this? That what I’ve done is crazy because noone takes it this far?? Why, At an institution like York University, with a local union like CUPE 3903, are we not taking our politics farther, are we not making our own rules?

One of the reasons is that we think it will end our academic careers. But, in truth, being complacent will do more to end our academic careers because what is the point of being an academic who has no real politics?

And just to be clear, I didn’t refuse to grade my students, and I didn’t give them all A+s. In fact, my grade profiles aren’t that atypical. Rather, what my experience demonstrates is the hidden disciplinary and surveillance role that grades play, especially in the lives of graduate students.

Focusing on my “grading practice” served to obfuscate the harassment that I was being subjected to prior to and following my atypical grade profile. In a meeting with Richard Wellen, (outspoken Union enthusiast extraordinaire) in which we were supposed to discuss the formal harassment grievance I had filed against Linda Briskin, I was told that I could go back to teaching my course if I would give him some assurance that I knew that what I had done was “wrong” and that I would correct my behaviour. Instead of dealing with my harassment grievance, Wellen was giving me one last chance to agree to be good. When I wouldn’t agree to giving pre-determined grades they offered me something else: leave the course, get a new job next year, get paid in full, drop the grievance. When I said I wasn’t interested in leaving my job a month before the final exam and dropping a harassment grievance for money, they gave me a new ultimatum: leave willingly, sign off, or we’re disciplining you. And by the way, you’re not teaching in the course anymore.

In an email to my union rep, Heather Campbell wrote that “If I wasn’t willing to sign it, She would begin Article 8 proceedings.” For those of you who don’t know, Article 8 in the Collective Agreement is “Discipline.” This means that after I filed a harassment grievance against my prof, she made complaints about me, which the Associate Dean decided to pursue, while ignoring my complaint.

Of the four official complaints, one is in regards to grading: “that you have refused the direction of your Course Director in grading according to the standards, policy, and practices for the course.” The other three complaints were regarding my “non-compliance.” When you get hit with an Article 8, you get a chance to defend yourself at a meeting, and then the Associate Dean makes a decision regarding your case. Even though I presented detailed evidence that each of their claims was false and I was never given any evidence that substantiated their complaints, I was dismissed.

Heather Campbell called me a “clever girl” and accused me of being mischievous(which is not only patronising but also extremely sexist language). In her official decision letter she wrote my grades were “seriously anomalous both in terms of the course policy and in terms of the instructions and explanations given to you in writing by your course director, as well as the university’s common grading scheme.” So I violated several unofficial policies, guidelines, and “schemes.” I didn’t have the same grading paradigm as the course director that I worked for. Apparently at York University this is enough to have you barred from teaching. If the discipline seems disproportionate to the crime to you, you’re definitely not alone. The real reason I was disciplined, however, became clear when Heather Campbell wrote that I had taught my students about the University’s role in the structure of systemic oppression. And, that I had also presented Professor Briskin as part of this structure.

So, I was dismissed from teaching because I told the truth. Because instead of just teaching students about theoretical oppression and encouraging them to do things like write to their M.Ps, or to emulate my politics, I encouraged them to continue doing what they had already begun to do: look at their owns lives and identify oppression within it.

In short, I was dismissed as a teacher for actually teaching. I challenged the hypocrisy inherent in a feminist professor who theorizes about harassment and power in the classroom harassing her employee. Because I didn’t just talk the talk, I took what I’d learned in University(and what I learned from the professor herself) and I put it into action.

Denis Rancourt has written that “so-called radical professors who promote radical thinking are the top-end neutralizers of activist students.” In the real world, you don’t just get cred for writing something, you get cred for acting. Unlike academia, in the real world actions speak louder than words. Unfortunately, radical professors are just as likely to have an investment in the hierarchies of the university, because somewhere along the line they fell into a comfortable place in that hierarchy and threatening that just isn’t worth the risk. He has also written that these issues are about “control, external power, class privilege, and an emperor who has no clothes.” We can enjoy all of the perks of privilege more easily if we are perceived as being radicals. As one of my former students wrote, “I find it truly ironic that the people who possess such distinguished "titles" are the ones dishonoring what it means to be advocates of quality education.”

I spoke briefly about why we don’t challenge grades, or harassment, or the hierarchies that we face every day. I think most people are afraid that they’ll lose their jobs but the funny thing about my situation was that I did lose my job, but not my funding. These people toe the line of what they can and cannot do because they know that most people aren’t going to challenge them--they’ve gotten away with it for so long.... So, people can challenge these things. You won’t lose your job forever or maybe you won’t lose your job at all. Maybe all you’ll accomplish by taking the risk to actually stand up for what you believe in will be making it a little easier for the next person to do the same.

I’ll end with another quote from Jeff Schmidt. In his book disciplined minds he compares cult tactics to the tactics used in graduate schools to subordinate students and employees to the institution. He writes that “lack of solidarity is another sign that the community is artificial. when a dispute arises between a member and a leader, fellow members don’t come forward with support. nor do members band together to empower themselves within the organization. rather, they compete to subordinate themselves to the leaders, angling to gain security that way.” The good news is that, while there has been some back-turning throughout this situation, we do have a real political community here at York and I’ve received real support from my colleagues and students throughout this experience.

My students, a group of first year students, organized themselves and wrote a protest letter to the professor--which they signed and hand delivered to her in class. In this letter they demonstrate their knowledge of the course material by analyzing the Professor and the University’s actions in my case, including a deconstruction of the Professor’s privileged position in the disciplinary process. To prove to the Professor that not only did they deserve the high grades they received, but that they weren’t students that needed to be forced to learn, they were learning and they were acting. I think this is one of the reasons the University is willing to take risky disciplinary actions like these, because they understand that here at York there is an energy and a community that could actually threaten their power and they'll do anything to stop that."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow! It's out in print. Your case of self-defence is historic. When was the last time a TA took a stand like this? Very impressive. It is possible to preserve one's personality in academia - who would have thought.


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