a discussion with susan blum on ungrading

by Kevin Currie-Knight

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In this conversation, I talk with higher education anthropologist Susan Blum (Notre Dame) about her work on how students experience higher education. We also talk about an essay collection she recently edited called Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What To Do Instead (West Virginia University Press: 2020).

0:58 – How Students Navigate and Experience School. It Ain’t Pretty! 12:35 – Why Do So Many Students Treat School Like a Game? 23:55 – What Makes Grading So Problematic? Can We Motivate Students Without Grades? 36:43 – Ways Different Teachers (including Susan and Kevin) Have Backed Off of Grades in Their Classrooms 52:50 – How Could Teachers Start Moving Away From Grading?

11 comments

  1. Dr. Currie-Knight,

    This conversation was intriguing enough to get me to check out the books (Cohn; Blum). But could you bring a bit more skepticism — even devil’s-advocate skepticism — to the conversation, especially about such extraordinary proposals? By the end of the talk, the air seems thick with what can feel like so many nostrums:
    — the idea that “real” learning is not performed learning, or vice versa
    — “there’s all kinds of research” in how to make XXX “really fascinating,” and that will create intrinsic motivation
    — we teachers will “really need to up our game” and not just do “the same old boring stuff”
    — the fetishization of “authenticity,” as if the real world and self-motivated learning weren’t filled with “tests.”

    My list here emerges from my skepticism. But I think that I would emerge as more open to these ideas if you had performed (that word again) a bit more of the skepticism on my behalf.

  2. Some really interesting insights into ed. theory and some of the mindset involved in it. After 28 years of teaching, it fascinates me that whenever I dive into ed. theory, I find the take there almost completely alien. My wife, who teaches high school, feels similarly and has just, for the third time, dropped out of an Ed. Masters program, because she found nothing in it that had any relevance to her daily job. No one can say she didn’t give it a good try.

    The fixation on grading strikes me as odd, and the idea that it will ever be dispensed with at anywhere but a handful of places seems fantastical so not really worth spending too much energy on. Funnily enough, a professor of mine back in graduate school in the early 1990’s refused to give us grades, something that we found out, when we got our first papers back and there were no grades on them. After the professor explained that he would not be assigning grades and why [a lot of the reasons were similar to those raised in this dialogue and elsewhere, by Kevin], one of my friends stood up, walked out of the classroom and straight into the Provost’s office, where he had a brief but pointed chat with the administrator. By the next week, we all had grades for our papers, and the subject never came up again.

    I guess my problem with the whole Ed. theory enterprise centers around several things:

    (a) It misunderstands what teaching is and what it involves. The constant appeals to “the studies” and social science more generally gives the impression that teaching is something like engineering, where a certain kind of science-grounded education and training [plus, of course, experience] is what makes good engineers. The trouble is that teaching is much more like a craft or even a performing art, and the idea that science of any kind is going to tell us how to do it well, via “best practices” and all that sort of thing is as plausible as thinking that it will tell us how to make a good painter or playwright.

    (b) It proceeds on the assumption that there is some determinate thing education is or should be “for,” and that this can be demonstrated somehow. The truth, of course, is that there are dozens of things education is for to greater and lesser degrees, depending on time, place, and population, none of which can be demonstrated, but only discovered, gradually with a greater and greater familiarity with the relevant time, place, and population. Once again, this can only come from a kind of acclimation and is not going to come top down from theory.

    (c) A lot rests on the idea of “real learning” as opposed to some other kind, and this is trotted out constantly as a reason to abandon longstanding, ubiquitous practices. I — and I think most of those who are not in Ed. Theory — have little to no confidence in this idea and especially not in Ed. Theory’s/Theorists version of it.

    (d) There is a very naive — gullible really — conception of students and of their motivations. I don’t understand quite how this is sustained, unless the people pushing it have very limited and narrow teaching experience. The discussion of plagiarism and cheating and the rest was so naive that at one point, I was reminded of a super-nice hippy teacher I had as a kid, whom it was just a cakewalk to take advantage of, because she actually believed all the ennobling nonsense about students that she had learned in school in the 1960’s. Every kid is a scam artist and a grifter. Every single one. And part of being a successful adult mentor to kids requires understanding this and what it entails about one’s own conduct in the classroom and out.

    The truth is that teaching/learning/education is about the most contingent, contextual, praxis-dominant, theory-and-science resistant profession there is. Social work is another such profession, and as likely will not surprise, the best practitioners are those who have *least* imbibed all the theoretical and scientific material they were taught in school. I never received one minute’s education in pedagogy, and I have been consistently rated among the best teachers in every school in which I’ve taught, as measured both by student evaluations and professional observation.

    1. This time I agree with Dan. I watched about two thirds of the video and then I just gave up, thinking that it just wasn’t going to work. The students I had would have cheated and plagiarized if the teacher had been Jesus Christ combined with Mick Jagger.

  3. Just one more thing. On numerous occasions, the subject of how to make schooling enjoyable and “meaningful” to students is brought up as a matter of significant concern; one regarding which, again, we should look to “the studies” for guidance. I find the entire impetus wrongheaded. Arguably the most valuable skill a person will acquire by the time they reach adulthood is the capacity to do things diligently and skillfully that one has no interest in or even hates. This is simply part of the fundamental reality of human life in all of its manifestations. I learned this to a great extent in school and to a lesser extent, via household chores.

    My students today, however, do not have this capacity and it disadvantages them in virtually every environment that they find themselves in, from school to the workplace. Everyone is too busy trying so hard to make everything enjoyable and “relevant” for them as kids and to indulge their every complaint and half-baked concern, so that by the time they get to college and my classroom, their toleration for anything that they do not explicitly and enthusiastically want to do is so low as to make them academically dysfunctional. The number of professors who will tell you this is legion, as is the number of employers who will do so. Indeed, so dysfunctional in this regard are millennials and Gen Z that an entire industry of consultants has sprung up to advise business and organizations how to manage these people, because they are constantly beating down the doors of HR with their endless litanies of complaints and threats.

  4. I didn’t listen to the whole podcast, just random bits. Blum mentioned her privileged position: being white and having tenure at a respected institution. But at least she doesn’t have the added moral burden of being male!

    Leaving that aside, however, towards the end (about 1:02) she says something very revealing about how it used to hurt her feelings (and still does!) when students don’t do the readings because it shows “they don’t care about my class [like] I care about my class.” But, she says, she has this “theory” to fall back on, to salve her wounds as it were. It’s as if she is employing the body of theory which (supposedly) justifies her ideals and practices in the way that religious believers might fall back on the core doctrines of their faith in the face of adversity.

    And then there are the judgments about unfairness which Kevin raises. I taught undergrads and graduate students full time for more than a decade and I avoided techniques like self-assessment and joint projects. Students often expressed to me frustration and worse that, in other courses, many students exploited these mechanisms to their own benefit, free-riding on the work of others. Unfair? You bet.

  5. This remark at 51:27 really struck me:

    “It is my job to teach every student to the best of my ability, and if I am doing my job well, they will all do well.”

    I have to admit to being stunned that anyone who has any familiarity whatsoever with teaching could possibly think this is true.

    Another bizarre proposition comes immediately after. That no one should fail. That rather, if something isn’t working for someone, they should just be “counseled out of it.”

    These things are just stated, baldly, with neither argument, nor consideration of any counterargument. Given how counterintuitive and flat-out strange these claims are, this strikes me as a problem.

    1. “It is my job to teach every student to the best of my ability, and if I am doing my job well, they will all do well.”

      It’s not only counterintuitive, it’s false. As a teacher of mathematics or physics, you can do what you want in a classroom, and there will always be people who don’t do well (unless “barely scraping by” is redefined as “doing well”).

      When it comes to counseling someone out of something … that’s just a nice way to say “I’m sorry, you failed”. Of course, if you counsel out enough people, you’ll end with a group in which nobody fails.

      By the way: what’s wrong with failure in a classroom? There’s nothing wrong with failing at mathematics, physics or chemistry. It tells you that you’re not made for it and that’s a valuable lesson in life. You learn as much from your failures as from your successes.

      The idea that everybody can – and therefore should – do well in a classroom, is, I suspect, based on the idea that a teacher is nothing more than a “service provider”, to be held accountable if someone doesn’t do well. If you want to alienate talented people from the teaching profession, that’s exactly what you should do: treat them as service providers.

      1. The whole thing becomes a circular proposition. Acting on these sorts of principles essentially constitutes a massive exercise in grade inflation. In turn, then, grades cease to serve their purpose, so one can then go on about “ungrading.”

        The whole thing is just a big mess.

        1. Grade inflation is a huge problem, no doubt about that. Thanks to all kinds of “educational reforms” my wife now has to give passing grades to students who would have been counseled out 20 yrs. ago.

          That’s bad for the students, who don’t realize how mediocre they actually are at mathematics.
          But what worries me more, is the effect it has on aspiring teachers. Nobody with an ounce of self-respect wants to become part of a grading machine that fails nobody.

          In my pessimistic moments, I think it’s all done on purpose, to create jobs for educational researchers.

          – Take measures that make the teaching profession unattractive for talented people;
          – notice that the educational standards are heading south;
          – discover that teachers need “support”;
          – point out that more educational researchers are needed to give this support;
          – take measures that make teaching even less attractive to talented people;
          – thereby creating the need for more support and more jobs for educational researchers.

          1. I tend to agree. It’s the same dynamics that cause administrative bloat.

            As far as I am concerned there should be no programs in pedagogy. Subject area knowledge plus a teaching apprenticeship is all there should be.

          2. I have no idea how pedagogy is now taught in the U.S., but I taught English for several years in a program in Chile for future English teachers, with pedagogy integrated into the program and I could perceive from talking to students that in the courses in pedagogy the students learned the “tricks of the trade” as well as useful or useless theories. That is, they didn’t have to begin to their practice teaching from zero.

            When I began I was a bit like your 60’s hippie teacher and I recall that a more experienced teacher counselled me that
            “the teacher’s only weapon is a grade”. He was right, I realized.

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