Grades, Non-Monetary Motivations, and the A Shaped Elephant in the Room

It may come as no surprise that many of the critiques I made last week of Michael Wesch hold for Dan Pink as well. I found his animated video on the existence of non-monetary motivations for work engaging until he made the slightly ludicrous claim that a tech firm allowing its employees autonomy and “self-directed” work ONE DAY PER YEAR was “almost radical.”

Now, I don’t want to beat a dead horse – so I will try not to. I want to make two brief points on this before moving on to the less irksome work of Alfie Kohn.

First, it takes a deeply ideological perspective to be surprised (he calls the science freaky!) that humans are motivated in their work by things other than monetary reward. “Homo Economicus,” profit-maximizers, and other utilitarian conceptions of human behavior are ideological constructions of economists not neutral representations of objective reality. Well-known anarchist Peter Kropotkin made the argument in his classic work “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution” more than 100 years ago that cooperation and reciprocity characterize human social life as much if not more than purely self-interested competition and maximization.

Second, the idea that there are alternative structures for workplaces that place more emphasis on autonomy, mastery, and purpose and less emphasis on strict hierarchy and ranked performance IS NOT NEW! There is nothing novel about this idea. Karl Marx, Mikhail Bakunin, and countless other anarchist and socialist writers and practitioners have been advocating for this for more than 150 years (not to mention those pesky Luddites). The history of unionism more generally is full of skilled workers resisting efforts by capitalist owners to strip their work of autonomy mastery, and purpose (see: Workers’ Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles by David Montgomery). Furthermore, the way Pink describes corporations putting these ideas into practice, with the goal of instrumentalizing their employees’ creativity and desire for more control to generate more profits, is problematic to say the least.

I just so happen to have written a post on this very topic for the great SPIA blog: RE: Reflections and Explorations. The post “Cooperative Organizations: Toward an On-Going Practice of Democracy” briefly explores what VT’s own Joyce Rothschild has called “collectivist-democratic” organizations. Such organizations come, in my opinion, the closest to the anarchist ideal of truly worker self-directed enterprises in which those who do the work own and control the business. Some even, shock and horror, pay all of their employees the same wage!

Heterodox economist Richard D. Wolff has written numerous books on the topic and runs an organization that helps businesses transition into worker self-directed enterprises. There are more than 200 in the US alone and thousands around the world. The largest and most famous organization of this kind is the Mondragon Corporation in Spain, founded in 1956, employing 74,000 people, and earning around $13bn per year. It’s not perfect, but it’s the “freaky” result of 60 years of attempts to build more autonomous and democratic workplaces.

All of this is to say: cite your sources Dan Pink! Do your research!

Okay, I did beat that dead horse – I couldn’t help myself.

Moving from hierarchy in the workplace (which is both the outcome of grades received in schooling and a continuation of the impulse to sort people by perceived ability, proficiency, etc.) to grades in the academic environment, I was struck by one aspect in Alfie Kohn’s article “The Case Against Grades.”

Kohn quotes English teacher Jim Drier on his transition to a no-grades classroom. Drier said “I think my relationships with students are better” after removing grades. I think about the interpersonal aspect of grading a lot as an instructor. I have felt that the first few weeks of the semester are a grace period in which students can form opinions of me as an instructor and interpersonally in a somewhat natural way. Once the first graded assignment gets back to them though, I always worry it will have damaged rapport I have built with students who didn’t perform well.

I am inclined to think that there is some drop off in effort by students who get discouraged by a poor grade early in the semester and that they may be less willing to come to me for help as a result, particularly if we don’t have a pre-existing relationship. I do think it would be easier to maintain a positive student-teacher relationship if I didn’t have to decide which students are excellent and which are only adequate (and then essentially tell them this).

Asserting my authority in this way through grades is currently a necessity but I certainly do not enjoy it. Kohn discusses various iterations of qualitative feedback and I have tried this as a strategy. On written assignments I try to give substantive comments (both positive and negative) to help the student grow and understand that it’s not “personal.” But, since I also must give a letter grade, I worry, as Kohn points out, that students may ignore the comments and go right to the grade (I myself have been known to do this).

I am persuaded by Kohn’s argument, particularly in the social sciences where I teach, that we should be prepared to “jettison” grades in favor of alternatives. As a grad student, I’ll keep tinkering around the edges looking for those alternatives.

4 thoughts on “Grades, Non-Monetary Motivations, and the A Shaped Elephant in the Room”

  1. I have a suggestion for this problem that implemented in one of the courses that I used to teach. In a class where the students where supposed to submit ‘lab reports’ of unspecified calibre, I designed a pilot program where I honed on a specific part of the report that I wanted them to work on intently, still requiring but not focusing on everything else. That next week, I would give them a ‘bloody sheet of paper’ but only on the part that I lectured on. The kicker? I wouldn’t take any points off, just give them feedback on that section. The next week however, they were now responsible for that section for the rest of the semester. I started with the abstract, then introduction, methods, figures etc. Each week they were responsible for more and more of the lab report to be up to snuff, but had feedback from previous weeks to compare to until by the end of the semester, they submitting journal paper quality lab reports. That initial sticker shock never hit them because the grade was 100% that first week, despite the red pen. However, I reiterated time and time again, YOU WILL HAVE POINTS DEDUCTED NEXT TIME!!!!
    They knew what they would be responsible for the next time because they had the feedback in their hands, including the previous sections they had already learned about.

  2. It is not surprising that Pink’s view is not novel because that is so obvious. But I have to admit he is an excellent story-teller for both the animated video and the TED talk. As a graduate student in engineering, I feel that the autonomy of research is very important to me. When I am doing the project I am interested in, I can be very productive and creative because I am thinking about it even when I am sleeping. But there are still projects that I have to do, which always makes me feel nervous (to meet the deadlines) and sluggish.

  3. I’ll take the second part of this first and say that I have a lot of empathy for the bind you find yourself in when you want to give students formative feedback but fear (know) that the specter of the grade makes it unlikely they will even read your comments ….unless they don’t like the grade you’ve assigned. My work around for this in recent years has been to separate these things out — to tell them that I don’t “grade” individual assignments but do respond to the substance of what they’ve done. So I give lots of feedback and encourage dialogue about the work for a given week. This shifts the focus onto the substantive issues at hand and the questions that animated their research process. I do grade exams (2 mts and a final), but we workshop the questions and materials they need for those tests in class before they take the test. In class we work on building an analytical argument from evidence and on the exam I ask them to respond to a question with an analytical argument supported by evidence. I don’t provide many comments on the exams because I invest the comments where I think they do some good — on the steps leading up to the test. Does that make sense?
    As for the first part of this (not going to call PETA but will definitely cross my fingers that you don’t think about horse ownership)….of course Pink’s ideas are not new. Alternative models for social organization / politics (education) abounded — especially in Europe in the 19thc., as the contradictions of capitalism became more evident and problematic. But rather than Kropotkin (whom I admire, because rabbits ;-)), or Bakunin (flirting with Nechaev / Nihilism is a step too far) for inspiration about re-imagining education and creativity, I would think about Bogdanov, young Gorky, or Lunacharsky — all of them saw a connection between labor, self-discovery, education, and the creation of a new culture and society. Cool stuff.

    1. Hi Dr. Nelson, your feedback/grading approach sounds great. The idea that students receive a holistic “course grade” rather than an A on quiz 1 B+ on quiz 2, etc. seems like a strong approach. I’m going to do some serious thinking about how I might implement a version of this in my teaching. I usually use essays rather than exams but that doesn’t seem like it would create much of an issue. Including students in designing essay questions is something I’ve been attempting to do. I’m not sure if the students feel it works well for them, but it seems more democratic to me. Do you find that students are, perhaps, upset at the end of the semester if they have received a grade lower than they expected?

      Back to that PETA unfriendly opening section, I think what I find so difficult in Pink’s approach is that he assumes his audience will either be unfamiliar with anarchist or socialist approaches or, perhaps more likely, that they will have negative views on them. So maybe a charitable reading of his video is that he is attempting to slowly introduce a (hostile?) audience to an unfamiliar idea. I will definitely check out Bogdanov and Lunacharsky whose work I haven’t read. Thank you for the recommendations!

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