Grades “Never Became the Focus of Energy”: Assessment and Black Mountain College

“I doubt there is a student or teacher worth a damn who has not at some moment pondered creating his own university” my friend Leon Lewis writes at the beginning of his essay, “Black Mountain College: A Strange Spot in A Strange Spot” in Appalachian Journal (vol. 1, no. 3, 1973).  I first read this essay when I was in college, recently fascinated with the strange experimental art school that operated between 1933 and 1957 in my backyard in Black Mountain, North Carolina. There are many things that thrill me about Black Mountain College (BMC) including the lengthy list of art-world teachers, faculty, and visitors who graced the community — Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Charles Olson, Buckminster Fuller, Hilda Morley, MC Richards, Jonathan Williams, Ruth Asawa, Albert Einsten (ok, not an artist per se, but still impressive), Salvador Dali (who visited and orchestrated a film viewing), and Joseph and Anni Albers, among many, many more. Yet, like several of the contributors as well as myself wrote in the new Black Mountain College Special Issue of Appalachian Journal, BMC is and was so much more than the big names who lived, wrote, worked, and created there.

As an educator, BMC captivates me because of its almost complete aversion for grades. As BMC faculty member John L. Wallen relayed to historian Martin Duberman in “the Bible of BMC,” Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community,  when asked what kind of education BMC stood for, would reply, “We don’t have grades,” “we don’t have required courses” (275).

Further, Duberman explains that “Classes varied considerably in format, since each teacher was left to his own devices. Some would lecture or direct discussions more than others; some would settle for words, others would show pictures or play music; an occasional seminar would be jointly taught by three or four instructors, and many classes had staff members or their wives sitting in as students” (100).

While grades were not central to the College’s pedagogy, Duberman writes, “Most instructors privately jotted down grades, but only–so went the rationale, anyway–in case a student later needed a ‘record’ for transfer or for graduate school. The grades were never passed on to the students themselves, and never, therefore, became the focus of energy or the standard for evaluating self-worth that they commonly do in most schools” (100).

Back to dear Leon’s idea that many of us involved in education have daydreamed about our own utopia-inducing schools, mine, like BMC, would not be “grade-obsessed.” I am so fascinated with BMC’s lack of emphasis on grades and meanwhile, the College’s production of loads of artists and writers that had extraordinary impacts on art and culture, both in the US and abroad. Whenever the topic of grading inevitably comes up, either in my own classes as a doctoral student, when grading my own students, or when talking with colleagues, I am always envious of BMC’s approach.

This week, while reading more modern scholarship on assessment and education, I heard the rumblings of the BMC spirit within the words of Alfie Kohn.  Suggesting that the basic function of grades is to collect information about student progress and share that information with students, Kohn suggests, perhaps controversially, that: “Collecting information doesn’t require tests, and sharing that information doesn’t require grades.  In fact, students would be a lot better off without either of these relics from a less enlightened age.”

Citing research from others in education and across the humanities, Kohn establishes his argument against grades across three main findings: (1) “Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning” (2) “Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task” and (3) “Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.” 

Kohn suggests that in order to revise these deleterious effects of grades, educators should aim to “delete” or at least “dilute” grades and their hegemony in the classroom. Writing in favor of more narrative assessment, like in a letter from teacher to student upon completion of a course, Kohn adds that this change in grade format can be gradual, taking place over time, and that in the meantime, the grade-giving process can be made more democratic if students are invited to collaborate on their grade alongside an instructor, weighing in on the decision. Throughout Kohn’s piece, I kept daydreaming about my own ideal school, and feeling excited that the ideas of BMC and other experimental schools are very much still alive and in circulation through discussions of best-practices for educators.

As a graduate student, I am not quite ready to abandon grading, mainly because I’d rather not have that undoubtedly lengthy, difficult discussion with those in power in my department, at the registrar, etc. However, with the legacy of BMC and current scholars like Kohn in mind, I hope to switch to more narrative-based assessment for my students in the coming semesters.

Death of the Author?: Some Thoughts on Ethical Research

This week, as we are discussing ethics, and in particular conducting ethical research, I explored the “Case Summaries” from the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Research Integrity. Because I study the way language and discourse circulate, operate, and leverage power, I was of course drawn to a specific case study entitled, “My Lab Boss Puts His Name on My Paper and Proposals,” which I’ve linked here.

In this particular case study, “Ana”, an international scholar who is worried about her ability to write and publish in English, begins asking colleagues to review her manuscripts. While many of her fellow research faculty seem interested in consulting her work, she is surprised to see her manuscripts returned with the names of her readers listed as secondary and tertiary authors on her own manuscript! Although this development infuriated me, “Ana,” fearing that she would “stir the pot” too much and disrupt the fragile ecosystem of her lab if she said anything, did not intervene in this crisis of authorship.

Unfortunately for “Ana,” her authorship authority was further compromised by her direct supervisor, as her boss put his name on her paper and completely co-opted a proposal she had been writing. While some other colleagues reacted with disgust at this development, “Ana” felt completely unsure of what to do.

This case study made me think of Mikhail Bakhtin, a famed 20th century philosopher whose influence on rhetoric and composition (my field) has been immense in the past quarter century. Within Bakhtin’s extensive body of work, he frequently discusses the difficulty of authorship and ownership over language, essentially arguing that “your words are not your own,” suggesting that every phrase or “utterance” we speak / think / write, does not really belong to us, but was borrowed / learned  from someone else, in fact many, many “someones.” While theoretically, Bakhtin’s work is fascinating, it does complicate this particular case study, making me question whose work is “Ana’s”? Has Roland Barthe’s famous essay, “The Death of the Author” come to full fruition?

While “Ana’s” case prompted a rich theoretical rabbit-hole for me, I think the issues of power within this case make the issue quite clear. Because “Ana’s” boss never consulted her as he placed his own name on her paper, he is at fault. Similarly, because “Ana’s” colleagues who consulted her English did not ask her if they could be added as authors, a simple request she likely would have granted, they, too, are at fault. In this sticky social situation, it seems “Ana” should consult her department head for assistance.

With a Mind for Learnin’: Some Thoughts on Mindfulness in Higher Education

“You know, darlin, you’ve got a mind for learnin’,” my grandmother said to me countless times while washing dishes, peeling potatoes, or making cakes. My grandmother has always encouraged and emphasized my interest in what she refers to as “book learnin'” and has continually encouraged me to follow my dream of becoming a college professor — not the strange, quirky, “sage on the stage” type, but the type of educator that truly changed my life, offering me encouragement and a love of lifelong learning that I never knew I would discover. My grandmother, as well as my parents, sister, and amazing significant other, have been so encouraging of my hope to become like a Professor Lane, a Dr. Schmitz, a Dr. Rodrick, and a Dr. Goldey — to become like the educators that had such a powerful influence on my own life.

Yet, since beginning my doctorate, I have become afraid that just having a “mind for learnin'” may not be enough to be an excellent educator. This fear, sadly, comes at least in part from my realization that being good at research, producing brilliant theories and a plethora of articles, is in no way indicative of being a high-quality teacher. As a GTA (graduate teaching assistant) for a course that is struggling to say the least, I have often felt downtrodden that my own interest in continual, perpetual learning, may not be enough to make me a good educator.

Luckily, thanks to Virginia Tech’s Contemporary Pedagogy course, I recently discovered the concept of “mindful learning” a principle that will undoubtedly influence my pedagogy and can hopefully help me design curricula to encourage and interest students, infusing a love of learning in my students that extend beyond my own (admittedly wide-ranging) interests.

In The Power of Mindful Learning, Ellen J. Langer suggests that there are “seven pervasive myths, or mindsets, that undermine the process of learning” including:

“1. The basics must be learned so well that they become second nature
2. Paying attention means staying focused on one things at a time
3. Delaying gratification is important
4. Rote memorization is necessary in education
5. Forgetting is a problem
6. Intelligence is knowing ‘what’s out there’ and
7. There are right and wrong answers” (2).

Langer argues that “these myths undermine true learning. They stifle our creativity, silence our questions, and diminish our self-esteem” (2). Yet Langer also suggests that uprooting all of these myths in a massive overhaul of the educational system would be meaningless and useless, “unless students are given the opportunity to learn more mindfully” (3). Langer defines “mindful learning” in a specific way, offering three characteristics of any mindful approach including: “the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective” (4).

Langer argues in The Power of Mindful Learning, that “One of the most cherished myths in education or any kind of training is that in order to learn a skill one must practice it to the point of doing it without thinking. Whether I ask colleagues concerned with higher education, parents of young children, or students themselves, everyone seems to agree on this approach to waht are called the basics. Whether it is learning how to play basketball, drive, or teach, the advice is the same: practice the basics until they become second nature. I think this is the wrong way to start” (10).

Langer’s argument not only prompts a paradigm shift for how we conceive of education, but her ideas also uproot contemporary understandings of pedagogy (or at least my own understanding of pedagogy up until reading Langer’s work) as she writes, “One of the ‘basic skills’ of teachers, and all lecturers, is the ability to take a large quantity of information and present it into bite-sized pieces to students. For those of us who teach, reducing and organizing information becomes second nature. How often do we, so practiced in how to prepare information for a lecture, continue to present a prepared lesson without noticing that the class is no longer paying attention? Presenting all the prepared content too often overtakes the goal of teaching” (12). Again, as a GTA, I often feel stuck with the assignments and information that I must present according to my supervising instructor. Personally, I am only fond of brief lectures that provide background for class discussion and collaborative projects, yet the dismal reality is that as GTAs, we are often not allowed to develop our own pedagogies in the classroom for which we are “teaching assistants,” but I am grateful for Langer’s ideas to help me think about how I will teach my own classes in the future.

Langer offers a rather straight-forward method for approaching mindful learning, writing that “The simple process of mindful learning, of actively drawing distinctions and noticing new things–seeing the familiar in the novel and the novel in the familiar–is a way to ensure that our minds are active, that we are involved, and that we are situated in the present. The result is that we are then able to avert the danger not yet arisen and take advantage of opportunities that may present themselves. Teaching mindfully not only sets students up for these advantages, but has advantages for teachers as well” (222). Even in my current limited teaching experiences, by widening collaboration and class discussions to include not only my own lecture slides, but also student opinions, I have already seen student abilities as a wonderful thing, as a way for me to see new things in the material that I teach. Langer’s ideas about mindful learning only encourage me to incorporate this practice into my future teaching.

I don’t mean to begin this post about my sweet grandmother to make others feel strange or odd. I just include it to suggest that I don’t think of graduate education and become an educator as a college / university as a means to “get above my raisin'” but rather to follow my own innate passion for learning and hopefully help students discover their own interest in learning. And I think mindful learning is an excellent way to go about it!