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.

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

  1. Having been a TA and collaborated with faculty on the grading of students, I have seen what a democratic approach to grading *could* look like. It’s definitely something worth trying, primarily because it allows students the change to defend their work and clear up any misunderstandings or idiosyncrasies that may have been lost in translation. Without that extra voice in the room, a lot of things can go unsaid between student and teacher and it’s a missed opportunity for growth on both sides. Granted, I’m in Visual Arts, so the opportunities for interpretation of student work present themselves much more often than in , say, Engineering or Chemistry. I’d be happy to hear the opinions of someone in a STEM field regarding this subject! What are the differences? Do you think that something like what I described is possible? If not, why?

  2. On a different note, are you familiar with the Happening movement that, er, *happened* from the 50’s to the 70’s? We’re discussing it in my Art History course and the faculty at Black Mountain College, John Cage in particular, were pretty integral to its teachings. It’s pretty wild stuff.

  3. Hey Savannah,
    I’m always interested in the conversation when people start talking about Black Mountain College. I only learned about the place when I read Lewis for this class, so these ideas are still pretty fresh for me. I can relate to some of what you wrote about being excited by these new methods of evaluation and assessment, but being overwhelmed (or not ready to let go of) the “traditional” methods of testing and grades. I’m glad you’re considering trying new things for your class. I hope it works for you, that’s a big part of what this class is about!

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