Category Archives: Uncategorized

Initial thoughts on contract grading

This semester I’ve experimented with a form of contract grading. I’ve used contract grading in summer semesters before—in short, six-week courses—and it’s worked out pretty well. I find that a great advantage of contract grading is that it values proficiency and practice. The major disadvantage, in my eyes at least, is that it de-emphasizes merit and minimizes the amount of feedback I can give on any single assignment.

Because the emphasis is on students getting a lot of practice writing, the classes have a lot of assignments. For example, my two sections of 3880 have 41 potential assignments in one class and 40 in the other (students negotiated their grading contracts a little differently). Let’s just call it 40 … that’s 40 assignments across 50 students, which means the possibility of 2000 assignments to track in a semester—and this doesn’t count assignments that students don’t pass initially and then subsequently revise. (No wonder I’m tired.) All told, out of the 40 assignments I mentioned above, 25 to 30 (case assignments, peer review, and some in-class assignments) are what I would classify as “writing assignments” and the remainder are something less intensive in terms of assessment (for example, visiting the University Writing Center or submitting to the University Writing Portfolio—although these assignments do still generate writing that I must assess in some way before counting an assignment for credit). Most students will not do all 40 assignments, but this is still an enormous amount of work to track.

I have had a hard time with assessment in this model. Because of the volume of assignments, I have to quickly assess a piece of writing to determine if it passes or fails, offer a little feedback, and move on. This is immensely difficult for me; it’s not how I was trained to give feedback, and it feels like I’m not doing enough. I’ve had many, many (constant?) moments where I have to remind myself to fully commit to the practice/process model rather than trying to give feedback as I usually would. I average 1 or 2 sentences of feedback per assignment in these classes, instead of the page or so I would offer in a differently structured course. I worry that the large amount of practice students get is not a sufficient trade-off for the lack of in-depth feedback from me. I’ve tried to value peer review highly both because I think students learn a lot from it when it’s set up well and also because it garners more detailed feedback for students without my having to give all that feedback. But, peer feedback is still not the same as instructor feedback. Plus, in order to ensure that peer review in the class does flourish, I assess it—which means that peer review is part of the assessment burden.

The students generally seem to like contract grading—unlike in this useful account by Lisa Litterio, I haven’t had a single complaint, though I am eager to see the end-of-semester evaluations. It seems as though the students who would have excelled anyway still excel; the students who would have struggled still find themselves challenged but feel more in control of their final grade. I really like the latter effect; this empowers students to approach learning in ways that work for them. But honestly, I’m on the fence about whether that control students feel combined with the large amount of practice is sufficient reason to trade a more merit- and instructor-feedback-based approach. I believe that lots of practice in writing is beneficial, in the same way that lots of practice in reading is beneficial. Students in this class are practicing with a variety of genres, and they are genres that they will encounter after their time at college. I’m just still struggling to figure out if this is a context in which the benefit of large amounts of practice writing is the best approach, or if more detailed instructor feedback on fewer assignments would be better. Hopefully, I’ll gain a better sense of this as the semester comes to a close.

Litterio, Lisa M. (2016). Contract Grading in a Technical Writing Classroom: A Case Study. Journal of Writing Assessment.

Workplace fashion

Wow, this article provides a lot to think about. But the passage that really interested me was this one:

“Two years ago, the British government rejected calls to outlaw mandatory high-heel policy. Japan, where a heel policy is commonplace, is the latest battleground, with a vocal #KuToo campaign – a pun on kutsu, meaning shoe, kutsuu, meaning pain, and #MeToo.”

I had never heard of a workplace where heels were formally required. As someone with a blood clot that has taken up permanent residence in one leg, wearing heels for 8 hours would be a real problem–by which I mean both a pain and a health hazard–for me. I’m left wondering the same thing as with North Carolina’s bathroom law from a couple years ago: Why on earth do governments and companies feel the need to legislate people differently depending upon what’s in their pants? So strange.


Fed Up

I’ve been reading Fed up: Emotional Labor, Women, and The Way Forward with some friends lately, and even though I’ve thought a lot about emotional labor, I’m still finding a lot to think about. First, what Hartley terms “emotional labor” I think of more as “mental load”–that is, the cost of being the keeper of the lists. Part of the mental load is emotional labor, but it seems more expansive to me than just emotional stuff. Some of the work I do because it defaults to me as a woman has little to do with emotion work, except in the sense that everyone is happier when things run smoothly. I haven’t finished the book yet and so I’m hoping Hartley has some better answers for me, but I’ve been really interested in her interviews with people who have chosen to “drop balls” on purpose–that is, they decide not to do everything and let the chips fall where they may. Maybe my house is dirty but my book is done (I can dream!), and I can live with that. Maybe the dogs eat the cheap, less healthy kibble because that’s what my husband picked up at the grocery (they like the cheap stuff better anyway). Maybe we go out for dinner even when we feel like we can’t afford it because you can’t place a monetary value on sanity. I’m still trying to figure out which balls might be okay to drop because, true to form, I’d like to drop them thoughtfully … but the idea certainly has some appeal!

Another part of the book that I think is worth mentioning: Hartley addresses relationship dynamics in same-sex couples, and she also profiles a stay-at-home-husband who says emotional labor/mental load is not a gender issue. I’m really glad she takes these issues up. I maintain that this IS a gender issue because women are predominantly expected to do this labor and because men are rewarded/praised for it when they do it, even if they are the stay-at-home partner … but the more important point is to get this kind of labor recognized and valued.

Holy Love, Holy Rage

Holy Love, Holy Rage

Welcoming the new semester

The new semester started this week, and I’m taking a new approach to research time. I’ve committed to a twice-weekly writing group (in hopes that I can always make at least one of the meetings), and I’ve blocked 2.5 days for research. I’ve also instituted a rule that I won’t work in the evenings after I go home. I’m taking to heart Get a Life PhD‘s philosophy that an overworked brain is not as productive. So, Tuesday afternoons and all day Thursdays and Fridays are for research.

The other thing that 2.5 research days does for me is it allows me a little wiggle room to be accommodating. I’m supposed (based on my contract where research is 40% of my job) to be spending 2 days per week on research, and my problem in the past has been that meetings and other peoples’ needs encroach on my scholarship time. This allows me to say yes to some of these things–half a days’ worth–each week that encroach on the time I’ve set aside. That, in turn, makes me feel empowered to say no to any meetings beyond that flex time.

I’ve also learned that I really need to be out of the house to be my most productive. Being in the office can be okay depending on the time and who’s around and wants to talk, so I may alternate work sites between the office, library, coffee shops, etc.

I have a lot to get done in the coming semester, and it’s going to happen, darnit! 🙂

Madam Secretary

As I take a break from all that hard writing, my latest pop-culture obsession is Madam Secretary. Sadly, the show’s already canceled, but it’s had a good run and I’m sure it will go out with a bang. What I love about it is that Tia Leoni plays a Secretary of State who is a woman in a world designed for men, and her gender often drives the persuasive tactics she uses, but it doesn’t define her as a human. Also big props to the show for modeling a strong (heterosexual) marriage that doesn’t suffer for its female member’s star power. And the writing! This is just a good show.

Finishing my National Humanities Center residency

photo of the words National Humanities Center on white-pained bricksToday is the last day of my National Humanities Center residency. This place is fantastic, and I highly encourage applying for their semester- and year-long residencies. I attended a program about those and I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned and/or what my experience here has been like. In short, though: This is a peaceful place to work. It has incredible library resources. They feed you and the food is good. The camaraderie is great. And the daily practice here is flexibility—my time was my own, and I was able to adjust to whatever worked for me on any given day.

The biggest thing I’ve learned about myself during this month is that I need to do a better job of compartmentalizing. I came here with scattered notes and I’m leaving with almost 50,000+ words of something that resembles a rough draft book manuscript. I also finished an article revision and wrote a conference presentation, and I taught an online class for the last week. For me, that’s a phenomenally productive month. If I’m going to finish this book, though, I know that I have to find ways to save mental energy for writing. For me, it’s less about time than about focus. I have to figure out how to let go of worrying about students, what needs restocking in the fridge, who’s taking care of the pets, etc. for long enough to get some writing accomplished. Updates on strategies for that to come.