(Re)Becoming the Gatekeeper (sort of)

(Re)Becoming the Gatekeeper (sort of)

Circling around the experience of that fishbowl discussion (see “Naming the Elephant”) was my feeling of both arrival and not-quite-there-yet.  Over the course of that hour-long fishbowl, my students stopped looking at me for validation and eventually forgot I was there.  Sounds like a strange thing to wish for in your own classroom, but it was exhilarating to watch, the back-and-forth of organic discussion with students pushing each other to expand on things they were really curious about.  I wanted to find a way to make that dynamic the rule rather than the exception.   But there was still the niggling problem of grades, the fact that, at the end of the day, despite all of this organic back-and-forth with one another, I was the one holding the trump card.

It didn’t feel very authentic.  

Enter guided self-assessment, the even bigger nail in the coffin of my relationship with my colleagues (see “Notes from Underground”).  “What are they assessing?” they wrote in their personnel report, exasperated, “their spiritual journeys?”

If that were indeed what I meant by guided self-assessment, I would be equally exasperated. Entirely not appropriate for a course intending to introduce students to the major religious traditions of the world and the study of religion.  So, no, I don’t ask students to assess their spiritual journeys, but what and how I ask them to assess has been an evolving process since I first ventured into this territory.   I chalk some of my colleagues’ confusion up to the fact that it has taken me a while to articulate what I do mean, why I feel it is so necessary to move in this direction to create a more dynamic class culture, and what the process entails.

Here’s how I introduce the process to my students, by means of a learning contract included on the syllabus:

I am a proponent of the power of intrinsic motivation over external rewards.  Meaning:  your reading and writing won’t count for much if you’re not passionately engaged in what you’re reading and writing about.  Grades have precious little to do with all that, and the judgment involved in my bestowing a grade upon you might in fact serve as counterproductive:  keeping you from taking the risks in your writing you need to take to become a stronger writer and from pursuing the questions and topics that you find most intriguing and meaningful.  At the same time, as with any class, there is a body of material—content—that you need to come away with. My role, as I see it, is to nurture your curiosity, provide us with food for thought, help you to shape your ideas into a form that you find relevant and challenging, and be an honest judge of the quality of your work and the level of your mastery of the material.  In this light, grades will be determined through a guided self-assessment approach.  I will provide you with feedback on your work and a rubric to help you think through how to attach a grade to your performance. At the end of the semester, you will write a rationale for the grade you believe you have earned, using this feedback and rubric as a guide.  I reserve the right to modify this grade if the grade you assign yourself differs markedly from my perception of your performance in the class.

I place the guidelines for self-assessment (see “Adventures in student-generated learning”) on Moodle on the first day of class, so that students know from the beginning what will be expected of them.  Intentionality and transparency are key:  I want students to know exactly what I’m thinking and the kind of learning culture I’m hoping to facilitate by putting the power in their hands.

Sort of. 

Because, as the bolded statement at the end of the paragraph makes clear, I’m still the one that determines the grade.  I’d like to say that this move is just a concession to having to work within an established system. That it’s easier to change the mechanism for grading than to throw grades out entirely or to reject the cultural expectation that I—as the professor—am the one who needs to assign them. But it might be more honest to say that I’m not really sure that I think grades, in and of themselves, are the enemy.  It’s the larger culture of assessment for assessment’s sake, and grades that represent compartmentalized, fractured learning, that I take issue with.  Despite what I say about the power of intrinsic motivation over external rewards, I don’t equate external rewards with external validation.  Perhaps it’s a squishy distinction to make, but, in my head, rewards are material and generic, the currency of capitalism: status, credentials, money, things.  Validation is non-material, differentiated.  Intrinsic motivation is most powerfully nurtured, I believe, through external validation that speaks directly to the specific ways that that motivation takes shape.  In other words:  if I take care and time and work hard to put something out into the world that I feel is meaningful, I crave external validation that it is in fact meaningful.  To me, the grade that comes at the end of this rather rigorous process of guided self-assessment is, more than anything, a concrete demonstration of being heard, seen, acknowledged and valued as human being.

I have struggled, though, with whether or not this guided self-assessment model is, more than a concession, a bait-and-switch. At least, in terms of that last bolded sentence of the learning contract, which could potentially be read as the undoing of everything that comes before it. And the bold type, clear code for my stern voice, the voice that lets my students know I’m no pushover.  It’s a kind of power move, a re-establishing of my ultimate authority. Admittedly, I added the bolded line the second time I used guided self-assessment in my classes, just after the explosion with my colleagues, as a means of addressing their concerns about grade inflation (the first set of guidelines was much sparser than the set I provide in the Resources section).  I haven’t crunched the numbers, but, anecdotally, I can say that grade inflation really hasn’t been an issue, even in the first iteration.  The majority of my students actually grade themselves more harshly than I would grade them, and, so, if I’m changing grades it’s generally in the direction of making them higher. So, I could chalk up the boldface finger-wagging to just giving my colleagues the assurance they needed that there is a system of checks and balances in the mix.

But, it’s more than that.  My thinking evolved (continues to evolve) as I reflected on why self-assessment might have become such a bone of contention, and prompted me to add this paragraph to my introductory remarks provided on the second set of guidelines:

Self-assessment, as a general rule, is an exercise in self-awareness and accountability.  At the end of the day, though, it also has to be an issue of justice and equity.  In other words, it is unfair for someone who has not done the work and who lacks the willingness to be self-critical to receive the same grade as someone who has done the work and has taken the time to reflect on that work seriously.  Here’s where I come into the mix:  consider me your mirror on the wall/polygraph.  I am here to help you see the truth.  As I suggest on the syllabus, “my role, as I see it, is to nurture your curiosity, provide us with food for thought, help you to shape your ideas into a form that you find relevant and challenging, and be an honest judge of the quality of your work and the level of your mastery of the material. I therefore reserve the right to modify your grade if your assessment differs markedly from my perception of your performance in class.

It’s a power move, to be sure, that I name my role in relation to my students so directly, that I tell them that I will serve as their “mirror on the wall/polygraph.”  It is certainly is a reassertion of my gatekeeper status and an explicit description of the kind of gatekeeper I will be. I credit my colleagues with reminding me that I am indeed a gatekeeper and with pushing me to redefine what that role means in the deliberate shaping of a classroom culture built on the values of authenticity, relevance, integrity, rigor, autonomy and collaboration.  The now-extensive guidelines for self-assessment reiterate these values, working deliberately to marry intrinsic motivation to external validation.

My guiding assumption in all of this:  Culture does not happen on its own.  It has to be intentionally nurtured and transparently conveyed.

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