A RhetNet SnapShot


The Grade: power vortext in the classroom

Eric Crump
29 Dec 1995

Talk of power redistribution in the classroom has been popular for the past few years. But it is just talk if the teacher still retains the final evaluative say, which in the classsroom is the single most powerful tool. Grades are a vortex around which all classroom activity whirls, pulled inexorably toward. They create a vacuum around which power and classroom politics cling, mooshed to that empty center by centripetal force. And at the same time, learning flies centrifugally to the furthest edges of the classroom environment.

I know lots of teachers are working their tails off to mitigate the effects of the grade. Portfolio systems are becoming more popular in part because they compensate for part of the ill effects by putting a bit more evaluation responsibility on students (at least in those systems where students compile their own portfolios) and they disperse a bit the authority teachers have by bringing colleagues in on the evaluation process.

I think, though, that as long as the teacher retains the final say each effort to get past the grading barrier is going to be crippled to some extent.

As long as teachers reserve that right, contracts and any other attempts to reconfigure authority can be undercut and even be disingenuous. I think if we're going to share authority with students it's got to be authority and really shared. They have to have a real say in what grade they get or it's just a sham and it's worse than the good old honest straightforward teacher-as-sole-judge-and-jury system.

What this means is, we negotiate grades with students as colleagues. We give up our veto power. Damn thing is more of a burden than a boon anyways. I don't see this as abdication of responsibility or as an easy way out. On the contrary! Because the grading burden is so firmly placed on teachers, it takes considerable effort to move it and redistribute that authority. But it's worth the effort if you see our primary responsibility as teachers is to students, not to disciplines or institutions (which grant authority and insist we use it in prescribed ways). Of course, negotiating is never easier than laying down the law. Relying on rhetoric forces us to use our skills rather than our authority, but in the process, we may become better examples for our students to follow.

The best situation would be to enact something like real world evaluation, a system of peer and community assessment of work. Not easy to implement, of course, since students have been trained to believe that they have no right to make evaluative judgments about each others' work. They've been taught that they have to acquire credentials before they can judge. You can tell them their knowledge is valid, that it lends authority to their judgment in its measure, but it's not easy to convince them.


This text includes notes posted at different times to WCENTER@ttu.edu and MBU-L@ttu.edu.

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