Ungrading and Anti-Carcerality?

Every now and then, the confluence of events happening in my life seem to be working very hard to tell me I’m missing something. On Friday, I finished re-reading the chapter/articles for my graduate Theories of Criminal Behavior class for Monday, which will cover critical theories such as peacemaking, restorative justice, and abolition. Coming up this Thursday, I will be participating in a webinar on the Future of Criminal Justice Education (open to the public! everyone should attend, but you need to register first). I am also slowly figuring out the readings for my fall graduate class titled Transformative Justice. And then, yesterday, fellow ungrader Vineeta Singh posted an article she wrote on the link between grading and carceral logics that focus on sorting and punishment. Between these readings and prepping for the webinar, my mind is now swirling around the idea of ungrading as an anti-carceral practice.

There are many of us in academia who embrace anti-carceral approaches to justice and harms, but I am now wondering how many of us emulate the same approaches in our pedagogy, particularly among those of us in criminology and criminal justice programs. Or rather, how many of us do so consciously. Much of my own pedagogy is unconsciously linked to working towards a more just world, even if I don’t always get it right. Focusing on critically analyzing the criminal justice system. Writing assignments that propose policy alternatives. Assigning podcasts and documentary that center those impacted by the system. All of these and more are done with the goal of helping students critically interrogate how justice is achieved (or not) and the (often harmful) impacts of seeking justice in the ways that we do. And yet, I’m realizing that by not interrogating academic traditions and policies, I am upholding and perpetuating some of the very notions of “justice” I ask them to question.

That’s not to say I have not made any moves. One of my biggest moves is that for years I have had an active “no textbooks” policy. I only use academic articles or books, try very, very hard to keep the cost of required books as low as possible, and either get e-books through the library for the class or put copies on reserve. And I am very particular that, if I am asking students to buy a book, I only use ones that I strongly believe are worth the cost and will stay with them long after my class. And if not, well, then at least it’s a book I’m fairly certain will get used in other classes so they’ll hopefully get a decent price when they sell it. (I also don’t make my students buy my own book just because it’s my book. Even if I do think everyone should read it.)

But for years, I bought into grading and grading systems. I bought into the idea that grading was a sign of effort, of knowledge, and of skill. I bought into the idea that grades were a sign of rigor. And, perhaps most devastatingly, I bought into the idea that grades were feedback.

The longer I stayed in academia, however, the less I cared about grades. I stopped caring that my in-class averages were about a B, because I knew my students were engaging with the material. I started building in “cushion” assignments—such as my syllabus scavenger hunt—that helped students stay engaged with the class AND gave them “easy” points to buffer them if they have a bad week or bad day and didn’t do as well on a different assignment as they wanted or could. I try very hard to work with students who have an emergency or get sick or are just generally overwhelmed. I started assessing some assignments for completion and not correctness.

No matter what I did, though, it still didn’t feel like enough. I still got frustrated grading assignments when I knew a student could do better. I couldn’t understand why, in a scaffolded assignment, students’ didn’t see that not doing so well on a draft simply meant that was part of the writing process. Or why they would spend hours copy/pasting from websites when spending the same amount of time doing their own writing would have actually produced something far more interesting. (And, admittedly, helping students avoid plagiarism has been one area where I have been endlessly stuck.) Thanks to the carceral logics embedded in academia, and thus embedded in much of how we are thought to think about pedagogy, assessments, and expectations, I didn’t put 2+2 together. Because I had bought into the logic, I didn’t realize that my desire to help students see failure or mistakes are part of the process of developing a skill and learning was directly undermined by the vary nature of grading. In the end, I didn’t make the connection that even though I was aiming for justice, in practice, I was focused on punishment. And that harmed both my students ability to learn and grow and find their awesomeness and my ability to help them do all of those things.

Which is why I’m now wondering if ungrading is an option for moving away from these carceral logics within academia. To be honest, that’s not why I started ungrading. As I’ve discussed in a prior post, I started ungrading because I knew their had to be a better way. The more I looked into it, the better I started to understand why my goals and my praxis weren’t always compatible. And with the various readings from this now running around in my head, I am now also considering how this could be a conscious move away from punishment. As many ungrading scholars have pointed out, moving away from points helps students take risks without worrying about their GPAs. It helps students see failure not as a reflection on themselves, but a step towards learning something new or achieving a goal. Indeed, ungrading can help us achieve something in our classes that we often criticize society at large and the cj system specifically for not doing: providing space for folks to stumble or even fall.

But, as Singh points out, perhaps there is also something deeper at work—something that can only be achieved with a conscious use of ungrading. As Singh says, “Perhaps, then, studying grading, as well as crafting alternatives to traditional evaluation, can be a way for students to not only analyze existing power structures but to actively design and practice alternative relations.” Analyzing power structures, designing and practicing alternatives, and building relations are inherent goals of ungrading. They are also, not surprisingly, also goals of transformative justice and abolition movements. In other words, ungrading, if used consciously, can be one of many ways we as academics can embrace anti-carceral logics in our pedagogy, particularly as ungrading centers collaborative/collective efforts in a way that is also in line with these movements.

Thinking of ungrading as an anti-carceral move is still an idea I am playing with and mulling over. But thinking of ungrading in this way is also motivation for me to work towards fulling ungrading my classes as soon as possible. It is also a reminder that engaging collaborative practices requires constantly evaluating and re-evaluating my own pedagogy to ensure I am not doing more harm than good. By more consciously embracing ungrading, I hope to also utilize anti-carceral praxis in more aspects of my work. By building in ways for students to critique these practices and develop alternatives, I hope to engage in deeper conversations about how these same practices might apply to the criminal justice system. And by talking about ungrading as an anti-carceral move, I hope to encourage other academics to engage with this type of pedagogy as well. Maybe together we can slowly chip away at the carceral logics within academia and bring us one step closer to the vision of justice we hope for.

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