Reviewing the Views on Contracts

In preparation for ENG808 this week, I reread Jane Danielewicz and Peter Elbow, “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching,” Ira Shor, “Critical Pedagogy Is Too Big to Fail,” and Asao B. Inoue, “A Grade-Less Writing Course That Focuses on Labor and Assessing.” The conversation going on between these three really stood out to me: Danielewicz & Elbow’s conversation with Shor and Shor’s response to them is explicit and intentional within the two texts, while Inoue’s envisioning of an ideal First Year Writing course in many ways offers a synthesis of of the approaches laid out by the other two, while offering a more radical approach to assessment, one focused squarely on labor.

Re-reading these articles near the beginning of the semester prompts me to re-evaluate how I use grade contracts in my own classes. Reading them alongside students who are enrolled in a class where I am using a contract adds another interesting and constructive layer to the class and to our conversations about pedagogy. In two of the three courses I’m teaching with a contract, I’m using what Danielewicz and Elbow describe as a unilateral grade contract, and which Shor describes as a “weak” rather than a “strong” contract. In Shor’s response to Danielewicz and Elbow, he compares a weak or unilateral contract as more akin to an end-user agreement, a neoliberal instrument of control rather than of liberation. I try to allay my discomfort with this label by experimenting with a “strong” contract in my third class, populated by graduate students. It’s this class that I’m re-reading these articles alongside, and I’m inviting them to be involved in drafting a contract from scratch during the first few weeks of the semester. My students seem interested in the essays, but have so far expressed discomfort with the idea of co-designing the contract.

Re-reading Inoue, however, I’m more assured that my approach to my undergraduate sections, guided by a contract I designed prior to class and handed out on the first day, is not so oppressively neoliberal after all. For these students, although I’m setting the initial terms of the agreement, I’ve worked in space for renegotiation later in the semester. After my ENG102R students have had more time to work with their assignments—to have first-hand experience with the projects listed on the syllabus and the contract—they’ll have an opportunity to renegotiate. In ENG405, after we’ve read more about writing pedagogy and the students have written more, they’ll likewise have opportunities to renegotiate from a more informed perspective.

While Shor’s essay sets up a clearer dichotomy between “strong” and “weak” grade contracts, Inoue shows more nuance. Mores striking are differences in thoughts about grading. Danielewicz and Elbow’s approach is nearly identical to that laid out in Elbow’s earlier writing about contracts and grade-less writing—assuming a B as the baseline grade if meeting all requirements in the contract, but grading based upon a subjective sense of quality for students seeking to bump up to an A. In contrast, Shor advocates for grading on quality of writing for all levels, F through A; in his response to Danielewicz and Elbow he mischaracterizes their system as assuming that students enter their course already writing at a B level—they don’t, they assume that if students complete all the work laid on the contract, that by the end of the semester they will be writing at a B level. Shor’s insistence upon quality-based grading because he is working with students entering his classes with a wide range of writing preparation rings a little hollow to me, especially after reading Inoue’s argument for not grading based upon quality, especially when working with such a student population.  Inoue refocuses our attention on Labor as the key to assessment—by setting clear criteria for how much labor is expected for different grade tiers (C, B, A), Inoue makes for a more equitable approach to grading, one I find quite revolutionary and liberating—both for me and for my students. My students in previous contract-driven iterations of ENG102 and ENG405 have spoken highly of the approach in exit surveys. I’ll continue to survey my students again this year, to see what they think.


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