What is “Labour-Based Grading”?

(This is an explanation of Labour-Based Grading that I provided to a first-year anthropology class I taught in 2020.)

Labour-based grading is not what you are used to, so please read the following very carefully so that you understand how this assignment will work. 

This course is entitled “Social and Cultural Diversity.” We will be learning about the incredible diversity of ways that people around the world live their lives. We will see the different ways that people use symbols to interpret the world around them, or how things like family and gender take different forms depending on when and where you look for them. And, we will be learning about many methods and concepts that will help us interpret what these differences mean, the ways that societies and cultures can be organized, and the vast diversity of lifestyles and worldviews that human beings hold around the world.

One of the key ideas that we will be learning about is ethnocentrism. Briefly, ethnocentrism is a standpoint in which a person takes their own ideas about the world as the standard against which the lives of other people are interpreted and measured. For instance, I am used to thinking that wearing your shoes inside the house is inappropriate. I take my shoes off at the door and get annoyed if I see my kids stomping into the house with their shoes. However, when I lived in the US, many people around me wore their shoes inside their homes. If I told people off for wearing their shoes inside their own homes, then I would be acting ethnocentrically. 

In some ways, all of us are ethnocentric: it is nearly impossible to understand the world without drawing on your own background and experiences. Anthropologists, however, must learn to become aware of our own ethnocentrism and work around it if we want to be able to understand how people in other societies live their lives.  We need to be able to see, to the greatest extent that we can, how “they” experience and interpret the world. We need to try and see what “their” standards for seeing the world are. This is a stance we call cultural relativism—each society or culture needs to be understood according to its own terms. If we fail to do this, then other peoples’ lives will only ever seem ‘strange’ or ‘irrational’ or ‘backward’ to us. 

If individual people are sometimes ethnocentric, then the same is true of large institutions, including governments, companies, and universities. The university, for example, has been built over time into a place that prides itself on having “high standards” and educating people to meet those standards. These standards have developed over decades if not centuries, and they reflect the values of the people who established the universities. These standards shape many things, including who is accepted to university, what they are taught, and who is selected to teach them. 

In many universities around the world, including Vic, these standards have begun to change. For instance, in the past, most of the people who studied and worked at universities came from similar ethnic, racial, and class backgrounds. There were also more men than women. Today, we in the university community have much more diverse backgrounds. We bring new and different experiences and ideas to the university, making it a more interesting and stimulating place to be. 

However, there are some parts of the university that have not changed very much. One of the most mundane, but powerful is the system of grading.

In classes like this one, grades are meant to be an indicator of a number of things. For example, students who receive high grades are meant to: 

  1. Have a functional understanding of key concepts in anthropology. 
  2. Have a knowledge of a range of ethnographic material illustrating social and cultural diversity. 
  3. Have the ability to draw connections between ethnography and theoretical concepts and among ethnographic cases. 
  4. Have skills in critical reading, bibliographic research and citation, and the clear presentation of ideas, in oral and written form. 

The above four points are the “Course learning objectives” for ANTH102. Other courses in the humanities and social sciences will have similar ones. 

Assignments, courses, and the university as a whole are set up so that people who achieve As in courses are deemed to have achieved “excellence” in all of these areas, while people who receive Cs or Ds have not.

One of the main ways that students are assessed is through written essays. The assumption is that students who write clear, organized, and well-structured essays have achieved all four of the course learning objectives above. In other words, we assume that “writing quality” directly reflects the quality of a person’s effort and understanding. This is, on the surface, a very reasonable assumption. It is reasonable to assume, for example, that a person must have a good understanding of anthropological concepts and the ability to “draw connections between ethnography and theoretical concepts and among ethnographic cases” in order to be able to write a clear and persuasive essay. 

But in practice, this assumption does not always hold up. A student’s ability to write an academic paper does not alwaysmean that they have understood what the course is teaching to a sufficient degree. In fact, we probably all recognize a little bit, that successfully passing a writing assignment in university is often made much easier if you’re skilled at producing, for lack of a better term, bullshit. 

In fact, we could say that courses like this one are often set up to push students to produce bullshit. According to one definition, something is bullshit when the person who said or wrote it doesn’t know (or doesn’t care) whether what they are saying or writing is correct or not; they only care to convince you that they are saying it or writing it sincerely. 

According to philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in a book entitled On Bullshit (2005), there are certain conditions that make people more likely to produce bullshit: 

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what [they] are talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. (63) 

One of the things that distinguishes a good bullshitter from a bad one is how well they know how something should look and sound. A person who knows what a good academic paper should look like is much better able to write a sincere-sounding paper than a person who has never read or written an academic paper until this year. While lecturers and tutors believe themselves to be skilled at detecting bullshit, the reality is that we often unconsciously let ourselves believe that somebody who has written a nice-sounding essay knows what they are talking about. 

Conversely, a student who may have an extremely strong understanding of anthropological ideas and has been 100% sincere in their efforts to learn and write in a course may not yet have gained the skills to communicate them in academic writing. When this happens, our unconscious biases can work against the student: we sometimes end up penalizing students who don’t write well, because we assume that they don’t understand what they are writing about. 

So, what does this have to do with ethnocentrism? When lecturers and tutors make these unconscious judgements about the quality of a paper, we are doing so by relying on our own standards of what “appropriate writing” are. These standards are based on, to put things bluntly, White middle and upper class values, just as much of the university is. By “White” here, I don’t mean that only White people hold these standards. I mean that if you are White in a society like New Zealand (or in much of the “Western” world), these standards are more likely to feel “obvious” or “natural” or “familiar.” These standards may have been the ones that the majority of people who came to university fifty years ago had before starting their first year. This is not the case now. 

This means that even before anyone has set foot in a university classroom, some students, because of their backgrounds, will have an easier time getting an A, regardless of whether or not they understand any of the material presented. Other students will struggle to get an A even if they have an excellent, critical understanding of what the courses are trying to teach. The difference between these two groups is not that one group of students is “good” or “smart” and the other “bad” or “stupid.” The difference is that the first group has to deal with a much smaller gap between what they are used to doing and what the university expects, while for the other group there is a bigger gap, especially when it comes to written communication.

Conventional academic standards are still important. Inside university and especially in the “working world” beyond university, there are going to be many situations where being able to write clearly and “correctly” in the ways that some people expect will be an important part of achieving success. 

But in a first-year course like this one, we are all still learning. And it strikes me as incredibly unfair to limit any student’s chances for a good grade based on a mismatch between the ‘traditional values’ of the university and the values they carry from their backgrounds, especially if different students are putting in the same amount of labour into their writing. Shouldn’t students who put in a similar amount of work be eligible to receive similar grades?

This is the idea behind “labour-based grading.” Labour-based grading systems have been developed by scholars and teachers of English writing. These scholars want to help students how to write well, but they also have observed that grading them only on the basis of the writing quality of the final product puts students from non-White, non-middle-class backgrounds at a significant disadvantage. The effect is that some students do not have an equal opportunity to achieve grades across the entire range, up to A+. 

Instead, they propose using the amount of labour that each student spends on their writing to determine their final grades. In short, if you spend the required amount of labour on your writing, you will receive a standard grade on the assignment regardless of the “quality” of the final product.

For these scholars, the quality of the writing their students produce still matters. They spend a great deal of time giving feedback on students’ drafts, because spending time and energy on writing is what makes writing better.

For the Article Review Assignment, we will be using a labour-based grading system. 

At this point, you may have questions. 

One might be, what is labour and how could you even measure it? 

Think of “labour” as what a person does in order to produce something of value. We can all probably agree that the more time you spend practicing something, the better you get at it. For the purposes of this course, labour is measured in time used performing a task or word count of the product of a task. These are imperfect ways of measuring labour, but they are better than the alternative, as I’ll discuss now. 

If labour is what a person does in order to produce something of value, we still need to know what “value” is. What is “value”? For the purposes of this assignment, we need to see that there are two kinds of value produced by the labour you perform. We’ll call them (1) “value to you (the student)” and (2) “value to me (the lecturer, or the university)”. 

“Value to you” is the value that acquiring new knowledge, gaining new skills, and building new relationships has to you as an individual. “Value to you” is very difficult to measure as a number or a letter grade, because different things are important to different people, so the value of a piece of knowledge or a skill will vary from person to person, depending on who they are and what they want out of life. However, as we saw above, we can probably agree that the more time you work on something, the more “value to you” is likely to increase. “Value to you” is embodied in you as a person, your skills and your experiences.

“Value to me” is how I, as the lecturer and as a representative of the university, value your work. This is the kind of value that grades are supposed to measure in ordinary grading systems. Your (the student’s) labour produces an essay or test answers, and I assign them a value based on standards that I and the university have for measuring its value. Ordinarily, “value to me” is based on a judgement of the end product in comparison with some academic “standard.”

(In Week 11, we’ll be discussing the ideas of Karl Marx. “Value to you” is similar to what he called “use value” of a commodity, and “value to me” is similar to what he called a commodity’s “exchange value.”)

When your labour produces something of “value to you,” then you have learned something or gained something from the course. Ideally, the “value to me” faithfully reflects the “value to you”: the value you gain from your labour should be recognized by an appropriate grade from me.

But in reality, the “value to me” (the lecturer and the university) is out-of-sync with students’ individual “values to you.” This is because the traditional “standards” of the university can be very different than the “standards” that students have for themselves. This is a version of the problem of the ethnocentrism of the university I mentioned above.  

You, as a student, see that these standards are out-of-sync, and will react in a very understandable and rational way: you will try to minimize the labour you perform while maximizing the “value to me” (the grade, based on traditional standards) you get from that labour. In addition, you will tend to avoid labour that contributes to “value to you” if it takes away from labour that creates “value to me.” 

In short, traditional grading systems can create incentives for students to work against their own educational growth. 

Labour-based grading tries to address this problem by making grades only depend on the amount of labour that you put into the course (as measured by time used and words written), in order to more closely make “value to you” match “value to me.”  

One thing is extremely important to point out: we, the tutors and lecturer, still care about the quality of your work. We will be working to get you individual feedback on your writing, more than in similar courses and at times when it is more useful to you. But labour-based grading is designed on the principle that better quality comes from more labour. This is why your grades in this assignment will reward the amount of labour you put in.  

The basis of this system is “The Grading Contract,” which defines exactly what tasks must be completed and how much time you must spend on each task.

If you clear all of these tasks on time, you will receive a B on this assignment.

The grading contract also specifies the tasks you can complete to receive a higher grade, and the penalties for missing any of the tasks.

Extreme Anthropology

During my exploration of anthropology in the Directory of Open Access Journals, I came across the Journal of Extreme Anthropology. Just the title entices, but the contents are quite interesting as well.

The journal is run by the Extreme Anthropology Research Network, a group centered in Scandinavia, but with members from all over, that explores the “notion of the ‘extreme’ within contemporary cultural, political and economic environments.”

Its recent special issue on “Security and Morality: Critical Anthropological Perspectives” consists of 11 interesting articles, but one, “Why do we need your research?: The Ethics of Studying Security and the Deilemmas of the Anthropologist-Expert” by Tessa Diphoorn and Erella Grassiani, caught my eye. The authors discuss the double-binds that they face as anthropologists doing research on Israeli and South African policing and private security.

The article focuses on the ethical and methodological challenges of studying “security”—something that is taken for granted as a public good. After all, as the authors point out, who would want to argue for the value of “insecurity”? Diphoorn and Grassiani talk about the misunderstanding they face from funders and other researchers about the nature of their work, the expectations that their informants have of them and which are problematic to meet, and the methodological choices they have to make in order to gain access to situations where some level of suspicion is the norm.

In the process, they ask anthropologists to complicate how we think about “engaged” and “public” anthropology. Diphoorn and Grassiani show that anthropologists face an array of difficult methodological and ethical judgements in dealing with those who are often seen as perpetrating violence for the benefit of the “public.”

Interesting papers from the DOAJ

The Directory of Open Access Journals makes it fairly easy to find articles on many subjects published in smaller journals around the world. My guess is that many of these papers go quite overlooked in North America-centric anthropology, and so I spent a little time digging through articles that had been published this past year in anthropology to see if anything caught my interest. A few did. I’m going to post short blurbs on each of them; they might catch your interest too.

The Ritual Aspects of Ukrainian Beekeeping.” in EtnoAntropologia, a journal of the Società Italiana de Antropologia Culturale. Written by Uliana Movna of the Ethnology Institute of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

Why I clicked: Bees. I had no idea that bees, their honey, and wax had such cultural importance in the Ukraine.

Excerpt: “As universal ritual symbols, the main products of the life of bees are honey and wax, which, over a long historical period, have “grown into” calendar and family rituals of Ukrainians. During the research, it was revealed the main ritual purpose of honey as a mediator between the bee and man, with other world and souls of the ancestors, the conductor and the amplifier of the processes of transition at the moment of passing by the human the corresponding stages of age and social hierarchy.”

Labor-based Grading

Sandie Friedman at Inside Higher-Ed on Asao Inoue’s “Labor-Based Grading System”:

Any rubric that evaluates students’ language according to a single standard — which is invariably a white, middle-class standard — is reinforcing racism, [Inoue] argues. Rather than evaluating students’ work according to a quality-based rubric, Inoue advocates grading students on the labor they complete. By “labor,” he means all the work that goes into writing: reading, drafting, giving and receiving feedback, revising, polishing.

Students receive a grade only at the end of the course, based on the labor they have completed.

To me, this feels like the kind of thing that will address structural inequalities in university teaching, which often falls into the “add minority content to curriculum” mindset.

The Design Squiggle as a Way of Thinking about Anthropological Research

The Process of Design Squiggle by Damien Newman, thedesignsquiggle.com

It seems to be well known among designers, but I only recently learned about the “Design Squiggle” a few days ago.

The Squiggle is a visual tool that helps you keep track of where you are in the design process. The big mess on the left is where most projects start: uncertainty with a bit of chaos. The smooth line on the right is where you eventually want to get to: clarity and focus.

Comparisons between cultural anthropology and design are not new. And yet it does not seem very widespread for anthropologists, and perhaps most other social scientists, to engage much with what designers do and think about to inform how they approach cultural research. Our models tend to be literary, philosophical, or scientific.

To me, this squiggle is a very good representation of what the research process in anthropology looks like. You are dropped in the middle of something interesting but difficult to process. Too much information. You try to pay attention to everything, make sense of the littlest occurrence, and tire yourself out in the process. As time goes on, you find a direction to go, but then find your eye pulled towards something new. Eventually, you learn how to separate figures from ground, and things start to make sense.

The Process of Design Squiggle by Damien Newman, thedesignsquiggle.com

This is a feeling that any teacher of anthropology has tried to convey to a student. But it’s not something that’s easy to grasp when you’re in the middle of first fieldwork, and this can be a source of more than a little anxiety. Maybe, I think, this Squiggle does better in conveying the feeling more than saying “This is what it’s like for everyone.”

The one thing I would add that would make the Squiggle feel truer to anthropological life is for squiggles to link to further squiggles in a nearly endless chain. The dissertation proposal is its own squiggle. Fieldwork is a bundle of squiggles. Writing is a squiggle for each paragraph, as is each chapter, each presentation, each article… Squiggles all the way down and at every step forward. I think the reason that all of the grad students and faculty members that I’ve come to know have tenacity as one of their defining traits is that tenacity is what it takes to work through endless fractal patterns of squiggles. Anthropologists should probably be called squiggleographers.

A fractal pattern of squiggles. One more thing: Since first encountering the work of Minakata Kumagusu during my fieldwork in Japan, I’ve been taken by a sketch of his that is known as the “Minakata Mandala.”

From http://acidrainproduction.com/slime-intelligence/

As I understand it, this is something that Evans-Pritchard would have called a diagram of witchcraft if he’d found it among the Azande. There are physical laws that can predict that an event will take place. But there is another order, beyond those laws, that explains why this event took place here, now, to these people. This is what Minakata’s sketch tries to render visual. He may have been a squiggleographer avant la lettre.