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.

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