Decolonizing the classroom: end of term edition (Pt 1)

(Or: What if they all get As?)


Back in January, I wrote about my particular winter term in-class challenge: to begin the process of transforming my History of Performance Theory undergraduate class into something less knee-jerk colonial, and more respectful and supportive of students’ diverse needs. As I noted then, this process necessarily had to be a process; despite my best intentions, the in-the-way-getting of life had meant I’d not spent anywhere near enough time in the fall term planning course renovations. Thus, we’d make a beginning, and see how it goes.

It’s now April, finally the trees are budding, and all over campus the billboards are telling me it’s end of term.


And me? I’m already missing my performance theory students – what an incredible, talented, thoughtful bunch. And I’m questioning whether or not we’d have had half as much fun, or learned half as much about the politics of theatrical representation, if I’d managed to spend all fall term fussing over the syllabus.

These 15 humans didn’t just make the term fun, compelling, surprising, a learning experience for one another and for me; they also all earned As. Yup, that’s right.

They. All. Got. As.

I realized this last Tuesday, when I hit the “course grade” button in our online learning system, and saw that the lowest mark in the class was 82%. The highest mark was 97%.

I had a brief minute of panic. I imagined my Undergraduate Chair rolling his eyes at the average. I heard my Dean’s voice reminding faculty to “always use the whole range” of marks available to us in the 0-100% system.

And then I thought about the work that the students and I had accomplished together, and about their powerful feedback on the experience of the class (one of the subjects of my next post – watch this space).

And I thought,

Why, exactly, shouldn’t they all get As?

I have a number of thoughts about this. I’ll get to them in a minute. But first, let’s back up a few weeks.

Back in my January post, I listed four things that I had decided I wanted the class to do as I/we attempted to craft a decolonized version of the “History of Performance Theory”:

  1. Empower the students;
  2. Not hierarchize the readings (White/Other);
  3. Not follow a normative temporal chronology;
  4. Be above all about learning to read theory, and to use it in fun and relevant ways.

I then wrote about three ways I’d developed for us to attempt to do these things. The class selected readings together, including a significant number from our fairly standard textbook, and opted for a pretty diverse range of voices; we worked through three central research questions, framed around the primary who or what is allowed to be represented, and why?; and I expanded my “Explain/Apply/Extend” framework from previous years to organize each week’s lessons and to prioritize, in the “apply” portion of weekly events, student responses to the theory, and in particular creative responses.

I’m very pleased to report that the momentum of the early weeks, which fuelled my optimism in that January post, held strongly throughout the term – even in those weeks when midterms were nigh and assignments were due and I had the stomach flu.

In fact, possibly my favourite class of the term coincided with the latter, though I admit it’s possible I was hallucinating slightly from dehydration at that point. We were set to talk about Brandi Wilkins Catanese’s introduction to her phenomenal The Problem of the Color(blind), a book about race and representation in the mythical land that styles itself as “post-race America”. Lots of students hadn’t read the full chapter, because March/assignments/fatigue/long and challenging stuff. So we read chunks together and peer-taught key ideas to each other, using the tools our fabulous new active-learning classroom put at our disposal. (More about the role that space played in the term, for me and the students, in my next post as well.)

By the end of that class, as we looked through some of the videos students had linked to online in response to the weekly, low-stakes “apply” task, we shared comments about race, history, and representation with a nuance I very rarely hear from undergraduates.

(Two of the “applies” students posted in response to Catanese’s work. Note that the first is a satire remarking on Barack Obama’s handling of the trope of black rage, while the second is a montage of historical images of blackface from the end of Spike Lee’s incredible 2000 film Bamboozled. The latter needs some context for naive viewers, although as an example of Brechtian montage it is unparalleled.)

That week on Catanese is representative of our term together for a number of reasons.

It was late March; it was a cold day; students were buried in assignments; many of them hadn’t done the reading, or done that much of it.

Yet fully half of them had read enough of the chapter to be able to apply at least one issue raised by it to a strong example online.

And all of them – every single one of them – showed up to class.



By that point, we’d become a committed class community, and the students (who were already working toward their final group performances at this point) felt strong obligations to one another. Many students also reported in their final participation reflections that finding ways to make *some* time for the readings ahead of class had become a priority for them, because the weekly apply tasks held them to account, and dangled the important carrot of “free” marks. (More on this in a moment.)

Further, once a student had an “apply” up on the website, they clearly felt a certain ownership over the reading and/or a commitment to the emerging discussion about it, making coming to class and participating in the discussion actively that much more important. In only one instance did a student miss class on a day when they had also written an apply post for that day’s reading.

Which brings me, finally, back to the problem of all the As.


The arse-kicking Siobhan McSweeney in Derry Girls. Another “bad teacher” who is by no means actually a bad teacher.

There are a number of reasons that this batch of students all received A-level grades. (And I should stress here that I have never had this happen before, in nearly 20 years of teaching. I always aim to use, if not the whole range of grades, then at least a good, broad range. I am an excellent subject of power.)

First of all, I’m a fairly generous marker. This is because I’m getting older, and see potential more than I see error. (I’m guessing here, but I think this is a common trajectory. My grad student assistants tend on average to mark harder than me, for example, and I know I marked hard as a TA. Over time you loosen up, and feel more empathy for the struggling ones. For another educated guess about this trajectory, click here.)

Secondly, this class featured a good range of assignments that tried as much as possible to set students up for success. For example, “Explain,” “Apply,” and “Extend” were each their own essay task for proper marks, as well as a framework I used consistently each week to organize lessons, so students had ample time to work out what good iterations of the task could look like.

The final group performance project was worth a lot, but the rubric I used to grade it we developed together in class, agreeing on which aspects of the work we wanted to emphasize (thought work, connections between play text and chosen theoretical model, creative ingenuity), and which we wanted to downplay (professional polish, exceptional acting, things less likely to emerge from a non-studio scene study). The students had a full month to work in groups on their projects; they self-selected into those groups based on their chosen play texts, and they benefited from an early workshop week that was designed to get them going at a time when ideas weren’t yet fixed and plans were still emergent.

Ultimately, the students excelled in their tripartite essays, and knocked it out of the park with their performances – which featured one of the genuinely best scene studies I have ever seen in the classroom, including those I’ve witnessed in studio-based practicum classes.

Thirdly – and I think this is the kicker – the low-stakes, online, weekly “apply” tasks were a not-complicated way for students to earn 100% on a task worth 10% of the term’s work. All students needed to do was read the week’s work in advance of our Thursday class, post a link to a video or article or other piece of robust interweb chatter that might constitute an application of the theory in question, and include a short paragraph about why they made their particular choice.

By the end of the term, 11 students had completed all five posts; two had completed four of five. (Two students, with health challenges, had accommodation for the task.) Most of them didn’t just post a video and write a short para, either; several crafted detailed, essay-like responses to their applications, which I then permitted them to hone and expand for the formal “apply” essay task. Students’ investment in the readings was visible in their thoughtful engagement with the theory-in-application online, and in the willingness many showed to take a stab, even if they might be wrong.

(The point of this task, as I reinforced at mid-term when I made some changes to the format to coax more participation, was just to give it a fair try; total failure was unlikely, but more importantly total failure could not preclude the reward for giving it a shot. What’s to lose?)

In the past, when I’ve used low-stakes prompts-for-points tools, I’ve folded the online cookie into the grade for participation: do so many online posts, earn 100% for participation, so long as you don’t miss more than three classes without accommodation for medical or compassionate reasons. This time around, the apply responses online constituted a separate grade point – but students still had the capacity to do really well in participation alongside, especially because, in our student-centred space-and-learning format, participation is the course’s bread and butter, and this crew really stepped up. (Their thoughtful and honest participation reflection papers were also key to many doing well on this separate grade point.)

As I pondered my sea of As Tuesday last, I thought hard about my decision to separate “online applies” from “participation”, giving each their own shot at perfection. Had it been a mistake to hand that much of the term’s grade over to, essentially, effort? Did I need to fold these markers of success back together, in order to prevent another tsunami of high-fives next year?

I thought maybe yes. Probably yes.


Of course, Homer is rarely correct.

And then I remembered that I’m in the middle of the decolonization process with this class. How are the grading rubrics we use now a marker of the colonial scaffolds organizing our classroom practices? How do we shift these, decolonize our grading in a holistic way?

Of course, there are plenty of examples of pass/fail classes designed to level the field and remove grades entirely from the picture, though research continues to accumulate on the risks and benefits of this strategy. (Two of the major benefits emergent from this research are a) a focus on transparency alongside rigour in the classroom; b) a fresh or renewed focus by faculty on thinking carefully about criteria, assessment practices, and feedback – something we do not do nearly enough, in my experience. Read more here, and here.)

But most of us work inside a fairly rigid, large-ship university structure; we could try to drive systemic change around grading, but that sounds like a lot of work to me, and work that will take a lot of time and many hands.

In the meantime, perhaps we could learn from that strong second benefit of the pass/fail system: clear-eyed, focused, group and individual reflection on assessment practices, and on how the marks we give map onto student learning, instead of just student achievement.

When I think carefully about my students in HPT this past term, I remember that what they marked, time and again – with their in-class practice, their online practice, and their reflection practice (in the papers they produced for their participation grades) – was fulsome, strong, broad engagement. Across the board.

They told me on our last day together that they had learned “how to learn”; that they had found themselves surprised and excited to apply old, seemingly stuffy theories to contemporary, real-world situations and examples; that they had discovered the power of learning in teams, and of committing to each other as a team of learners; and that they had discovered the power that space (in our case, literal classroom space) holds to shape interaction and engagement among students and teachers on a learning journey.


I know the donuts I brought as a last-class treat were not the only reason the gang turned up to reflect on our term together. I know because they voted 14-1 in favour of holding class when I gave them the option to cancel. Also, #donutmonster #hamont

They honoured me with these words, truly they did. And they honoured me over and over again with their excellent in-term work, for real, proper marks.

So why should they not all get As, then?

Did they not do – did we not do, as a team – exactly what undergraduates are supposed to do in a third-year class: advance their learning practice with concrete take-aways for the future? Build strong collaborative skills? Investigate, and invest in, some truly complex theoretical ideas?

Maybe it seems intimidating, to some, to think that all the students could hit the top achievement marker. Maybe it seems dishonest, to others.

To me, though, it seems like the exact right way to end a really remarkable term.


See you next week! (…For more, on what space has to do with participation),


Feed back to me (part 2)

Last week I offered some thoughts on marking with the rubric as a close guide and feedback framework; today I want to share some nifty feedback advice from Lynn Nygaard, the author of Writing for Scholars: A Practical Guide to Making Sense & Being Heard (Sage, 2015). Just as I was contemplating the difference using the rubric is making for me as a grader, her ideas about one-to-one feedback crossed my desk via the ever-reliable Tomorrow’s Professor listserv, to which I’ve belonged since 2001 (thanks, Jenn Stephenson!).

I was struck in particular by two pieces of intel in Nygaard’s piece: the importance of asking questions during the feedback process, and the value of offering feedback face-to-face (as opposed to solely in written form).

The context for the chunk of Nygaard’s book that was excerpted on the TP listserv is “peer reviewing” – the process through which scholars offer one another comments and assessment during the publishing process. (When you read that something is “peer reviewed”, it means experts in the field have read the material, assessed it based on a range of criteria from quality of research to quality of argumentation, and deemed it valuable enough to be shared with other experts in the field as well as the broader public.) For Nygaard, this context includes both graduate students (IE: feeding back to supervisees who are completing dissertation work) as well as peers whose work we might be asked to comment on for publication.

So undergraduate students aren’t the explicit focus here, but as I mentioned last week I think we can extrapolate easily for undergraduate constituencies – after all, good marking practices are good marking practices, full stop.

The first insight in Nygaard’s excerpt that grabbed me was:

Do not underestimate the importance of asking questions.

We hector students about this all the time, right? ASK QUESTIONS. THERE ARE NO BAD OR WRONG QUESTIONS! Questions are the route to a good paper, a strong experiment; research questions are more important than thesis statements. (Or, to nuance that a bit: good research questions yield better thesis statements.)

But how many of us have thought to ask questions in our comments for students on their written work? It’s not atypical for me to pepper students with questions after an in-class presentation, but those questions rarely make it into the typed feedback. In fact, I tend to focus on declarative statements (“your paper/presentation would have been stronger had you X”) when I write up my comments – asserting my knowledgeable opinion rather than keeping the feedback student-centred. So Nygaard is suggesting something provocative here, I think, when she encourages the asking of questions as feedback.


Now, Nygaard stresses that these need not be complex questions, or even content-driven ones. When we respond to student work, remember, we’re offering, usually, feedback on practice as much as (or even more than) content: how well students ask questions themselves, identify the parameters of their study, structure their articulation of the data or their reading of the text they are presenting. At their best, then, feedback questions might drive back to basics, focusing on the sorts of things students tend to skip past in an effort to get to the finished product. Nygaard offers the following samples for questions to ask a (student) writer:

What is the most interesting thing you have found so far?
What are you finding most difficult to write about?
What is it you want people to remember when they are finished reading this?
What interested you in this topic to begin with?

Now, if these questions sound chatty, it’s because they are. And here’s Nygaard’s other key insight (for me): what if feedback were offered orally more often?

When we speak to colleagues and graduate students, often we do so in our offices, face to face. Undergrads, by contrast, get sheets of paper or pop-up windows on their computer screens with some typed stuff and a grade. Easy to distance, easy to dismiss.

But, as Nygaard notes, the value of feeding back in person is significant. It gives the feedback (and not just the grade itself) real stakes. And, more important, it offers an opportunity for dialogue that is integral to the producing of stronger, future work:

…if you deny the other person a chance to explain, you rob them of an opportunity to achieve greater clarity for themselves – because there is no better way to understand something than to explain it to someone else.


Reading this reminded me, ironically, not of supervisions with my own grad-school advisers, but of encounters with a dear and influential undergraduate instructor, the feminist and queer theorist Dianne Chisholm. Dianne is an Oxbridge graduate, and every time a paper was due she had us all into her office, one by one, Oxbridge-style to read our essays aloud to her and receive our feedback in person.

We were, of course, TERRIFIED of this entire process (and kinda terrified of Dianne, too). But we also adored her, because she offered us the opportunity to learn, grow, and get better – she proved that to us time and again, by giving us her time and her attention.

Now, I’m not saying that we should all take every undergraduate assignment in like this; it’s time consuming and really only works in seminar-sized groups. But it does have key benefits that we ought not to dismiss. For one thing, it places the onus squarely on the student to absorb and respond to feedback – to do something with it, even if only for a few minutes. To imagine the better version of the paper in front of them, maybe.

Nygaard goes on to write:

…remember that your job is to help the author, not to make yourself look good.  Your ultimate measure of success is the degree to which the author walks away knowing what to do next, not the degree to which you have made your expertise apparent.

Declarative comments on written work (like the one I offer as an example above) tend toward the “me expert, you not so much” end of the spectrum; they demonstrate that I know stuff and that you don’t yet know quite enough of it. But guess what? We’re in the scholarship business, with the hierarchy professor//student more or less entrenched; the “knowing//knowing less” binary is sort of a given. So what if we took it as that given and moved on, instead asking questions and offering meaningful advice to students that could drive their work forward and upward? This might happen on paper, or in an office-hour debrief, or – maybe best of all? – in a mix of the two.

At minimum, what if we aimed to provide more feedback to undergraduates that simply indicated that this particular assignment, even returned, graded, to them, is *not* the end after all? Nygaard offers the final, following thought:

Even if you are meeting informally with a colleague, try to end the session by asking, “So, what is your next step?”

The perfect question for us all, really.



Feed back to me (part 1)

October is marking season at my university: midterms, essays, tests and quizzes all crowd into the space between the end of September’s silly season (frosh week, reunion weekend, general football mayhem) and the final date to add or drop courses. The wind and rain rush in, the leaves come down…and we all end up buried, by Halloween, under piles and piles of papers.


This year I’ve been trying something new with my undergraduate class in performance studies; for the first time I’m marking essays explicitly against a pre-existing rubric, one I’ve made freely available to everyone on the assignment page of our online learning portal. I’ve used marking rubrics regularly for the last few years – they were mandatory at Queen Mary, where I taught from 2012-2014, and I found them clarifying and productive. But this is the first time I’ve used a rubric as a literal marking tool, rather than just as a general set of guidelines for our reference.

(What’s a rubric? Click here for a really helpful explanation.)

My typical marking pattern until now has been some variation on this:

  • post a rubric for students for written assignments, so that they know broadly what I expect in terms of content, structure, research, grammar, and style;
  • read papers without consulting the rubric carefully, assuming it implicitly reflects what I already know to be true about good, bad, and ugly essays;
  • write up comments without direct reference to the rubric, and assign a grade.

I suspect a lot of us mark this way, whether we realise it or not. And this is not, of course, to say our comments on student papers are not fulsome, reflective of our rubrics, or written with care; I personally pride myself on providing clear feedback that describes a paper’s intention, where that attention is achieved, where it is not achieved, and what students may adjust in order to advance up the grade scale. I’ve also experimented several times with laddering assignments, with using peer feedback on drafts, and with various other techniques to lower the writing stakes and make the process of editing and improving written work more transparent and accessible.

(I’ve written about, and hosted some terrific guest posts on, assessment challenges in the past; click here for the archive.)

So I clearly care a lot about assessment – about getting it right and giving students the intel about their work that they need to improve. But rubrics? Not so much with the caring about rubrics, maybe. I suspect I’m a bit jaded, like many of us, because rubrics look on the surface like yet another measurement tool we’re being forced to use in order to fit our teaching labour into boxes that can be ticked by our senior administrations and the governments who control their purse strings. They are probably such a thing. But they are also something else: they are a clear, consistent way to communicate student success and mitigate student failure, on our own terms. (Let’s not forget: most of us still have the freedom to set our own rubrics. For now, anyway.)

And, as I discovered, they are also a great way for us to learn key information about our own marking tendencies and the assumptions underpinning them.

Marking with the rubric changed the pattern I describe above. My process now goes something like this:

  • import the rubric bullet points into my existing marking template;
  • read the papers with those bullets explicitly in mind;
  • comment in equal measure on each bullet;
  • assign a rough grade zone to each bullet (IE: this aspect of your work is at “B” level, or at “A-” level, etc);
  • average the bullets to arrive at a final grade.

In case you’re having trouble picturing this, here’s a screen shot of my template, with some (anonymised) feedback in place:

Screen Shot 2016-10-26 at 14.03.31.png

The first thing I realised after using the rubric in this way? I’ve historically given far too much weight to some aspects of student work, and too little to others… even though my rubrics have always implied that all aspects – content, structure, research, and grammar/style – are equally valuable. So I’ve been short-changing students who, for example, have good research chops but poor writing and structuring skills, because the latter makes the former harder to recognise, and without a rubric to prompt me I’ve simply not been looking hard enough for it. I’ve also, without question, been over-compensating students with elegant writing styles; less impressive research labour becomes less visible if the argumentation runs along fluidly.

Right off the bat, then, my use of the rubric as a marking guide both levelled the playing field for my students, and allowed me to come face to face with one of my key marking biases.

The second thing I realised was that marking in this rubric-focused way is a real challenge! I am a decorated editor and an astute reader of colleagues’ work, but that doesn’t mean I’m a perfect grader – not by any means. Reading novice scholarly work (aka, student work) with care requires keeping a lot of balls in the air at once: where’s the structure slipping out of focus; when is research apparent, when is it there but not standing out, when is it obviously absent; how much is poor grammar actually impeding my understanding, as opposed to just pissing me off (a different level of problem).

To do the juggle well, I’ve discovered, I have to slow down. Except… I have trained myself (as we all have – neoliberal university survival skill!) to read student work very quickly, make some blanket judgements along the way, and then produce a final grade driven as much by feel as by careful analysis of the paper’s strengths and weaknesses. When I was forced to put feeling aside and look back at all of a paper’s component parts, I as often as not saw that the grade I “felt” at the end was right was not, in fact, what the rubric was telling me was fair.


So add a few minutes more per paper, then. But where to snatch them from? It’s not as if I’m rolling in free time over here…

Thankfully, the rubric came to my rescue on this one, too. My third discovery: I could write fewer comments, and more quickly, yet still provide comprehensive feedback. The rubric language I include on each page of typed assessment stands in nicely for a whole bunch of words I do not need to write anew each time, and it standardises the way I frame and phrase my comments from student to student. That’s not to say everyone gets the same feedback, but rather that my brain is now compartmentalising each piece of assessment as I read, and is more quickly able to put those into the comment “boxes” at reading’s end.

Plus, in order to keep feedback to a page yet also include the rubric language in each set of comments, I’m writing less per paper, period. I doubt this is a bad thing – students generally don’t read all the feedback they receive from us, if they read any of it. Placing my responses to their papers directly in the language of my already-stated expectations, and offering smaller, more readable chunks will, I hope, get more students reading more of their feedback, and using it too. (I have plans to survey them on this in the last week of classes – stay tuned.)

As luck would have it, just as I was thinking this post through I came across a compelling discussion by Lynn Nygaard that uses “mirroring” as a metaphor to explain assessment labour. Nygaard’s ideas got me thinking about other ways I might transform my marking’s efficiency and effectiveness in future; although her focus is on feeding back to colleagues and grad students, I think it has some real applicability to undergraduate assessment too. I’ll share some of her provocations and reflect on them (ha!) in part two of this post, next week.

Until then, happy midterms!


Guest post: Assessing Assessment

By Michelle Liu Carriger

Full disclosure: I think grades are dumb. I love teaching in the humanities and I think my work is important, but I hate grading: it makes me feel sad and stressed, it makes students sad and stressed, I find myself resenting them for not doing better work and “making me” deduct points and all that undercuts what I try to do as an educator. But that said, I also recognise that it’s a bit lofty to think my students are going to be totally on board with pie in the sky learning-for-learning’s-sake and being a better human and all that. I understand that for them university is also a means to ends which will not value searingly insightful articulations of gender and race in MTV’s reality show 16 and Pregnant or promising nascent playscripts the way I do. So grades are one way of translating the work that students do as university students into a currency that is supposed to “buy” them something else later, like a job. The part that bothers me about grades, though, is what exactly goes into making that grade in the first place: it often doesn’t feel to me at all that the things I actually wanted to instill in the students constituted the substance of the grade. That is, as an educator, I think of the grade as but an index of the real course material, but for many students it’s the grade itself, something I think of as only a label or indicator, which takes on the value that I attribute to the material. (Now that I’ve ventured into the realm of money theory, it seems a short step to suggest that this is a sort of commodity fetishism of the grade, and the gold standard is NOT in effect here: too often, I feel that the grade conferred is “empty”. It’s not guaranteed by a substance of “real” value.)

Now, because of a grade’s exchange value, I don’t think that students are entirely wrong to value grades, even though I’ve often bemoaned their obsessions as misplaced. But for we educators who believe that critical reasoning skills, writing skills, and the other educational aims of our classes are just as transferable and valuable as grades (and preferably more so), then we need to find ways of hauling our goals into line with grading practices. One of the goals I often have trouble achieving under the aegis of letter grades is that of valuing student process and effort over virtuosity. While of course I appreciate students with native (or well-honed) abilities in critical thinking, discussion, and writing, I believe that it’s more important, even amongst students with strong abilities, to cultivate methods of engagement, on the understanding that while the “content” of any given humanities module may be more or less relevant to students, the skills of critical thinking, reading, and writing are definitely transferable.

Recently my convictions about the importance of emphasising process and effort have been underscored while reading the work of psychologist Carol Dweck. Dweck’s primary psychological theory is on “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. As summarised by Maria Popova in a blog post on Dweck’s mass market book, Mindset:

A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.

Dweck’s research provides additional reasoning for why we should encourage process over achievement: because summative assessments do not provide impetus toward more effort, they tend to function as endpoints instead of stepping stones to improved effort. As teachers, we can help to encourage growth mindsets in our students by emphasising the ways in which assessment serves as a diagnostic for what they can continue working on, rather than as an indication of their intelligence or talent. We should encourage students to think of assessment as diagnostic in part of an ongoing process of learning and skill acquisition, not as a final declaration of an area completed or a box to tick with a rating of quality like a cut of meat.


(The author, amidst the marking)

My position at Queen Mary University of London as a Lecturer in Drama is my first full time academic position post-PhD and the first time I’ve worked within the UK educational system; I was born and bred to the US system, where I’ve been through small liberal arts schools, a big land grant university, and elite private theatre and humanities departments. At first, things seem pretty similar at QM to what I’ve known in the US – it was just that everything had a different name: students take modules (courses) appropriate to their course (major); they get marks (grades) on an A to F scale, except that Britain leaves a full 20+ points for mythical geniuses who surely never appear at the undergraduate level. By which I mean: the American A of 90-to-100 is equivalent to the UK 70-to-100, the reality being that apparently until recently virtually no one ever got more than 72, maybe 75 at the outside.

One thing that the culture shock of a new system has revealed to me is how I might have been using the “grade inflation” I experienced at Brown and CU Boulder as a means of secretly moving toward a credit/no credit type of grading. At Brown I loved the courses that were deemed credit/not credit, like playwriting and speech. However, I also recognise that my own grade inflation probably only assuages my own marking discomfort and does not actually help students value the skills and content I want them to value.

Last semester at QM I convened a practical module on playwriting and I found that my students were just as nonplussed and anxious as I was about how their plays would be graded. Although I would expect my third year students to be more comfortable with the QM/UK system than I was at that point, I soon discovered that many were still trying to figure out the school’s “formula”, like a good grade recipe to follow in order to come out with a “first” (an A) instead of a good play. They read the assignment guidelines for loopholes like lawyers. When we discussed Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author” in class, the first comment posed was: “But now I’m wondering, how are you going to mark our plays?” The class’s endless fretting and the insufficiency of my constant reply to “write the best play you can” pushed me to desperation as I tried to figure out how to embolden them to experiment and write their most creative, brave, and best work.

The problem with using letter grades at all is that clarity of standards is necessary in making the assessment practice useful for the student; without knowledge of what will constitute a “good” grade, the student has no idea what to work toward. While this is difficult to explain when we’re dealing with the qualitative work (such as critical writing and reasoning) typical of the humanities, the standards become even more vague when venturing into the subjective territory of art and creative expression. By no means did I want plays calculated toward what students believed I would like, nor actually do I believe that all good plays are written to the same standards in a few short weeks (the time allotted for the assignment at the end of the term). For all these reasons, I sought to shift the class’s understanding of the assessment goals away from “quality” and toward “effort” and method. I believe that solid and steady effort, thoroughness, and thoughtfulness first of all are the proper goals of growth-mindset based pedagogy, are easier to mark, and, finally and by no means least, I believe that they lead to higher quality work in the end.

All along I encouraged the students to attend to these goals and reminded them to use the 2000-word accompanying rationale to explain the kinds of labor and method that went into their creative work. But near the end of the semester, when we were still having long discussions in class in which I attempted to instill the confidence they continued to lack, I finally came to terms with the fact that in this case I was not going to turn out to be the teacher who magically inspires her class to forget about grades and just do what they love. So I came up with a new idea. I decided to add a requirement to their final projects in which they would write their own criteria for the marking of their individual assignments, in order to provide concrete goals for their work without me having to dictate what “a good play” consisted of. I implemented this plan by first holding a discussion in which I asked the class to name the things by which they judged a performance text “good.” These included features like “cohesive worlds of the play,” “strong, distinctive dialogue,” “arresting images.” Then I asked what they thought appropriate outcomes of the module would be. Their answers included “engagement with the assigned texts” and “establishment of a personal methodology.” At the conclusion of this discussion, I assigned them each to write their own set of 5 to 7 criteria for their final projects, with at least three pertaining to writing a script and at least two demonstrating mastery of the module goals; they could then choose to adapt any of the things we had discussed or come up with their own criteria for the final document, which they had to send to me by the end of the semester. I in turn replied to each student with feedback, sometimes asking them to edit a criterium if it was not concrete enough for me to use.

What did I hope this change achieved? I hope it brought into line the highly individual circumstances of writing a play and the motivating effects of letter grades while alleviating the uncertainties of what makes good work and of what students were “allowed” to do. More importantly, I hope that this experiment helped give the students a greater sense of autonomy in their work in general, pushing them to define for themselves what it is they wanted to achieve and therefore investing the grades they ultimately did achieve with a little more substance. In general, the criteria assignment was received well, although I think if it had come earlier in the semester it could have headed off much more of the lingering anxiety that remained visible on my module evaluations, filed in the last week of class. More than one student told me, when I met with them individually about their projects in the last week before they were due, that they had grown to appreciate some of the changes I had implemented over the Christmas break, once they had had the chance to get really deeply into their individual projects. I’m eager to try this strategy again in a more systematic way, integrating it from the beginning of the module, and perhaps in more “traditional” classes, too, to see if such a procedure can improve students’ agency and engagement with learning. It’s not a big change; it feels more like a hack or a patch slapped onto the typical mode of grading. But I hope that I’ve managed to sneak a little more worthwhile learning gold into the grade commodity.

I’d love to hear from others about strategies you’ve used for focusing on process in class, or about strategies for making grades feel more substantial.


Michelle Liu Carriger is Lecturer in Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies at Queen Mary University of London where she is at work on a book project tentatively entitled “Theatricality of the Closet” on the historiography of the performance of everyday, through looking at clothing controversies in 19th century Britain and Japan. Meanwhile, she’s contemplating book two, on performance and the Japanese Way of Tea (tea ceremony) which she has been practicing for the last fifteen years, including one year in Kyoto Japan in a traditional arts training program. She holds a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from Brown University where she taught fashion and performance, speech, and devised collaborative work with Elise Morrison and Molly Flynn under the moniker Cabaret Murderess.

How the hell do I structure my essay properly? (A holiday story)

It’s the first day of the week after Christmas, which here in the UK, for Queen Mary Drama students anyway, means it’s the day to turn one’s attention full-time back to writing the essays due in January. I’ve had a steady stream of queries today, ranging from slightly worried to totally panicked. The most interesting one, however, came from a second-year student who wrote to ask me for some practical, general advice; she noted that she’d been getting feedback consistently faulting her essay structure, and that her confidence was dropping. Did I have some recommendations for her that could help?

Some of you might be rolling your eyes: we’re not writing instructors, right? University teachers, unless we teach writing, don’t technically teach writing. We teach subject areas; students are expected to develop their writing skills on their own (or to have them already). But they don’t, mostly because writing well is HARD, people, and learning to write well is frankly baffling (I remember how baffling – any good researcher/writer who tells you the skills came easy is lying). We all need to share tips with one another, throughout our careers, and I think we should share them more often with our students, because they needs those tips, and also because the epidemic of people in positions of power in the culture at large who have very poor written communication skills is growing at an alarming pace.

I am reminded constantly of how important good writing skills are to acts of activism, and to our current dearth of effective activism. (Yes, even accounting for Occupy, we’re not protesting nearly as much as we used to, and we’re not being heard nearly as often. Ask a union organiser if you don’t believe me. only kind of counts.) How many times have we complained that the media dumb down complex ideas in the neoliberal public sphere, leaving thoughtful politicians scrambling to make their cases for action heard above the din of “lower taxes! Too many immigrants!”? Every Rob Ford shouting “stop the gravy train!” not only clouds the airwaves with ridiculously oversimplified non-arguments (“stop the gravy train” is not an argument; it’s a sloppy but annoyingly catchy catch phrase designed to stifle argument). S/he also lowers the bar, making it that much harder for people who’d like to help the public understand, say, where our municipal tax dollars actually go, why public transit is really expensive but remarkably necessary, and why municipal issues in a large city like Toronto are rarely simple in any way. In order for the latter voices to get better hearing in what currently passes for our public sphere a number of things need to happen, but I’d argue that one of those things must be a broader appreciation for how to build, and read, and make sense of complex arguments in all sorts of venues.

So, festive season and all, here’s a version for all of you of the email I wrote to my student in reply to her useful query about how she might learn to structure her academic essays more effectively. I drew these “top tips” from my own experience learning (over and over again, at different stages in my career) how to write better, more clearly, with more nuance and with more precision. But they’re just mine. I’d love to hear yours – please do hit reply – and feel free to quibble with anything below that you think doesn’t ring true.

Happy new year!



1. Figure out what you actually want to argue. It may be a version of what you first thought you were going to argue, but very likely it’s not the same as that first thought. It’s probably a bit more complicated now, and this is where students often get tripped up. As you mull over your essay plans your ideas evolve, but with that evolution can come fear that your ideas are somehow “getting away” from you. Don’t let this cause you panic! Instead, embrace the evolution. Take the time to wander around your room/flat/kitchen, talking your ideas out to yourself or with friends or flatmates or parents. When you “hit” what “it” is you’re trying to say, write it down. Don’t skip this step. In fact, probably you’ll want to do this series of things (think/talk/wander/write) a bunch of times, and that’s fine – remember that your ideas are getting more complicated, which means multi-dimensional. There are more than one or even two ways to say what you’re saying, and you’ll need those multiple phrasings as you work through your paper later.

2. When you think you’ve got “it”, work out a draft introduction to give it some body. Make sure you are as clear as possible in your introduction about the “it” you’ve worked out as your argument: in other words, don’t be afraid to say exactly what you mean to argue BEFORE you start arguing it. Don’t worry that you’re spoiling some kind of surprise – just spit it out! This is the best thing you can do in the introduction, and in fact everywhere in your essay – be very, very clear about the argument to come and your essay’s larger goals. My friend Joanne Tompkins calls this “signposting”; she taught me to signpost when she helped me create what later became my first published journal article, and I’ll always be grateful.

3. Next, go back to some planning. How are you going to support your argument? What things do you want to highlight as evidence? Plot the argument for yourself, in the way that works best for you to be sure, but DO plot it out. What will go in each paragraph – stick to the key points here, no more at this stage – and (this is important) how will the paragraphs feed into each other? Plot these transitions out in the way you like best – using text, visuals, string, anything. But do plot them. Plotting really, really works, especially when you’re learning.

4. Draft the rest of the paper. After you’ve finished each paragraph, go back to your list of “it” phrases. See if there is a connection between what you’ve been arguing in the paragraph and “it”. If there is, make sure it’s clearly marked. If there’s not a connection, figure out why not (and if there should be one – sometimes the answer to this is no, but usually it’s yes). Edit as appropriate.

5. Finally, after you’ve drafted the paper, put it away for a day and then read it again (or, ask a friend to read it). After you’ve read it, answer this question: what is the paper now, in this state, ACTUALLY arguing? Is it the thing you believe you were trying to say? Or is the paper veering off track in places and trying to say something more, or something new? If it is, ask yourself one more question: is that because you haven’t argued your case fully enough, with enough evidence, or is it because you’re in fact trying to make the point that’s coming out in the tangents rather than in your introduction? Either way, chances are you’ll need a solid edit at this stage. That means another full day of work, most likely, so make sure you’ve saved time for it! As you revise, have your “it” phrases to hand, and be careful you’re not letting your edits take the paper off track. By the same token, if you think the tangents you’ve found in your paper are serious enough to warrant a re-write, with a new argument and a new, improved introduction, well, get busy. We’ve all been there, and rarely do we regret the re-writing.

AND: before you do anything, take a look at this: