On publishing … with students

Here we are, middle of August: the garden is heaving, the dog wilts in the heat, and I struggle to get back to work, scramble to get caught up on all the things that lingered, unimportant and in another world, while I was away this summer. Of course (of course!), that includes preparations for another year’s teaching.

Because this always happens – because I always end up leaving my teaching prep to August, and thus to spurts of freaking out alongside panicked coffee drinking – this past May I spent time reflecting on the year just ended in an effort to give my late summer self a leg up. (If you missed the three linked posts on this topic, start here.) As I now look to the work of prep (immediately!) ahead, I’m really hoping these reflections turn out to be the time and stress-saving gift from my early-summer self that I intended them to be.

It’s like the universe knows where I’m going: last Wednesday, and as if on cue, another gift from last term landed on my doorstep. It was the new issue of Canadian Theatre Review (aptly titled “Performance Futures”!), featuring my performance studies students’ review of the 2014 Nuit Blanche festival in Toronto.



We traveled to the festival together last September, and when we returned we had a long, thoughtful, provocative, discussion about what we had seen: about our euphoria at the works that drew us in and made us stay, even through the gathering cold of an autumn night; about our disappointment over and mistrust towards commercial displays masquerading as art; about the poverty of installations that tried too hard, and often too superficially, to involve us; and about the ways in which the festival’s capitalist underpinnings are both unavoidable, and yet at times strangely inspirational for artists and spectators alike. Moved by the students’ obvious and profound learning from the field trip, I decided to approach my friend and colleague Paul Halferty, CTR‘s Views and Reviews editor, to see if he might be interested in publishing the class’s writing about Nuit Blanche. He said yes, and our class review project was born.

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(Two fitting memories of Nuit Blanche 2014! Images of AMAZE by Marcos Zotes, and The Screaming Booth by Chélanie Beaudin-Quintin)

Once officially commissioned, we began by talking as a team about how to tackle the work of creating our review. Would we write one piece, or several mini reviews? Would we each take a portion of our shared experiences to write about, and then leave it to me to shape individual reflections into a coherent, flowing whole? Would we work alone, in pairs, or as a group? In the end we chose to work in pairs, with each twosome guided by one of the prompts that shaped our post-fest debrief in class:

  1. What performances most moved me?
  2. Which felt underwhelming to me?
  3. When did I see myself, as a spectator, in the performance frame?

We agreed that each pair would draft about 500 words, then bring that writing to an editorial meeting with me. I’d offer feedback and ask for rewrites; after that second round of work was complete the students would hand their texts back over to me and I would put all three chunks together, alongside a curatorial note in my own voice. During this putting-together phase I would also do some line editing of the students’ work, and then I’d pass it back to them to make any further changes they might like.

(I should note that, because this project was conceived spur-of-the-minute, the students did not receive formal credit for it. However, they did earn significant points for effort above and beyond the call of duty, which factored into their participation grades, and now all have a terrific publishing credit for their CVs.)

Collaborating with my undergraduate students proved a welcome challenge, but a challenge all the same. I quickly realized that I needed to find a way to balance their relative lack of skill in writing for publication against the journal’s need for a polished final product. That meant I was juggling the (important, absolutely central) work of teaching them how to craft their thoughts clearly, concisely and for a wide audience with the work of an editor whose primary job was to ensure consistency of voice and argument. (I have new and profound respect for my colleagues who teach in Writing Studies, part of my home department at Western.) Hardest of all for me, it turns out, was honouring the students’ own words, phrases, and ideas while editing: shaping the whole while tweaking for clarity and grammatical accuracy, I often felt like I was writing over their voices. I wanted to ensure the journal was happy; I also, though, wanted the students to be able to open their copies of the published review and know those words on the page came from them. Making both of these things happen in appropriate measure was tough.

In the end, I think we did a fairly good job of walking this tightrope act. All five students who participated (the class had seven students in total) were committed to the work and happy to take my advice and suggestions at the first draft stage. They responded quickly to my editorial queries, and they all sent their publication contracts back to the press’s administrator on time (NB: most career academics can’t manage that!). They were pros, in other words, and I’m enormously proud of them, and of what we have accomplished with this piece as a team.

I want very much to be able to share the whole review with you on the blog, but I’m currently waiting for advice from the journal’s editors about whether or not I’ll be permitted to do so under the University of Toronto Press’s copyright regulations. As soon as I get a green light (assuming one is forthcoming), I’ll repost the piece here in full. In the meantime, below I’m including a couple of excerpts, as well as two fantastic photos from our favourite 2014 installation, HOLOSCENES. Meanwhile, if anyone wants to read the whole review but does not have access to CTR through their institution’s library or through a private subscription, please just send me an email and I will get you a copy.

Finally, a question for the community: who has worked on publishing projects with undergraduates (or younger students) before? What strategies have worked well to ensure balance across all of the expectations in the mix? What challenges have arisen and how have you handled them? Please do share your thoughts in the comments – this is something I want to do more of and am keen for advice on best practices.

Happy prepping, everybody!


From “Taking the Measure of Nuit Blanche 2014”

by Caitlin Austin, Kat Dos Santos, Sarah Gilpin, Minji (Rita) Kim, and Jonas Trottier; introduced and curated by Kim Solga

Caitlin Austin and Rita Kim: While doing our online research on the Nuit Blanche website many of us shortlisted HOLOSCENES, and we were, as a group, mesmerized by this performance. It featured an enormous, aquarium-like tank that was constantly filled with or drained of water while within it performers attempted to accomplish such everyday tasks as gathering fruit into a basket or cleaning windows with a squeegee. Light shone through the tank like sunlight through the ocean; the performers’ f lowing garments danced and fell through the rising and falling water. The performance seemed ethereal; it captivated, but it also managed to pose challenging questions: how should we watch and understand its central actions?

Jonas Trottier and Kat Dos Santos: The performers inside the tank acted out simple forms of labour that, in our culture, have negative stigma attached to them: fruit-gathering and windowcleaning are the jobs we associate with the poor and uneducated. As the tank filled with water, however, these tasks took on an otherworldly quality. With the addition of the light and water, the very mundane, even abject, actions that made up this performance were transformed into the dances of angels.

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(Three images of HOLOSCENES, by Lars Jan. The image at the top is by Jackman Chiu. I have not been able to locate photo credits for the two images immediately above.)

Caitlin and Rita: Though the weather was chilly, no one among us dared to walk away from HOLOSCENES. In our discussions later, we found that we shared a feeling that, for some reason, we owed the performers our time, the respect of good spectatorship. Despite the freezing weather and our tired feet, we stood there for close to an hour. We acknowledged that the perpetual action of filling and draining water and the cyclical nature of the performance left us craving a finale. We had hoped for some kind of dramaturgical closure that would give us “permission” to walk away.

Jonas and Kat: Reflecting on what we had seen, some among us expressed concern as to whether HOLOSCENES was problematic in the way it glamourized the work of day labourers. While this performance did “lift” such work up to our view, inviting us to appreciate an underlying beauty in it, it also put forward an image of manual labour that reinforced preconceived ideas and stereotypes. When the water drained from the tank and the performers were left soaked and shivering, HOLOSCENES offered us a firm reminder of why this type of labour remains stigmatised.

Sarah Gilpin: Despite our experiences at HOLOSCENES, it was obvious to us by the end of the night that Nuit Blanche is a consumer-driven event. I paid special attention to how some companies were using the festival as a cynical opportunity to draw crowds into their stores. Lululemon is a good example: outside its Queen Street shop we saw a performance of a woman meditating, apparently for the duration of the night, in a large bubble. The female “actor” was required to remain perfectly still inside her bubble, mirroring a mannequin, while Lululemon’s storefront offered a ready-made frame (Goffman) for the business to lure in customers who obviously intended art, not yoga gear, to be their primary focus of attention. I did some research and discovered that Lululemon’s “bubble” was not a registered Nuit Blanche event; the company clearly chose to use the appeal of the festival to pretend it was offering its customers more than just retail goods for sale. For me, the storefront performance created unease, as it undermined the sincerity of Nuit Blanche’s larger frame. Were we being marketed to at every performance? we began to wonder. Walking past the shop later in the evening, our group discovered that Lululemon didn’t really intend their performance to be credible: though it pretended to be a 12-hour meditation by one individual, by the end of the night there was plainly a different performer in the bubble bearing the Lululemon logo.

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(Ugh! Crass commercialism. Not unexpected, yet disappointing all the same.)

Caitlin and Rita: After reflecting on both the good and the bad of our experiences at Nuit Blanche, we realized that, on the whole, the pieces that depended less on spectators’ scripted “buyin” paradoxically allowed us to interact with them on a more meaningful level, provoking critical engagement that the more obvious participatory events actually shut down. Performances that invited us to do something specific, such as the flashy AMAZE, were less memorable than those more open and ambivalent in their invitation. What stayed with us were the pieces that challenged our ideas about what it means to be an “active” participant at an event like Scotiabank Nuit Blanche and in a “creative city” like Toronto.

When students grade each other (and other peer-assessment challenges)

I’m a big fan of group work in the classroom. Partly, this is because it takes a group to make a piece of theatre, and I teach theatre; partly this is because life is all about working in groups of people, and working in groups of people is astonishingly hard.

Just ask this person:


Or, ask students (including my TA this year, Madison Bettle) if they like group work, and you usually get two kinds of responses:

“it’s ok/I’m fine with it” (translation: other people do the work, so it’s pretty great!/I love doing all the work, so it’s pretty great!),


“I find it difficult” (translation: I do all the work, and I really resent it).

So why do I persist? It’s simple: learning to be a better collaborator is as important to living and working in the world as is learning to breathe. It’s a pity more of us don’t place an emphasis on effective group skills in our teaching, because, man, oh man, do we all need it!

Over the years, I’ve approached the challenge of group dynamics in my theatre studies classrooms in a variety of ways. I’ve asked students to put on scene studies in groups, but not for grades; the students loved this work, but often resented not getting marks for it. (Understandable, if sad and depressing.) I’ve asked students to put on scene studies in groups for grades; the students loved this work, but found it incredibly annoying when a member (or more) of the group slacked off and got the grade anyway. (Friends: call it collateral damage and then call it a day.)

This year, I took a slightly more complicated approach: I asked students to put on scene studies in groups for grades, and then I asked them to contribute to their final marks by grading each other.

This is the story of how that turned out.

Last Thursday, the students in my 20th Century Drama class had just one job: to get into their performance groups, answer a series of questions, and come to a conclusion about what grade(s) the various members of the group deserved for their efforts this year. The student-generated grades (which I would respect, regardless of difficulties) would make up 5/15 marks for the performance component of the class; the performance component of the class would make up 15/100 marks for the class as a whole. (In other words: some pressure, but not a tonne of pressure.)

As Charlotte Bell explained in this space last autumn, students need clear tools to assist with peer grading. This is the task I set to help the students manage the challenge (and it is, of course, a challenge!) of grading themselves and one another:


Part One:

On your own, please respond to the following questions, in writing. You have ten minutes.

  1. What were my greatest strengths as a group member this year? List up to THREE traits, and include details explaining each.
  2. What were my greatest weaknesses as a group member this year? List up to THREE traits, and include details explaining each.
  3. Where did my group excel this year? For example, when and how did we meet our own expectations? Summarize your feelings, and describe one or two key occasions where the group achieved what it set out to do.
  4. Where did my group fall short of its own expectations this year? Summarize, and describe one or two key occasions where you feel the group could have done better.
  5. What grade would I assign my group for our year’s efforts?
  6. What grade would I assign myself, as a group member?

Part Two:

In a pair WITHIN your group, please discuss your responses to Part One, and then respond to the following questions. Remember to be honest, respectful, supportive AND FAIR.

  1. Where did our group excel, and where did it fall short of expectations? Summarize your individual findings (take notes!), and then decide if, on balance,
    1. You excelled much more than you fell short
    2. You excelled a bit more than you fell short
    3. You sometimes excelled, but often also fell short
    4. You largely fell short.
  2. Based on your individual reflections, and also on your comments and choice above, what grade would you assign your group for this year? (Choose a number, based on the letter category that corresponded with your choice above.)
  3. Are there members of your group who went beyond the call of group work duty? If so, choose whether or not to assign them bonus marks.
  4. Are there members of your group who let the group down? If so, choose if and how to penalize them.

Part Three:

As a group, discuss your findings and share your tentative grades.

Negotiate: what final grades will you assign each group member? What comments will you include to support your grade choices?

Type your comments and grades. Note that the comments should be about a paragraph long (no more).

Send your comments and grades to Kim, via email.

When I created this template, I worked hard to take as many differing voices into account as possible, mindful that students would have (potentially) different impressions of how things had gone in their group. What I forgot, I realise now, is that having different impressions of how things have gone is very different from being able (or feeling able securely) to express how things have gone to a group member with whose opinion you might not fully agree. My template seeks to be academic in its objectivity – but, as teachers all know, objectivity is extremely difficult to achieve when assigning anyone, let alone one another, grades for our shared efforts.

The Thursday of our peer assessment exercise arrived, and we did – I thought! – pretty well. The students were lively and cheerful in their group chats in class; most of them emailed me happily with shared or individuated group grades shortly after. I annotated my class notes (this is my habit, to preserve some kind of institutional memory for future years), and called it a win.

But then, two things happened.

First, I was approached by a group that had run into trouble: one of their members had been perennially absent for meetings and prep, but had always arrived in time to claim the glory. In our peer assessment exercise they had manifested no remorse (or even awareness!), and the rest of the group had felt uncomfortable confronting them. Result? The group had agreed on a shared grade, but now deeply regretted it.

Second, I received what I thought was a truly heartening email from another group featuring a member often absent; by all accounts it sounded like that student had stepped up in peer assessment, owned their mistakes, and agreed on a lesser grade.

I was thrilled that for one failure another success had resulted. I also realized, at that point, that it would be helpful to get the students’ feedback on how the peer assessment exercise had gone, since I had two very different pieces of evidence to account for.

On our last day together, I posed the following question:

How did it go for you and your group? Reflect in writing for ONE minute; aim to indicate something of value, and also to make one suggestion for improvement.

Given the balance of evidence at hand, I expected a fair amount of positivity in the students’ responses. Instead, I got this (incredibly valuable! – But somewhat unexpected) feedback:

  • It was difficult to discuss group issues in a class setting – can we give people the option to find another space to talk?
  • It was difficult because most of our groups became close over the year: we were worried about upsetting the group dynamic;
  • Could we try anonymous grading? People don’t want to address people to their face if they feel others have not done their share;
  • Could you (Kim, the teacher) shield us from the harshest of comments but still express our concerns?
  • Could we try doing group work assessment at the half-point during the year?

Looking at this feedback now, as I write this post, I’m surprised at myself. How did I not realise the difficulties inherent in the peer grading template I’d designed? Of course I’d known it would be hard for students to confront group members who did not pull their weight; what I’d forgotten (hello!) was that I had rather a lot more experience in grading underperforming students than most students do – and thus that I really needed to provide some hard-core emotional and intellectual guidance to the students needing to do this work now.

How do you tell someone you’ve grown to like, and even to love, that they let you down in your shared work? How do you assign them a number?

One of the groups facing challenges chose to let sleeping dogs lie; the other, however, ended up revisiting their assessment and grades. I met with two representatives in my office today to talk through what had happened. One member, felt by the others not to have pulled their weight, had been assigned a lesser grade after the fact by the remaining members of the group; that member felt, correctly, that they had not been given the chance to speak or respond to accusations. The other member represented the majority feeling: that the first member was well liked and respected but had put in far less work, and thus deserved a lesser grade. [That member also explained that the others, who had spent a long time after class talking about how to account for this disparity, did not feel comfortable confronting their peer in class – whether wrongly or rightly, they felt sincerely that their peer would not be willing to fully hear and accept their critique, and they did not want to disrupt their group’s friendly dynamic by pushing the issue.]

Our meeting was fruitful but hard; I know both students worked to be respectful and not to get overly emotional about the stakes involved. (And here I have to say how much I respect the efforts of both in this regard!) I acted as a mediator for this meeting, and I learned two very important things from it.

First (duh!) that I needed to create a safer space for all of my students to share their group feedback. In our debrief of the peer assessment one student suggested we feed back anonymously; rather, I suspect, what needs to happen is that I, as instructor, need to a) create multiple moments of low-pressure feedback throughout the year, culminating in b) a meeting of the group with me in which we decide on shared or individuated grades. My role as mediator is crucial, and it cannot happen in the classroom; it needs to happen in my office, or in another semi-private space where students feel able to speak honestly and openly.

Second, that (hello again!) all group feedback is marked by social privilege, including gender privilege: this was absolutely the case in our meeting, and it brought home to me the lived significance of how these kinds of privilege impact student voices in the classroom, though few students realize it. The way we approach and respond to one another depends on how confident we have become in our own voices and perspectives, be they gendered, raced, or classed. In today’s meeting – which, I want to stress, happened between me and two very mature and thoughtful young adults – I was reminded of this research by Colin Latchem:

Although it is important to avoid gender stereotyping and acknowledge that there can be considerable variations within each gender and particular context, there is a considerable amount of research on psychological gender differences in communications. In general, men are held to construct and maintain an independent self-construal (Cross & Madson, 1997). As a consequence, men tend to be more independent and assertive, use language to establish and maintain status and dominate in relationships, and transmit information and offer advice in order to achieve tangible outcomes. By contrast, women tend to be more expressive, tentative, and polite in conversation, valuing cooperation and using dialogue in order to create and foster intimate bonds with others by talking about issues they communally face (Basow & Rubenfeld, 2003).

Today’s meeting reminded me that I cannot simply give students space to express their feelings about one another’s work; I need to make space in which those feelings can be safely and effectively expressed regardless of social privilege.

Next year, I plan to invite performance groups to feed back to each other informally a few times over the year, and I plan to take an active role in that feedback in order to help students to understand what they are saying to one another, and how they are saying it. At the end of it all we’ll have a chat, and I’ll be a part of it; I’ll try to mediate group challenges, but I’ll also make an effort to talk about how seemingly invisible power dynamics impact what is said between group members, and how.

Because group work isn’t just about students working in groups; it’s about students learning the very human skills of talking to each other across race, gender, class and other social and ethnic boundaries. They need our help to do this well – and we owe it to them, and to our larger world, to help them do it.



Lower the stakes 2.0: some anecdotal evidence to end the semester

A while back I wrote about the pedagogical, and ethical, value of lowering the stakes for students in routine assignments such as essays. My discussion in that case was relatively theoretical; primarily, it focused on the research of José Antonio Bowen. Yesterday, however, I gathered some terrific anecdotal evidence about how the small gestures we make in the classroom to “raise the bar” by “lowering the stakes” really do have qualitatively significant outcomes for students.

This week marks the end of the teaching year at Queen Mary Drama. To cap the semester, my final-year students in “Shakespeare After Shakespeare” presented work toward their final essays; their presentations are a formal assessment, and are worth 20% of their grade in the class. From the beginning of the semester I emphasised to them that these presentations were designed to share initial work on those essays, and that the best presentations would not provide fully thought-through work, but rather initial claims, initial research questions, and good questions for the class to prompt both discussion and helpful feedback. (In other words, I aimed to make the presentations part of a surreptitious “do-over” exercise, not unlike the one I discuss in the post I link to above). Two weeks ago, we did practice group presentations in class; these were created in just fifteen minutes and were not marked. I billed them as a chance to get some feedback on presentation style, and I talked about how many undergraduate students present their work poorly because they haven’t thought much about, or had much direct feedback on, the importance of clarity, pacing, and confidence in oral presentations. (I’ve written about this issue on the blog in the past too; check out this post.) Then, last week, the first wave of students presented; yesterday, we ended our work together with a marathon session of twelve (twelve!) presentations.

Do-over or not, practice or none, I knew the students would be nervous sharing their work, and I knew they’d also be apprehensive yet excited about the arrival of the semester’s end (for quite a few, this was to be their last undergraduate class ever). I also knew we’d be rushed to fit in all the remaining presenters in a two-hour class. In response to this mixed context, I set to work on lowering the stakes further, and upping the enjoyment quotient as far as possible. I moved us out of our usual, rather oppressively institutional room in a nearby mixed-use humanities building, and into one of our department’s familiar spaces, Rehearsal Room One. I booked an extra half hour in the space, knowing we were likely going to need it, and I warned the students in advance that we’d probably run overtime (and that they were free to leave at the regular end of lesson if necessary). I baked a cake (which actually turned out quite well!) and arrived early to make two caffetieres of coffee, laying everything out at a dedicated refreshment table in the space. We started with a few very brief announcements, and with my encouragement to get up and get coffee, cake, or go to the bathroom as needed, because the race to the finish was about to begin.

The students each presented for only five minutes. (As my colleague [and excellent teacher] Catherine Silverstone told me when I began at QM, five minutes is more than enough time for an undergraduate presentation: any longer and the students over-prepare and over-fret, with outcomes diminishing proportionally.) Following their formal talk, they conducted a five-minute feedback chat with their peers and me, based on questions they had prepared for us in advance. I timed everyone rigorously, but very few ran over; similarly, I participated in the feedback discussions, but tried my best to let the students lead them. Overall, I worked to foster a low-key, low-stress environment in which everyone would feel comfortable sharing their half-formed ideas, knowing that half-formed was exactly what was expected – along, of course, with openness to moving in new directions based on feedback.

My subjective impression is that my strategies, taken together, had the desired effect: the students gave some really strong performances. Compared to past presentations of this kind, these were generally really well paced, and many students spoke with impressive confidence. A few whom I feared would cower did not; in fact, their work was among the best in the bunch! Everyone seemed a bit nervous, but most seemed quite comfortable on balance in front of me and their peers. And, to my great glee, a few included hilarious yet pertinent Keynotes and Prezis, making their serious subject matter both interesting and fun.

Those were my impressions; imagine my delight, then, when two of the students approached me after class to let me know how much they appreciated my efforts to “lower the stakes” (their own words!) for the presentation assignment. They commented on how my change in the tone of the task allowed them to see its real point: to talk with peers about what they were working on, share ideas, and get feedback they could chew on, work out, and then maybe (or perhaps not) use, as they saw fit. They mentioned that they had had other presentation experiences where the atmosphere was different and these outcomes did not result; while they didn’t elaborate, I can guess that they were referring to presentations that felt more like “test” than “test-out-your-ideas”. While of course there’s an important place for the former in university – after all, performing under pressure is a very big part of professional labour in the so-called “real world”, including in the world of professional theatre – I think the latter needs to predominate in most learning environments. For one thing, it’s an important precursor to the higher-stakes presentation: it’s where you learn to find your voice, own your space, and present your ideas with confidence. For another, it’s simply more collegial: why teach students that great ideas emerge from our brains fully formed, when the truth is the best intellectual work is always collaborative, and always evolving? I hope this is exactly what our presentation task taught my great group of finalists; I certainly learned more about the benefits of lowering the stakes from watching them present their work over these past two weeks.

Plus, we ate some pretty damn nice cake!


(Parsnip cinnamon cake, from Abel&Cole. Click here for the recipe.)

Happy spring break, everyone!


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. Care.org 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: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/section/1/2/