Passing the Buck: The First Major Grade

This is the latest in my updates about my experiment in ungrading. The first post is here. The second here. And the third here

After I first gave feedback to my online classes, I got a couple of “how can I raise my grade” e-mails.

I told them: “Remember that, as per the syllabus, you don’t technically have any grades yet. The score I gave you for your participation is only feedback. Your first actual grade will come when we confer on your Memoir essay in a couple of weeks. Your grade for participation in the discussion forums won’t be final until the end of the semester. For now, use the rubric in the syllabus to assess your own participation. Did you look at the comments I gave you about your participation? Do you agree with my assessment?”

So my students are definitely still thinking about grades, and–frankly–so am I. If anything, I’m thinking about grades more this semester than ever before.

In my “live” classes, the progress reports–required every three weeks–are weights around my ankles. I was so frustrated by them that I sought help and advice from my Facebook group for “teachers throwing out grades.” Some there were appalled at the idea of three week progress report cycles, and I agree. They are pointless, but mandatory. The people who’ve successfully managed this transition would probably have their eyes roll out of their heads if I told them that my district required fifteen daily grades each grading period–a requirement I am able to skirt only because I teach Dual Credit and the syllabus I file with the college trumps those rules.

This past week that syllabus said it was time for students to submit their first major essay, the Memoir.

I made one critical mistake leading up to this first “ungraded” essay–an unforced error. In class, I typically spend some time going through sample essays and practicing with the rubric. Because of remote learning, when I was prioritizing what students could do independently and what I would try to coordinate through the teeny tiny video windows in Microsoft Teams, I blundered and decided not to spend a lot of time calibrating with the rubric. This was a hair-brained mistake. Obviously if the students are going to be scoring themselves, then the last thing I should have trimmed back was time using the rubric. I foolishly counted on an example I provided with its own written evaluation being enough for them to calibrate. At least this is a mistake I don’t have to repeat and with the next major essay I can spend more time in scoring practice (punchline: we just got word that we won’t be going back to class in person next week after all, so I won’t be able to do the activity I’d planned–awesome).

The other problems I have with my system are harder to band aid.

And there are problems. I have to admit to being pretty disappointed. I know that expecting everything to go smoothly would be absurd. Obviously, a shift like this in my grading practices and in the structure of my class was going to require tinkering, redesign, and growing pains. But after the first major grade, I feel like my basic design is inadequate and that finishing the semester without rebuilding the plane in mid-flight is going to be tedious and tiresome.

Probably partly because of my poor decision not to spend more time putting them through the paces with the rubric, I feel like the grades students are walking away with are wildly inconsistent. I’m letting some talk their way into higher grades than I would have given them while others mark themselves down…But from past experience I know that even with group and class activities with the rubric, some students come away with wildly different notions of what good writing looks like. I think the only way to do this kind of ungrading well is to have individual conferences with each student. This system where I only engage when I see a big discrepancy just isn’t fair. But I cannot imagine how to scavenge enough time to meet with every student one-on-one.

But more than anything, I’m not seeing enough of the quality reflections I’d want to, ideally. Some are thoughtful, but for the most part I think they’re perfunctory. They’re not doing them because they want to think deeply about their progress as writers, but because they have to, because I made them.

Because they need their grades.

We are all, the kids and I, still trapped in a crappy system. My grand plan to try to break us out of it feels naive and draining for all involved.

Dear Melissa, who said she wasn’t voting for Biden because she’s Cuban and would never vote for socialism

Dear Melissa,

First of all, no, I would not like to “spit at you” and didn’t think that asking if you’d support Biden was at all like spitting at you. So, sorry about that.

I would have liked to discuss some issues with you when we spoke on the phone, but since I was calling on behalf of the Sierra Club and they’d asked me not to argue with anyone, I didn’t argue.

But I do wish we could have talked more. You said that, as a Cuban, you could never vote for Biden because his plans were socialist.

That’s not really accurate, but that’s not even the part I want to discuss with you.

Let me ask you, Melissa, what is the real problem in Cuba? Is it really socialism?

Are the Cuban people complaining about their socialist healthcare system, for example?

Or is the real problem in Cuba authoritarianism? The lack of transparency in government? The lack of democratic representation in government? Aren’t those the things that are really wrong with Cuba?

Because those are the things that Trump represents.

He has already gutted our government by installing figures loyal to him–not to America, and not to the constitution, to him. Does that remind you of any communist dictators? Guys like Castro? Demanding loyalty? I think so.

You can kind of see how Trump feels about authoritarianism from the way he talks about dictators, don’t you think?

Because he sees himself as an authoritarian ruler like those dictators, Trump has undermined our democracy as much as he can, both by seeking foreign interference and by questioning the legitimacy of the upcoming election. He and his party are trying to suppress voters and delegitimize votes, basically doing anything they can to maintain what is already minority rule by the Republican party. (I’m sure you know Trump lost the popular vote by millions, but did you know, Melissa, that the 53 Republican senators represent ten million fewer Americans than the 47 Democratic senators?)

Basically, Trump’s party knows that they are facing a country where they can no longer win in open, fair elections at the national level and they’re looking to rig the process in their favor. Rigged elections where the outcomes were already decided are one of those things I remember learning about communism in school. How about you?

Now, Melissa, I know that the scars from Castro’s regime run deep in the Cuban American community, but everything that makes America different from Cuba is under threat right now. So maybe you should look past boogeyman scary words like “socialism,” which is–for the record–actually a pretty far cry from what Joe Biden represents, and focus on the tangible, harmful things that this president has done to our nation and our world.


Richard Helmling

(and not the Sierra Club)

On coincidentally completing both Snow Crash and Lexicon on successive days…

This happened by accident.

I finished Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash yesterday. Then today, I first tried out a preview for a book called Codex, but it didn’t catch my interest. So I loaded a sneak peek of the next book down on my Amazon wish list (which is really, really long by the way) and it happened to be this book Lexicon by Max Barry. (Also coincidentally, both of these books found their way onto my wish list via recommendations/interactions from different and unrelated Facebook friends.)  It was interesting, so I bought the whole book. Then I just kept reading.

It turns out that central to both books is the idea that there is a root language that is so primal, so essential that it can directly “hack” the human brain. There’s a language beneath all language and if you knew these words then you could literally rewire or control human beings.

So Babel was real. It was something that happened.

Stephenson takes the time to really develop the software/hardware analogy in Snow Crash. This ancient/primal/metavirus language in our brains is like the BIOS in our mental computers. Our other languages and everything else we have running is just software. But this BIOS is the core machine language of the human brain. If you could speak directly to it, then you could circumvent all the rest–go right to running the hardware.

Of course, I don’t buy it. But it made for a great story. Well, two great stories.

The larger point, though, is whether the hardware/software analogy has broader application. Joss Whedon had a show called Dollhouse not long ago in which human beings could have their software rewritten–in which people could be programmed with different personalities, different identities.

Scary, but true shit: There are people working on that sort of thing in labs right f’ing now.

Western thought has always grappled with the question of our essential nature–of what cogito ergo sum really means for us in practical terms–and we, lucky us, are on the verge of living through the time when we will have that all worked out, down to a science. The implications are, well, obviously dangerous.

In Lexicon and Snow Crash, (spoiler alert!) the genie is shoved back in the bottle and civilization is saved from the madmen who want to use the uber-word to enslave mankind. The world of Dollhouse, not so lucky. In that story, human civilization has a slight case of Armageddon before destroying the unfortunate technology behind the global mind-wipe.

That’s not the scariest scenario, though. At least, I don’t think so. If our minds can be rewritten–and I guess based on recent science there’s no reason to believe that, given enough computing power and the right tools, they can’t be–then what value is there in our minds, really?

Isn’t it possible that one mad genius could use something (an all-controlling bare-word, a meta-virus mind-hack, a brain-wiping doll-making techno-blaster, what-ever) to enslave the rest of mankind to cater to his every whim, to truly be the Alpha and Omega of all Homo sapiens sapiens.

Then, as he looks down from atop his pyramid of orgiastic self-worship, might he not–in a soul-crushing moment of self-insight–realize that his desires, his wants, his megalomaniacal need was no more significant than all the thoughts he wiped out of the minds of the rest of us.

Maybe it’s like the end of Oldboy (look it up, if you dare). Maybe that’s why Babel happened–happens in myth after myth after myth. Because ultimately, it’s better to just be confused and aimless.

Strange Inspiration

Those who read these pages faithfully (and how many are you, I always have to wonder, since you appear to me as little spikes on a line graph and little more–do you forgive me that I never find the time to learn more about you) and study the time stamps carefully will recognize that lately I’ve been caught by a long, inescapable cycle of insomnia.

I never know what to make of this. At least, not entirely. I do know that in part, it’s a simple and inevitable consequence of two converging trends in my life:  too little exercise and too many little things at work nagging for attention, leaving my mind over-busy and my body lurching through its business like an engine with too many miles on it.

Finding the will power to get up and hit the pool before I slap eggos in the toaster oven and PB on slices of bread in the morning would probably set everything straight, but somehow I haven’t for weeks and weeks now.

And this is the consequence.

A ticking clock and a restless mind. Typical unsteady me.

Through it all, in the liminal space when I’m alone and awake but asleep and surrounded, there’s been these few staticky images recurring. Imaginary spaces where I take myself to be away from all the things that might keep me from being asleep. Places where there is only the white noise of some great world-engine and no dawn coming for years and years so I might as well slumber.

It was just a game I played with my own thoughts, to trick them into resting–the opposite of the jerking hallucinations of falling and spycraft machines in the wallpaper that sometimes jerk me awake–but now tonight, I’ve seen a form behind them all.

And I see it’s not just static, but a story arc waiting to be, like the keel of a ship seen from below, slicing through dark water.

In a fit I jotted it all down–a few phrases, a sketch of a girl and a man, one title–and I see that I have a whole set of novels waiting to be written. At least eight. It’s probably a decade of my future life waiting to be lived/written.

All from a thought I might have chased away weeks ago but didn’t.

One More Thing…

Screen Shot 2013-01-15 at 6.19.50 PM

A friend pointed out to me today that I have no links to the fine folks over at Fiction Brigade, which is a terrible (and apparently long-standing) oversight.

So, the Stories page has been updated and you can also link to the flash fiction story I published with them a while back.