Celebrating 50 years of publishing a Radical Journal of Geography, 1969-2019
by Culum Canally, Wilfrid Laurier University
Over the last several years I have been involved in numerous discussions and academic panels that lament the reduction in public funding and simultaneous encroachment of private moneyed interests into the sphere of public higher education. This process is often termed the “neoliberalization” of higher education by its critics and has resulted in universities taking on the feel and function of large for-profit corporations complete with highly-paid senior administrators who demand economic rather than humanistic justification for the actions of faculty. It has also brought about the relentless pursuit of worker productivity through technology, precarious labor, and the standardization of administrative and classroom practices. As insightful as these critics of the neoliberal academy have been in pointing out many of the causes and negative effects of the neoliberalization of higher education, they are virtually silent about the role the academic laborer has in fostering the process (Aronowitz, 2000; Giroux, 1983; Giroux and Giroux, 2004; McLaren, 2005). This blind spot inhibits them from developing a coherent strategy for resisting the intensification of harmful neoliberal practices.
Critics of the neoliberalization of public universities often view the encroachment of a free-market ethos into higher education as being exogenously imposed on the university by capitalist forces seeking to better control academia, and students’ minds for their own gain. In addition, these critics often see themselves as individuals trying to hold back the rising tide of neoliberal oppression that is turning their workplace from an institution of scholarly pursuits to an assembly line churning out “knowledge” and “knowledge workers” for the “knowledge economy”. So far, their best strategy for resisting the privatization of public education has been to create awareness through the publication of research and analysis in journals, books, and conference presentations that shows the detrimental effects this is having on the academy and society (Saunders, 2010). Since these critics assume that they are not complicit in this process, they believe that they have little or no options to resist or reverse it, outside of analyzing its impacts and lamenting its inevitability. I disagree. I believe that academic staff (professors, lecturers, and teaching assistants) are not objects within the neoliberal university. Instead, they are an integral part of the neoliberalization of public education through the practice of grading, and as such can use grading, or more specifically not grading, as an enormously powerful tool to resist the further imposition of neoliberal practices on public higher education.
Grading has become the core function of the modern system of higher education. Nearly every process in the university relies on grades from matriculation, class enrollment, financial aid, and graduation, to departmental accreditation and a school’s reputation. University administrators particularly fret about “grade inflation” and its impact on their school’s or department’s reputation of academic rigor. Increasingly, employers are looking at not just a student’s degree but also their transcripts to determine whether they would be suitable employees (Iacus and Porro, 2011). In addition, the heavy emphasis on grades by institutions of higher education and private and public sector employers have caused students’ to fetishize the grade to the detriment of learning. It is safe to say that if the academic staff, whom are most in control of the grading process, took a principled stand and refused to grade, the current system that values the measurable outcomes of classroom activity because it cannot measure the valuable learning that should go on in a university*, would be disrupted.
Those who currently teach in the university are fostering neoliberalism on public university and college campuses by creating classroom environments that mimic the non-democratic workplace championed by union-busting corporations and politicians. By enforcing a hierarchy between teacher and student, fostering competition between students, using the coercive measures to ensure obedience, and discouraging creativity and critical thought (all practices inherent in the practice of grading) academic staff are complicit in the neoliberalization of higher education. This is problematic for two reasons. First, critical pedagogical and andragogical theory and research demonstrates that this type of environment is antithetical to learning (Flecha, 2000; Johnston, 2004). People learn better when they are in a collegial atmosphere where they can make mistakes or voice their thoughts without fear of being punished or admonished (Simon, Bellanca, Bailey, and National Center for Grading/Learning Alternatives, 1976).
Second, in addition to being a tremendous detriment to student learning, grading is also problematic because it opens up the practice of teaching and learning to the rhetoric of neoliberal capitalism (Elton, 2010). This puts pedagogues at a significant disadvantage in defining the function of higher education. While many academic workers eschew the stultifying goals of standardized measurable outputs imposed by career administrators, they often reify them by perpetuating the same practices in their classrooms. By demanding rigid adherence to a set of predefined criteria and punishing those that do not meet these narrow parameters with low or failing grades, faculty are perpetuating the same obedience to hierarchy that is the benchmark of neoliberalism.
The contradiction is not lost on establishment media. A recent article in the New York Times began “[g]rades are the currency of education” and proceeded to chastise the hypocrisy of teachers’ colleges for assigning grades to their students but not wanting to be graded themselves (Gabriel, 2011). Portraying university faculties like petulant students, the piece continues “…many of the schools are unhappy, marching to the principal’s office to complain the system is unfair”. This speaks volumes to the contradiction of faculty that perpetuate the audit culture, which in turn supports a neoliberal university, while simultaneously eschewing the same structures they place on students. When it comes to their ability to teach and research, faculty members often recognize the detrimental impacts of standardization. However, when it comes to student learning this lesson is often forgotten. Or perhaps many of them see grading as ancillary to their teaching or a necessary evil and, as a result, fail to recognize the corrosive effect it has on students, their own teaching, and the narrative that the university is a place of learning not training. If faculty members want to resist the encroachment on their academic freedom that has resulted from the increased standardization of their work environment they should not reify the tools being used against them.
Therefore, to create a space for a non-economic rationale of publicly funded higher education, I propose that academic staff stop grading students. A job action that results in the refusal to assign grades to students would go a long way to asserting the position of academic staff to define the role of higher education in society. A movement such as this that sees faculty either refusing to grade students, assigning all students who register in their course top marks, or, my choice, allowing students to grade themselves based on their own assessment criteria would allow academic staff to take greater control of their workplace.
First, it would free teachers to teach, or facilitate learning, instead of being classroom managers. Instead of the Kafkaesque task of penalizing students for their perceived failures we could spend more of our energy and time providing constructive feedback that would actually be helpful to students. In addition, we would spend less time preparing tedious multiple choice exams or marking redundant essays and more time producing ludic learning exercises that stimulate students’ interest in a subject. It would also eliminate the odious and soul-crushing moments when students ask questions about their marks as opposed to the material being discussed in class.
Next, eliminating grading from the classroom would contribute to a learning environment free of extrinsically imposed competition and coercion. The coercion inherent in the practice of grading does not motivate students to engage with course material rather it causes the students to loose their intrinsic joy for learning. Instead of demonstrating to students that the material is so distasteful that they need to be coerced into learning it, we could labor under the more accurate belief that students have an instinctive desire to know more about the subject. Thus, demonstrating that coercion is antithetical to learning would counter the notion the students are lazy and need to be coerced to productively participate in society. Not encouraging a competitive, coercive environment in the classroom would go a long way toward producing cooperative, egalitarian spaces of learning that further demonstrate the blatant failings of a neoliberal model of education.
Finally, a refusal to grade students would confront the neoliberal, anti-Humboldtian idea that the university must justify its actions and existence strictly through economic rationale. Grades have become the linchpin of the accounting culture that pervades higher education. Unfortunately accountability is never to students but instead to university administrations more interested in the prestige of the university than with the learning, or lack thereof, occurring in the classroom. By grading students, academic staff are reifying and standardizing the instruments that allow university administrators to hold them accountable for the quantity and quality of the “knowledge workers” that they are supposed to produce. Career administrators use data directly related to students’ grades to produce macroeconomic rationale to obtain more financial support for the university from corporate funders or corporate-funded politicians. This in turn reinforces a fallacious feedback loop whereby employers and students believe that the role of the university is to produce knowledge workers. When this does not happen to the complete satisfaction of employers and their prospective workers, senior university administrators put pressure on faculty to offer courses and content with more direct benefits to the economy and practical applications for the workforce. Not grading robs administrators of this tool of standardization. It also operationalizes an alternative to the fallacious assertion that the role of higher education is to use a banking model of learning to train students to enter the workforce (Elton, 2010; Freire, 1970). Since employers will no longer be able to utilize university transcripts or degrees to gauge students’ obedience to a neoliberal curriculum they will be forced to use extracurricular means to determine a candidate’s suitability for a job.
Demonstrating that learning is something other than the measurable accumulation of knowledge and skills, a grade abolition movement within the academy would challenge the core assumptions about higher education that has evolved to suit a neoliberal agenda that benefits an elite capitalist class. This means that academic staff would no longer have to justify their existence and their practices in purely economic terms and instead could begin focusing on the humanistic role of public higher education in society (Readings, 1996) while simultaneously providing a better learning environment for students (Connor, 2007). In other words, refusing to mimic the hierarchy of neoliberal capitalism in the classroom would give academic staff a powerful, consistent position on issues and questions related to the role of higher education in society.
* Paraphrasing Robert Birnbaum in Gaye Tuchman’s (2009) Wannabe U: “…an education philosopher might claim that those things of greatest value are precisely those things that cannot be measured…If we cannot measure what is valuable we will come to value what is measurable”.
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