The Application of a Labor Model of Assessment in the Humanities

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Margot la Critique, Félix Bracquemond. Wikimedia Commons.

ere’s a real world comparison of two class evaluative events in a first year humanities course.

Critique Model A. Students arrive for group critiques on their assigned work. Their work is assessed in a form that consists of mostly negative commentary about elements students find not to work, more negative comments commonly called ‘helpful recommendations.’

At the end of the critique, students either toss their work in the trash or stop their line of inquiry — after all it was just an assignment. Maybe a student believes the work is good but that the professor and peers just didn’t like it or understand it, or maybe the student considers them all simply a bunch of institutionalized crap-spewers. Either way, the student has lost the mojo.

A critique is made exponentially worse when a professor doesn’t like a work and other students gang up to curry professorial favor.

Comments on critique model A.

I used to assess work in group group critiques and I saw these dynamics in play, even as I wished they would not occur. It bothered me that students hardly considered the work before launching into critiques and helpful recommendations. As expected many of the comments had little to do with the work.

The thing that bothered me the most was the way in which I wasn’t getting what I wanted from students. By students I mean to rephrase: adult artists early in their artistic careers, whether writers or visual artists, the domain is irrelevant here. I wasn’t seeing the facilitation of intrinsic motivation; instead, students tried to do fulfill what they thought I wanted or what they supposed I might consider good. I found that students were not reflecting on their work and thus were unable to begin to recognize any possible voice they might have. They refrained from taking risks because they wanted a good critique. They put too much emphasis on feedback from peers. I didn’t feel that I was particularly facilitating student self-empowerment and agency. I was setting up biased hierarchies of good versus not so good both in work and with students that only disenfranchised some students while privileging others. Of course I was able to justify my bad methods by my grades, and if challenged I could back it up with a rationale. At that time, I was not recognizing real diversity in knowledge bases and abilities. My list of problems in model A goes on and on. I pause to point out that based on my knowledge university critiques still operate in most humanities courses where creative works are asked for. I call it teaching through negativity and exclusion.

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Protestaktion “Alle für Ai Weiwei” auf der dOCUMENTA 13. August 23, 2012. Wikipedia Commons.

Critique Model B. Students bring in their creations that they believe fulfill the stated assignment criteria. They each get a stated time limit during which they talk about how their work fulfills the assignment, what they were attempting to convey, and how (if assigned) they feel they pushed themselves or took risks. If time allows, they can ask the group questions. Other students are permitted to say what they find good or of interest, they are allowed to offer some context, for example a student might mention an author the young writer wish to look at. Students are not permitted to say anything negative about the work. They cannot offer helpful hints such as, “what if you tried” such and such, or “have you thought of” sorts of statements. At the end the student has presented and perhaps obtained some feedback.

Comments on critique model B.

Let me pose the question. In model B has learning taken place? Certainly the second model is not mimicking the petty negativity and cliques found in real world milieus, but we must remind ourselves these are young creative people and this is a formal institution of higher learning. The classroom is not the real world, nor should it be. A classroom requires excellence in teaching and learning in things called courses and classes that are designed under a scarcity of time model. We privilege certain aspects of domain specific knowledge in them for certain pedagogical reasons.

The argument that critiques are necessary because the real world of the arts is so competitive, is undone by the fact that critiques generally do not take place in the real world. One might seek out a critique group but normally creative people create and they send their stuff out for publication or shows, and they get accepted or rejected. Or they get a show and perhaps a review that basically describes the work. Nobody out there sits down and critically analyzes their work. Critiques are simply not a real world skill that’s used or demanded.

What then do students learn in model B. Students gain confidence presenting their work with belief and authority. They learn to own their decisions. They learn their practice is reliant upon intrinsic, not extrinsic motivation. This helps ensure they will continue their practice once they graduate. They learn the value of a supportive community that’s not all about survival of the fittest, and while this is at tension with historic models of the commodification of art, it’s a route that is a reality for most artists in the world today. They begin to realize that creating is about finding and clarifying their voice. The being to learn that all criteria of judgement is suspect because it’s individual, biased, or mostly the unconsidered acceptance of historic criteria. They begin to see their own beliefs about good and bad work being challenged as all students are supported and their learning is facilitated.

To privilege model A means that a professor or student is stuck in the mud of outdated ideas of assessment and pedagogy and in doing so would have to deny pluralism and diversity, and as well would have to deny good teaching and contemporary research regarding best practices of assessment.

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Rainbow Panorama, ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum by Olafur Eliasson. Wikimedia Commons.

Grading under the Labor Model

using ‘labor model,’ I draw upon an essay by Asau B. Inoue titled A Grade-Less Writing Course that Focuses on Labor and Assessing. Inoue defines labor that the “items to turn in, documents to submit, and texts to read” (p. 72) rather than the effort or documents due. Labor signals “quantity of time and effort put into a project or activity” (p. 73). At an even deeper level for Inoue, labor describes and acknowledges a “degree of effort” (p. 73) expected in the course. Inoue emphasizes time spent on the assignment as the most accessible way for students who work in labor economies to understand what he means. I recommend reading it. As I mentioned in an earlier article, (A Better University Level Appropriate Model for First Year Grading in the Arts) I have used my own version of grading on labor, I never called it this, for a few years now. I tried about every other model and currently, still, consider this to be the best model for assessment in first year university level humanities courses where students bring in their created work.

In some pseudo-objective universe based on my own biases, is the created and presented work by students up and down? Sure. But that’s not a very good question. A better question, and by better I mean more directly linked to the course, is: Does the created work fulfill the stated assigned criteria. This is what I really want. I’ve designed the course to include specific reinforcement of classroom activities and content and I’ve designed it in a scaffolded manner, so that by meeting the individual steps, students are able to attain stated learner outcomes by the end of the course.

There are other outcomes too that I consider equally valid. Students, because they have succeeded, continue onward with excitement. I find they are more likely to stick with lines of inquiry and the associated work. They are more likely to take risks because they are not penalized for doing so. They begin not to seek external validation in the form of praise, rather they recognize validation in the doing and the presentation, which helps add up to intrinsic motivation.

used to think I could identify the students who were talented. I was wrong. I’ve seen students who I thought were talented give up creating once they graduated, I’ve seen students I thought were terrible turn into amazing artists during the course of their learning program. I don’t even bother trying to figure any of this out anymore. I learned that I had simply been applying my own narrow minded biases upon a diverse body of students and their creations, often to their detriment. I eventually figured out, if there’s one predictor I can count on, it’s that students who continue to put the labor into their creative practice usually get somewhere interesting.

So if the students fulfill the stated assignment criterial, they get an A. If they struggle, my job is to help facilitate their learning by identifying areas where they are not yet fulfilling stated expectations and I try to see what I can do to help them fulfill them. Do all students automatically get an A? Against all help, against all odds, there seem to be some who just don’t care enough to work to undertake the labor to meet the stated criteria. On the other hand, most do. A high percentage of students view grading on labor as equating with pass/fail, and I don’t see this as a problem.

I have also tested this model of grading on labor at higher levels where more is expected from students and learner outcomes are harder to meet. The short answer is it works just great. In fact I believe that good pedagogical practices supported by research better dovetail with the grading on labor model. I’ll leave it to someone else to cite all the articles and to put it into journalese language. And I’ll let someone else do the study to look into retention rates with respect to this model.

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Draft of writing, Charles Dickens for Great Expectations.

For those who want to argue that the labor model waters down learning, I doubt they’ll find much to good research back up their opinion. In medicine, for example, if all students pass the test there is no problem. If all students meet stated learner outcomes there is no problem. Most arguments against this model presuppose and enjoy a history of purposefully vague criteria and learner outcomes in formal art institutions. The reasons if we dig deeply enough are obvious: nepotism, power, selection, bias, and discrimination. Elbow and Danielewicz (2008) cite a number of studies that show for example that any paper can receive a grade from A to F, that an A cannot have universal meaning, and that professors are liable to apply their own scales inconsistently from paper to paper. (See Kirschenbaum, Simon, and Napier (1971); Diederich, (1974). These are early but in my opinion one would be hard put to find significant change today. Read the forums regarding higher ed to see nearly daily evidence.

To restate: No longer is any domain in the humanities rules by one set of criteria that every student must conform to.

The labor grading model thus subverts the multiple, single letter grading system and it should. In agreement, although defending a contract grading model, are Peter Elbow and Jane Danielewicz write, “conventional grading rests on two principles that are patently false. Professionals in our field do not have common standards for grading; and that the ‘quality’ of a multidimensional product can be fairly or accurately represented with a conventional one-dimensional grade. In the absence of genuinely common standards or a valid way to represent quality, every grade masks the play of hidden biases and a host of other a priori power differentials.” They are unequivocally right on this issue. In a sense, the contract grading model and the labor model are very similar in that both help diminish power and authority of the professor, and they focus on students owning, in a sense, their labor and work.

The point is, it’s way past the time that institutions and programs should have thoroughly reevaluated irresponsible grading in the humanities at the introductory level in a manner that penalizes students for being creative and diverse.


Diederich, P. (1974). Measuring Growth in English. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Elbow, P., and Danielewicz, J. (2008). A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching. College Composition and Communication, 3.

Inoue, A. (2014). A Grade-Less Writing Course That Focuses on Labor and Assessing, retrieved online at

Asau B. Inoue, University of Washington-Tacoma

Kirschenbaum, S., and Napier, R. (1971). Wad-Ja-Get? The Grading Game in American Education. NY: Hart Publishing.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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