Kicking Off the New Semester: Grading Contracts (Part II), Portfolios, Podcasts, & the End of the World

We’re almost through the first week of classes at LaGuardia. I’ve tweaked some old things, rolled out some new things, and based upon the insights/connections students are making in our initial meetings, I think a lot of great work is going to happen this semester. 1 I spent some time during the winter break thinking about the grading contract I used during the fall. While the grading contract was an improvement (in my mind) on my older grading practices – and I think it made things more transparent in general – the act of revision was still not prioritized to the level I wanted. My comments were almost editorial on the papers they shared with  me via GoogleDocs, rather than focusing on revisions in a holistic way: mostly because students were still very focused on achieving on the particular grade they had contracted for. Students had minimal feedback on the contract, and there were no real substantive changes made to the content (one class changed the number of required blog posts by only a single posting, another tried to reconfigure the number of allowed absences, suggesting a policy in violation of the college’s attendance requirements – the latter proposal was rejected).

I still see the utility in the contract I used last fall, but I wanted to fold in some new teaching/writing tools this spring – portfolios in particular. With the move to portfolios, Peter Elbow’s and Jane Danielewicz’s “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching” did indeed make more sense than Shor’s for my purposes: their unilateral contract is focused on process and investment in revision, which is the goal of writing portfolios more broadly. The issue of what constitutes the “exceptional writing” in Elbow & Danielewicz’s contract seemed that it could be resolved with a portfolio rubric that had an “above and beyond” category. One of the portfolio rubrics created by Nedra Reynolds and Elizabeth Davis fit the bill, and I adapted it ever-so-slightly. 2 This rubric asks students to consistently link their exhibits/components to the course objectives, and to contextualize and narrate their work for the portfolio reader. I initially kicked around the idea with colleague Naomi Stubbs, who especially liked the idea of an outside reader. Another co-worker in the English department, Dominique Zino, was incredibly helpful in talking through/giving feedback on the portfolio process, and we will swap class portfolios and serve as the outside evaluators (we hope to get more participants/evaluators on board after we try things out this spring).

As Reynolds and Davis suggest, “choice, variety, and reflection” are key to writing portfolios. 3 There are many models that give students free rein in deciding on the portfolio components, and others that stipulate general guidelines. Since it is my first stab at portfolios, I wanted to present my students with some basic component guidelines: they will submit a reflective introductory analysis, two revised formal essays, an example of revision, an example of peer review, 2-3 pieces of informal writing that made its way into larger class papers/projects, and one “Wild Card” submission. Many of these elements and descriptions were drawn from the model that the University of Georgia uses in its composition program, though I do not anticipate using their rubrics; however, I hope these general guidelines gave students structure without restricting them, and that the writing process itself is prioritized. The Prezi I prepared to give students an overview of the Portfolio is below and linked here.

Another colleague made me re-think the final product (among other things) in my composition class. Laura Tanenbaum recently wrote a piece called “8 Approaches to the Papers/Grading Dilemma” over at her blog The Golden Notebooks, wherein she suggests that teachers consider “writing assignments BEFORE your reading list/syllabus,” and to “try to give students ‘real’ rather than ‘fake’ problems to solve. Have them create knowledge rather than simply reporting it.” I used this strategy recently in the postcolonial World Lit capstone class, where students created/expanded on Wikipedia entries (we read ancient Greek tragedies, then postcolonial adaptations) – but I am not consistent in this project/problem-based learning. I had begun thinking about readings for my composition sections in the spring, but hadn’t thought about the endgame for the class. Since I was (belatedly) binging on Serial at the time and had incorporated a podcast into our potential class materials, I suppose it’s not surprising that I arrived at podcasts as a multimodal project that would allow students to engage with social issues in a more public way. Thus, students in my composition sections will be creating at least two podcasts: one will be a reflection on/discussion of themes and readings from the class (sort of a “warm up”), and the second will be an oral history or interview project, where students will research a particular community or issue before they pitch their project and create the artifact. You can read more about the class and what we’re up to on our site. The Writing Through Literature class (the second level comp) will have an opportunity to explore some of the themes and elements we encounter in our readings on dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature by creating interactive fiction pieces using the platform inklewriter. The full reading list is also posted online: yet another colleague, Christopher Schmidt, wrote a great article on JSTOR Daily, “Why are Dystopian Films on the Rise Again?,” which students really delved into as our first assigned reading.

As usual, I hope to revisit and reflect on the portfolio, contract, and course projects here and beyond. And, as usual, feel free to share comments/critiques/support/outrage below.


  1. In my composition classes yesterday, students came to class armed with double-entry notebooks on “Race,” “Ethnicity,” and “Ideology” from Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin’s Postcolonial Studies: The Key Concepts. I projected a few images from mostly 19th century works on race with little information other than the source, and asked them what the image had to do with the readings. They had 30 seconds to reflect on the image and review their notes before we launched into discussion. They generated ideas about (and elaborated on) imperialism, the “Other,” phrenology, polygenesis, interpellation (one class wanted to go more in depth about Marxist notions of “false consciousness”), and hierarchy, consistently linking the images back to quotes and concepts from the text. I did a happy dance when I got back to my office.
  2. Nedra Reynolds and Elizabeth Davis, Portfolio Teaching: A Guide for Instructors. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014.
  3. Ibid., 4.

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