No Grades in Higher Education Now!

Is the revolution any closer?

Author and social scientist Stuart Tannock has recently published a historical and critical overview of the practice of grading in education, in which he concludes:

This article uses the example of assessment to argue that if the public university is to perform the role of fostering critical, reflexive, independent and democratically minded thinkers – a role that has been universally embraced by its promoters – then the use of grading in higher education assessment needs to be strongly contested.1

Tannock’s article was notably inspired by my academic freedom battle that Tannock describes regarding the grading dimension. Tannock’s article starts:

Not grading in higher education matters. In January 2014, arbitrator Foisy (2014) upheld the firing of Denis Rancourt by the University of Ottawa over his refusal to grade students ‘objectively’. Rancourt was a physics professor who, after taking a sabbatical year in 2003 during which he read widely in progressive pedagogy (including the works of Paulo Freire, Noam Chomsky, Alfie Kohn, Paul Goodman, etc.), decided to abandon grading (Rancourt 2009). Arguing that grading undermines learning and is undemocratic, Rancourt told students in one of his courses they would all receive a mark of A+, and offered another course on a pass/fail basis only: in both cases, he was challenged by university administrators. Rancourt’s refusal to change his assessment practices led eventually to his being banned from campus, arrested, handcuffed and fired. Student supporters rallied to his cause under the banner ‘Grades Hurt, End the Pain’, with one group calling themselves the ‘Anti-Grading Liberation Front’ and arguing that ‘abolishing grades is the rightful path towards liberation and it will transform education to release the full potential of human creativity’ (quoted in Bayblab 2009). Academics from across Canada likewise wrote letters to support Rancourt’s arguments against the use of grading in higher education (Veilleux 2009; Westhues 2009; Cosco 2010).

In this conflict, the arbitrator’s ruling in favour of Rancourt’s firing is revealing. For Foisy (2014, 31–32) does not challenge Rancourt’s arguments about the harmful impact of grading on student learning, but acknowledges that he ‘may very well’ be right and that ‘a number of researchers have written books on this teaching approach applied by Professor Rancourt’. The arbitrator argues, however, that though Rancourt’s statements of the need to change assessment practices in higher education are protected by the principle of academic freedom, his actions in actually attempting to change these practices are not:

The University is not disciplining Professor Rancourt for his ideas or beliefs in regards to his teaching method…. [The University] made it very clear that Professor Rancourt could openly promote his convictions as to teaching in his classroom, on campus and elsewhere. The research aspect and the promotion of ideas is one thing, the implementation is quite another. (28)

In explaining why it is so important for universities to retain ‘the right’ to require professors to grade ‘objectively’ – interpreted as grading students ‘comparatively’ – the arbitrator makes no reference to what is best for learning, but only to the need to sort students for future career progression and financial gain (Foisy 2014, 32). Without the use of grades that rank students in relation to one another, Foisy (2014, 25) argues, ‘grading of students would become meaningless’.

The case of Denis Rancourt and the University of Ottawa, though like any case having its own idiosyncrasies, raises issues of general relevance across the higher education sector. In part, these come from arguments made by Rancourt himself: that assessment matters. In recent years, in the context of a global struggle against public funding cuts and rising tuition fees, university student and staff protesters have come together around the common cause of defending the ‘public university’ from further neoliberalisation, marketisation and privatisation. Yet, the concept of the public university has generally been underdeveloped and there is a danger of rallying to try to save a model of higher education that contains its own injustices and inequalities (Marginson 2011). As some argue, it is not enough to ‘defend the university in its current form’; […]1

Tannock’s final words are: “the problem of grading in assessment should once again be brought to the forefront of our collective attention.” I agree!

The next questions, which Tannock’s writing suggests, are: “How will grading be brought to the forefront?” and “How might a non-grading revolution actually occur?”

Tannock proposes that intellectual discourse in favour of a democratic public university is an essential prerequisite for the change that he advocates, and seems to imply that more articles (such as his article and maybe this one?) might eventually bring university communities to want to move away from the proven harmful effects of grading.

Whereas I don’t know of any case where radical transformation of an institution came from democratic discourse generated within the institution, there are many examples where actual rebellious acts and transformation movements against institutions were protected by being broadly condoned by one or more social classes or groups in society.

Even the elite classes can be brought to accept radical transformations of the institutions that serve their interests if those institutions are exposed as being so dysfunctional that to support the dysfunction is a threat to one’s self-image. Upper-class support for the abolition of slavery can be partly understood in this way.2

However, I am not convinced that “recent calls to defend and reimagine the public university [are] an essential prerequisite for developing an alternative.”1

Rather, I think that radical changes mostly occur from the catalyzing effects and coalescence of rebellions that emerge when there are broad socioeconomic pressures causing extraordinary self-image-affecting tensions or incongruences in the individual, as I have attempted to describe recently for the case of the university.3

These rebellions are accompanied by elite-class and professional-class rationalizations and adjustments, when they are not simply quashed.3 They are also accompanied by reflective expression about the process of the active change, as part of the “praxis” of the revolution, but it is difficult to discern cases where theoretical musings caused revolutions.

Maybe Tannock’s article is part of his praxis that will culminate in increasingly oppositional acts of resistance against the institution, or maybe it simply bears witness to growing tensions and incongruencies in today’s institutionalized individual? Or is it just a contribution towards the normal adjustments that preserve and optimize the institution without democratizing its control?4

One feature of Tannock’s article that is of some guidance in answering these questions is his perspective of wanting to design a public university that serves the public good. His design imperative appears to motivate and trump his rebellion imperative, whereas in a truly democratic evolution of a structure there is no such overriding principle, only a commitment to democracy and a trust that actuated participatory democracy will produce the best possible result for the participating individuals, and thus for society.

In that sense, there is a tension in Tannock’s work, between social design by elite-class professionals (education theorists) on the one hand and the rebellion impulse that is characteristic of anarchism and libertarianism on the other hand. That tension is evident in the title itself of his article.1

I see the iconic battle between socialism and anarchism being waged in Tannock’s article, as though it were a co-authored essay by Marx and Bakunin. Marx won in theory. Bakunin won in reality. Che Guevara explained that the biggest impediment to the revolution was the communist organizers and educators.5

  1. Tannock, Stuart, “No grades in higher education now! Revisiting the place of graded assessment in the reimagination of the public university” [italics in the original], Studies in Higher Education, 2015, 1-13. [] [] [] []
  2. Rancourt, Denis G., “Psycho-biological basis for image leverage and the case of Israel,” Activist Teacher, June 12, 2010; and see the essays in Rancourt, Denis G., Hierarchy and Free Expression in the Fight Against Racism, Strairway Press, 2013. []
  3. Rancourt, Denis G., “Predicting the Next Juvenile Revolution,”Dissident Voice, August 30, 2015. [] []
  4. See: Rancourt, Denis G., “Gradual Change is not Progress,” Global Research, 2006. []
  5. Guevara, Che, Guerrilla Warfare, Monthly Review Press, 1961. []

Denis G. Rancourt is a former tenured full professor of physics at the University of Ottawa, Canada. He is a researcher for the Ontario Civil Liberties Association. He has published more than 100 articles in leading scientific journals, on physics and environmental science. He is the author of the book Hierarchy and Free Expression in the Fight Against Racism. Read other articles by Denis.