By: Rachel Blume
August 28, 2023
In 2022, I left Texas and made a ten-day journey to Fairbanks, Alaska for graduate school. When I arrived, I came as a single mother with a three-year-old son and a list of worries I was intent to leave at the door. In fact, I arrived at my Teaching Assistant Orientation with a stroller and a sleeping preschooler. However, as my cohort spent extra hours on lesson plans and getting ahead on work, I found myself uploading documents to Google Classroom while making toddler snacks and filling my office with toys. The learning curve was steep, and I had little room for error as the consequences of missteps felt severe. One mother on the faculty took time to tell me that I needed to find reliable childcare or else the other faculty might “talk” about me. Suddenly, motherhood felt like an insurmountable barrier to my education. In time, I found reliable childcare, a preschool, and began learning pedagogical theories to utilize in the classroom. As a mother facing inequity in academia, labor-based grading is what inspired me as a teacher.
Labor-based grading focuses on the process of learning through the completion of a set, contracted amount of labor agreed upon between the instructor and the student. If the labor agreed upon is completed, then the student passes the assignment and moves on. As a composition instructor, I can attest to writing often being subjective. The flow of language and the way a writer organizes thoughts on a page are more than enough to inspire critics everywhere. Yet, I would argue that this subjectivity does not always fit into the classroom for beginning writers, who exist in various, oftentimes demanding, stages of life.
The beginning composition classroom is not just for freshmen; it’s for beginning writing skills. This allows for teen parents, student athletes, grandparents, future scientists, and current novelists to all be seated beside each other. As instructors, we must remember to meet our students where they are and not where we wish they were.
Labor-based grading makes the grading rubric easier for students; they know what to expect. If they complete the checklist requirements for their assignment, then the student completes the assignment without penalty. If the student did not master a skill, then all that is required is for the student to resubmit a corrected version. This erases the resubmit from their grade and they move on. It is up to the student to decide whether to complete a resubmit or not. This gives the student the power to manage their time and their grade.
As a working mother, often on my own, I understand the impact of labor-based grading for women with children, especially working, single mothers. A 2017 study by Welch’s showed that being a mother was equivalent to having 2.5 full-time jobs. With an average of 14-hour days (98 hours a week), mothers could also be full-time college students, which adds another 9-12 hours, minimum, to their schedules. In my own classroom alone, I had a teenage mother who sheepishly admitted to writing her literacy journal while breastfeeding. The assignment was a few hours late, as she had fallen asleep while nursing. Labor-based grading (which is inherently feminist in nature, since labor-based grading takes traditionally unseen and undervalued labor into account, offering more time to complete an assignment without penalty, so long as the required labor on the assignment is ultimately met) ensured that this student wasn’t penalized for her role as a nursing mother (Inoue, 2019, p. 3).
The difference in potential free time is what makes labor-based grading a maker of equity. Where a traditional student may have hours of alone time each day to work on assignments, the average mother has only 1.7 hours of free time each day. If one traditional student and a non-traditional mother-student are working on the same assignment (let us say this assignment takes an average of three hours to complete) and both students must complete it by the due date, then the mother is already facing a disadvantage. She must be more efficient with her time and create a passing assignment with less time available to her on average. By having a resubmit policy, where an assignment is returned to her for a chance to improve what wasn’t working without penalty to her grade, she gets more time to do the assignment.
In my fall 2022 classroom, I’ve seen the largest gains toward time equity with my students who are mothers. Labor-based grading supports the idea that instructors have a duty to accept the change their students bring to the classroom (Ruecker et al., 2017, p. 147). By accepting that students are multi-faceted (they can be motherscholars, employed full-time, live in poverty, etc.), instructors let the archaic Ivory Tower go, embrace students where they are, and open academia to more diverse voices and experiences. However, while labor-based grading offers more time for students to complete assignments without penalty, it’s worth noting that students MUST complete the labor in their contract. There have been concerns noted about labor-based grading in that students who feel the pressure of jobs, families, and non-academic responsibilities cannot ultimately leave an assignment unfinished and move on. Labor-based grading requires that the student complete the work in their contract for their class; there is no ability to simply move forward from unfinished assignments and still pass the class. So, while students have the advantage of more time to complete tasks overall, the disadvantage is in the requirement of labor completion in order to pass the class.
Ultimately, parents are strapped for time, particularly motherscholars. Labor-based grading is a system benefiting all students in need of more time to complete assignments, and who are still completing the work to satisfaction. In my classes, I see no reason not to implement labor-based grading when I can and dismantle systems of grading that are less inclusive, especially toward mothers.