“The Limit Does Not Exist:” Mean Girls and the Future of Ungrading

Image ID: A photo of the cast of Mean Girls wearing pink.

“On Wednesdays we wear pink.”
Karen Smith

A few years ago, I wandered into the ungrading conversation on Twitter looking for people to sit with and talk to about things I was trying and learning more about things that others were doing, especially since, locally, the opportunity for connected conversations didn’t really exist.  I know that when I started tinkering around with ungrading that there were people who I could look to for support, even if I didn’t quite know who they were yet.  Like the first day in a high school cafeteria, the sheer volume of the conversation was intimidating and the things I didn’t know I didn’t know loomed large, especially the politics of the space.  It’s hard knowing where you can sit and where you can’t and what we wear on Wednesdays because, even tacitly, you know there ate tiers and territories, but the exact boundaries are nebulous.  You only find out where the actual boundaries are when you cross them, which is safer for some than others.

The recent conflict about who is really ungrading is at least in part about saying overtly what was only gestured to in the past: there are tiers, cliques, fences, and walls around who can sit at the “top table.”  There’s an in group and an out group and being in the in group requires wearing pink on Wednesdays, but you must know to wear pink on Wednesdays, among other things.  You have to look a certain way, sound a certain way, act a certain way.  You can’t keep trying to make fetch happen. The unwritten rules are just being formalized and codified now.

I was rereading part of Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure a few days ago (actually, his use of “low theory” was inspirational here), and there’s an interesting question near the front: “Do we really want to shore up the ragged boundaries of our shared interests and intellectual communities, or might we rather take the opportunity to rethink the project of learning and thinking altogether?”

That’s a big existential question, but if we are genuinely interested in using this moment for rethinking the project altogether, what does that really mean?  What would that genuinely require?

“I wish we could all get along like we used to in middle school. I wish I could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat and be happy.”
Girl Who Doesn’t Go to the School

We often try to rely on imagined pasts to make future decisions, and much to our detriment.  Relying on imagined pasts causes us to recreate them, only this time a little bit more nicely.  There’s no history of cakes filled with rainbows and smiles here, and there are some long legacies of gatekeeping because of those materially benefitting from being the “right” side of the gate. Gretchen, Karen, and Regina understood this deeply, and their rituals of control—formal and informal—were a consolidation of power.  I get the sense sometimes from the head table that there’s just too many people here now and remember the good old days when this was our niche.  All of this is a long way of saying that rethinking the project altogether, as Halberstam says, requires people who have power to cede some of it and to ensure that those that ungrading have been actively excluded from ungrading conversations are actively included.  Even Regina, Karen, Gretchen learned that Janis had something meaningful to say, too.

I want to return to the Queer Art of Failure for a second where Halberstam writes, “I propose the goal is to lose one’s ways, and indeed to be prepared to lose more than their way.”  Large-scale shifts in the Narrative are challenging and disorienting, but they’re also necessary.  There are things that we;’ve gotten too certain of and that have become fossilized as kinds of ungrading’s cultural common sense.  Rather than making the circle smaller and steeling our commitments to logics of orderliness (“here’s the right way!”), a period of nostalgia-defying disorder might be required to lose our way and more than our way.

In other words, if ungrading in our classrooms isn’t about saviorism, ungrading itself and those attempting to do some version of it under adverse conditions don’t need saviors either.  The “tsk tsk” doesn’t feel great.

“Grool. I meant to say cool but then I started to say great.” 
Cady Heron

I’ve invoked Halberstam here a couple of times, so I want to talk a little about failure.

I’m a failed ungrader (among other things).  I’ve tried different practices, developed variations on existing practices, and tried to be responsive to the reactionary cultures of where I worked and the expressed needs of my students, so none of my practices would pass an ideological purity test.  I suspect I’m not the only one.  I don’t want to turn this into some saccharine “failure is okay!” classroom poster, but I’m proud of failing.  I’d hate to think about where I’d be without it because I’d probably also be stuck in the loop of the places I worked.  

Be Oakley and Noah LeBein write, “Failure is a project,” and Halberstam writes, “Failure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering unruly childhoods and predictable adulthoods.”   I’ve said elsewhere that ungrading isn’t about mastery of a specific set of tasks or meeting a single standard, but it is about processing values and becoming comfortable with acting on those values.  The process really is more important than the product.  There’s something to be said for reveling in the mess, and I think more of it might be required.  Maybe we need to talk about failure together more?  Returning to Oakley and LeBein, “In failure, I discover…how to embrace the failures of others, to hold it in and make it my own.”  Fred Moten talks about the wealth of sharing needs rather than solving problems, which might be a good idea, too.

These statements get some pushback, but, for me anyway, failure has been a critical part of my identity and my survival, if I’m being honest.

“I’m sorry that people are so jealous of me, but I can’t help it that I’m popular.” 
Gretchen Wieners

I’m hanging out with Janis and Damian, but the question in conversations that circle around complex, intersectional, messy questions of access and power is what are those at the top table willing to give up?  What doors are they willing to open behind them so that more people—especially those most silenced—can walk through?  There’s people that have really helped me and students in ways that probably kept in the classroom a lot longer than I might have otherwise been.

It’s easy to read some of this as jealousy or sour grapes or grievance politics or whatever else, but I don’t read the calls for more openness and access as desire for clout or popularity or fame, but a desire for some parity of participation in the conversation around ungrading.  It doesn’t seem to be about being at the head table, but it does seem to be about a more polyvocal conversation.  Who are we missing, intentionally or unintentionally, and how does their absence that hurt all of us?  Who is screaming into the abyss, and how can we listen to them?  How can this lead to generative conflict and principled struggle rather than just conflict?

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