Angela Zito reflects on her teaching repertoire and her use of Asao Inoue’s concept of labor-based grading contracts for her course, Monsters + their Humans.
This interview features Angela Zito reflecting on her teaching philosophy. She addresses both her style of teaching and how teaching becomes a praxis. Zito explains how she has adapted Asao Inoue’s 2019 book Labor-Based Grading Contracts, which she came across in the summer of 2020. In her course, Monsters + their Humans, taught that fall at NYU, she adapted Inoue’s technique into “bundle points, ” a system where students earn points for the labor they put into the work. Laying out her course, Zito put thought and panache into a website and earned a teaching innovation award. Excerpts from the conversation with Zito via Zoom are embedded throughout the piece.
How has your relationship to teaching as a craft changed over time and across institutions?
I really enjoy teaching. I am a person who thinks best while talking. And therefore, one of the great bonuses for me was that I learned as I taught. By having students ask me questions, explain the connections I wanted them to make, and explain the theoretical work we were working on together, I learned it myself, again. I continue to do that—there’s no question.
The teaching that I most enjoy, I would call the “Improvisatory Lecture-Socratic Method.” And that is the only teaching that’s at Williams. There were never more than 20 students in the room when I was there. So, you learn how to manage that kind of teaching space. And that turned out to be a space that I love and that I almost, in a sense, carry with me. My joke is if I have 40 or 50 students in the room, there’s a certain kind of student who will enjoy sitting close to the front, so I call them the “front row seminar.”
That, of course, was lost when I went online. I had to figure out different ways of doing the kinds of things I enjoy doing with students because I was deprived of that particular style of teaching.
Were there certain topics that you found to be more suitable as a survey or as a seminar? What is your teaching repertoire?
At NYU, I have never taught a large survey course. My largest courses are between 40 and 50 students. Then I have seminars, and I teach graduate students as well. The oldest course I teach is called “Belief in Social Life in China.” I built it at Cornell, the first place I ever taught, and I have kept it with me. I change it constantly, but it has just been a course that I’ve enjoyed teaching so much. It is known as “Chinese Religions” by other people, but I teach it differently.
From the very start, I started introducing my students to the core of my teaching, which is trying to convince them that there is a social, that we create our lives by being social beings, and that this is what the Chinese do. That relationship between what you think and what you do yourself, as a person and as an individual, and the social formation in which you find yourself—you discover who you are by being in that social formation.
And I teach in America, where nobody believes in the social. It’s a lot easier to teach about monsters; people believe in those things. They don’t believe in social life, however. So, that was my first course. I’ll contrast it with “Monsters + their Humans,” which is still on the same basic pedagogical goal: convincing my students that the things they can learn can help them to become persons in this specific social milieu in which they live, help them understand that value, and help them critique and change it. Because once you understand that you have created something, then you understand you can take it apart. So it’s a denaturalizing project, which anthropologists and historians are very big on still.
One of the reasons I enjoy doing that large undergraduate course is because it allows me to bring on a teaching assistant. And that is always whoever my current Ph.D. student is who studies China, and we do that course together. We do that long survey course, but we start in the Shang Dynasty. And for my anthropology PhDs, this is interesting because they don’t usually read that stuff, and they get my pass through it. But I think it’s helpful to them. And, of course, we talk about teaching. That’s the main reason you have a teaching assistant, really—it’s because they’re your apprentice, they’re your disciple. And, of course, they’re also a co-worker–nod to my GSOC Union at NYU!
Can you tell me how you set up your course, Monsters + their Humans, online?
Another thread through my coursework is always embodiment, performance, liveness. And I’ve developed a real sense of our human life, moving between moments of what I would call liveness and then what I would call objectification. We’re constantly live because we’re constantly speaking, and yet, of course, our speaking often turns into writing, which becomes then a kind of objectification of our speaking, and is stored in various ways. It becomes a material artifact; it’s shared in a different way. That’s the tiniest microcosm of liveness and objectification that I could find. That’s a thread that runs through everything. And that is the thread that ran through Monsters. Since I’m interested in that and it affects my teaching practice deeply, going online was, to me, a kind of deprivation. I would call it the deprivation of being with my students in an embodied fashion. So, I tried to figure out other ways of encouraging moments of lightness, moments of participation, moments of interactivity with ourselves to try to make up for our lack of being together.
When the pandemic hit at NYU, we, like everybody else, suffered through the terrible summer of 2020, when the leadership faltered as they did all over the United States about whether or not we would open up the university and be in person or whether or not we would go fully online. And NYU was late in making that decision. But we had figured out in my own small department that we were going to go online, so we set things up so that we would all be online by the end of June. And that way, we could prep. The worst thing did not have time to prep to go online.
Being online is quite different, and it requires much more intensive teaching prep. And it requires learning to use the tools of Zoom. I made my first personal websites to go with the courses—I did them in Google Suites, which I highly recommend. It’s like falling off a log, lots of fun. And doing that in the summer put me in the sense of going online. We had an excellent Ed Tech team; we had good support for all of that. I had somebody coach me through that. Once we decided to go wholly online, the university threw itself behind that decision. But our various colleagues treated this very differently, and so they should. It depends on what teaching style you come to it with and what you had an appetite to take on and learn. And not everybody wanted to embrace this and dig in and have a little fun with it, which was what I did. I just preferred that. It made it less painful for me.
When did you come across the Inoue book?
That summer. Of course, that summer was the summer of Black Lives Matter. And we were all deeply engaged in questions of pedagogy, of how to boost our pedagogy in antiracist directions. We really tried to look at ways that our pedagogical practice was dragging its feet to contribute to a more inclusive community at the university. And I’ve been teaching for a long time. I had to look at these things, and I had to have my moments of saying, “I need to reconsider the hierarchies of power in the classroom.” And I am a person who believes in embodied learning, I am a person who learns by doing, and I thought, if I want to change my pedagogy, I need to change my pedagogy.
If I want to change the way I think about my pedagogy, I need to figure out something to do for me, aside from my students, because we are an assemblage: the teacher-student assemblage. I needed to take it apart; I needed to try to put it together again in a different way and see what I would learn that I could carry forward or share about new modes of pedagogy. That tumbled me into contract grading, bundle point grading, and I thought one of the best things I read was Asao Inoue’s book on this; I liked his approach very much.
LABOR-BASED GRADING CONTRACT
Can you introduce Inoue’s idea of labor-contract grading?
Inoue approaches contract grading very strongly as a method of antiracist grading. He is a creative writing teacher, so his classroom is writing intensive. And he’s not the only person writing about these matters. Many, many people have taken this up—there have even been Marxist approaches to thinking about the writing classroom, who have really tried to think of it as labor and theories of value. I think Inoue adds an explicitly antiracist angle because he points out that if we have modes of assessment that hold up some generalized standard in the classroom, then we are no better than the SATs. And we understand the criticisms of the SATs: how the SATs are based upon and cater to a particular habitus. And he uses the term “habitus” through his book, something that many people who work in critical theory will be very familiar with from Bourdieu.
Not all students have the tools to deal with the standards that are set up by this white habitus. And he says that if you just go on with the status quo, you’re introducing what he then very strongly calls white supremacist attitudes in your assessment practices. That was very interesting to read in the context of the summer of 2020 and really helpful, frankly. It inspired me to give this a try and see what would happen.
And it was a gamble; it was learning by doing. I didn’t know if my students would like it. I didn’t know if I would like it. I didn’t know if it would work. But I will say now—spoilers—it did. I did; they did. It was very interesting, the things that they liked about it. He doesn’t call it bundle point grading; he just calls it “labor contract grading.” I picked up “bundle point” just as a nice catch term that someone else used in a different approach. But it’s very similar. What it is, is that each assignment that you give is awarded several points. And the students start from zero, and they accumulate points. It’s not the usual way that’s like you start with 100, and you keep losing points, which is a downer, let’s face it! It’s like your grade gets worse and worse and worse. So that whole joke about, “Well, everybody starts with an A, and it’s up to you, you can lose that A,” and I’m like, well, that is really kind of negative.
So, instead, everybody starts with nothing. It’s a little bit more like the classic bullshit American Dream. “Well, I’ll start here with nothing, and then we’ll all accumulate rags to riches.” It’s like grading from rags to riches. What it does, though, is it focuses attention upon what he calls this student’s labor. You reward them for the actual work they do, the hours they spend, the number of words they write and hitting the deadline on time, which means they are committed to organizing their time and being with the community as the community moves forward learning reading together. That is what a deadline in the course is for. It is not for misery and is not for the teacher. The community needs to hit the mark and be there together, like a choir singing. It’s like, “One, and one, and two, and we all sing together.” That’s why we need people actually to pony up on a deadline—so they’re rewarded for all of this actual labor, and everyone is rewarded the same by hitting those marks. This disaggregates the labor that everyone does in a class for the content, the things that they write. And it’s excellent for us to disaggregate that and make the grade, which is an object of exchange value. So this is labor: labor as exchange value.
Then you have to transform that labor as exchange value, which they get the points for because the grade is also a commodity that is then further exchanged in a system. It is exchanged for scholarships, for jobs. We then need to transform that in the context of the political economy, the assessment ecology, the political economy of the classroom into use-value found in our labor, besides its exchange value. And that, of course, is done through all the classroom activities, which are done as communally as possible, as publicly as possible, so that their ideas circulate. So it emphasizes their ideas in circulation in the small public of our classroom.
MONSTERS COURSE SITE
Here is the Monsters class site. We read the zombie novel by Colson Whitehead. Did you know Colson Whitehead wrote a zombie novel? It’s excellent, and it’s set in Manhattan. So I said, “Let’s read the novel! We’ll open up a forum channel; you can do your responses, and so on.” All possibilities for earning the points you want, and none is itself required.
This is the bundle point ethos here. You choose: no second project, maybe skip Zone One, maybe comment on four projects, or only one because you are already set with two projects. I am taking queries on math because we built an excellent Excel machine that would count the points for us and allow my students to see the points accumulating. I wasn’t able to do that in the fall. One of my graduate students built it for me. “This is awfully complex—how will I manage to remember all of this?” You will have resources, watch for my email, and keep up. You will, I promise. No monsters left behind.
There are the responses, and then the comments come in. If you respond, the students can comment on any of the responses. And in the response, you’re supposed to ask a question or two, so then they’re asking questions in their responses to the reading. They’re asking them because they want people to comment. And then people comment, people comment on the comments. It’s that whole interactive thing that gets going, which we all love to see.
I comment, but not always. Not as a matter of “yes or no,” “this is good.” Not as a “check,” not as a “check plus.” I comment when I have something to say. And, of course, I reserve the right with everyone to send the email—now, that email is sent when somebody phones it in. When they respond and give us two really bad sentences, I send an email, and I say, “Not so good. I recommend that you look at the other responses and that you recalibrate yours and go in and give us more because we want more.” And then they go back, and they do that. So in other words, everybody has a chance to try again to get the points if I think they have failed to reach a level of fulfilling the assignment. And the assignment is very clear. The assignment is: no more than 200 words, no less than 100.
So, the assignments need to be very transactional because the bundle points are the exchange value that will be the grade they are going to put in their labor to gain. And they see that because we have disaggregated that from the value of their ideas. Their ideas also circulate in a breakout room, shared Google Doc work. They went into the breakout rooms, it was always random, so they distributed among themselves. There’s a question sometimes, and then they work on it together. And then we come back, and we talk about it together—we put it up on the screen, and we talk about it together. That’s another public recognition of their ideas. They sign everything, so nothing’s anonymous. And finally, in my own PowerPoints, I will take their work and use it in my slides with their name on them. I will feature it. Sometimes, I will feature it in our question for a group Google Doc: someone has asked an excellent question, let’s answer their question. So, these are how we see that these things are useful. This is carried onward, then, as a group, as a community, to the next unit. As we go into our next reading, this is our memory; we make a memory of what we discussed, which is the use-value that becomes worth.
This is great. There’s so much emotional elegance to this, because there’s a lot of empathy. I felt like my empathy was drained during the epidemic. And here, it’s beautiful—it’s a beautifully organized, beautifully laid out site.
I feel that uncoupling grading from my relationship with them during the semester freed me to empathize with them for everything else we needed—which is always the case but was particularly the case during the pandemic. And they loved this system of grading, it turns out, and they surprised me in the first semester in Monsters when it was new. I started getting feedback because I polled them one month in, and I surveyed them at the end. I did exhaustive polling because I wanted to obtain data for this assessment method. And I was amazed that many of them said privately—it was anonymous—that they loved this because they could write what they wanted and didn’t have to worry about what I thought.
And in Monsters, this was particularly interesting because we took up questions of racism head-on and at great closeness, and I’m a white teacher. I had many students of color in the Monsters class, many more than I would usually be teaching, and right on the heels of Black Lives Matter. And honestly, if I hadn’t taken this up and started this engagement with my teaching practice, I think I would have been completely unnerved to do this course, in that context, with those students, under pandemic conditions. But instead, I was relaxed—we have a happiness machine here, and it’s really up to us to get on it together. And they worked harder than I’ve seen, in both of those courses, than most of my students ever work, in the conditions of the pandemic. So, thank you for that question about empathy.
Angela Zito teaches in the Departments of Anthropology and Religious studies at NYU. To learn more about her work, visit http://angelazito.com