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Teaching politics in a pandemic
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. This is Systematic Organization, my (mostly) weekly newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds, and Massachusetts politics had been as harsh as the climate. The chief charm of New England was harshness of contrasts and extremes of sensibility—a cold that froze the blood, and a heat that boiled it—so that the pleasure of hating—one's self if no better victim offered—was not its rarest amusement; but the charm was a true and natural child of the soil, not a cultivated weed of the ancients.
This week, I’m discussing what it’s been like to teach political science in a pandemic and common misconceptions about UFOs and Communism.
If you’ve frequented any publication, social media space, or online forum where instructors are present over the past several months, you’ve probably picked up on the idea that things have been different in classrooms recently. This newsletter, in fact, has dealt with the issue a few times in earlier issues.
The teaching part of my job—laughably described as “40 percent” of my time—wrapped up this past week as I entered the final grades for the ~450 students I oversaw in three courses this term. It was a distorting, alienating semester for almost everyone. In large lecture courses, I rarely have much interaction with students, but this time I had practically no interaction with anyone aside from my TAs.
If anything, the strongest connections I formed in my pedagogy this term were with brand names. Teaching this term mostly involved talking into a Blue Yeti microphone while Camtasia captured my lecture slides which I later uploaded into echo360 while sending the audio tracks to Otter.ai to be converted into closed-captioning tracks. (Sometimes, for a change of pace, I got to use Filmic and Teleprompter to record an iPhone video with audio provided by a lav mic.)
I got to know Yeti, Cammy, echo, and Otter really well as I produced ~120 10-to-40 minute video lectures.
Adjusting to online teaching forced me to make other adjustments as well. The biggest adjustments, it turned out, involved philosophical questions about whether and how to grade during a pandemic—and what students needed to know about politics.
Grading is, without a doubt, the worst part of teaching. The pressures around grading are many: grade too harshly and evals tank, grade too generously and students take the class less seriously, grade too slowly and learning suffers, grade too quickly and students get unrealistic expectations.
Some of the most challenging questions involve what should be graded at all—should a low-stakes assignment be pass/fail or should it have some sort of a quality grade, even if it’s just a check-plus/check/check-minus scale? Grading formatting is objective (and easy to standardize across TAs), but will it lead to problems if students master the formatting and flunk the substance?
The process of grading has little to do with a student’s development and everything to do with the processing and certification of standardized assessment for outside constituencies—deans, legislators, employers, graduate school admissions. And yet that process, which should be secondary to learning, corrupts it. Rich, helpful feedback (the kind I could give in every class at the private college where I taught for a year and which I can give in upper-division Honors courses in my current job) is what students really need to master skills and develop competencies, but the second you put a number or a letter next to that feedback, no matter how lengthy or helpful it is, you’ve established something to argue over rather than to consider helpfully.
(Something of this dynamic exists in reviews of restaurants, for example—once you have a star system established, nobody really cares about the qualitative feedback; the number of stars, no matter how carelessly awarded, becomes the only metric that matters.)
Inherent in any grading system, whether it be for student work, USDA beef, or hot new restaurants (remember when there were new restaurants?), is a claim to comparability across classes. A three-star restaurant today should be better than a two-star restaurant last year. USDA prime should be better than USDA choice (or is it the other way?). And “A” work should be meaningfully comparable to “A” work across semesters.
Except that pandemic meant that this was impossible, even if it were desirable. The idea that the work I was doing in the “classroom” (Yeti, Cammy, echo, and Otter!) was in any way comparable to what I’d do in a real classroom was something that I would have resisted—except that I have a union that resisted it for me. And as I was struggling to adapt, I know many of my students were struggling too.
Any instructor this term, especially in college, has the same collection of stories: family members getting COVID, roommates getting COVID, students getting COVID—and that’s before we consider the economic fallout and the secondary effects, like what it means for someone to go from being a college student to being a student, breadwinner, and caregiver, possibly overnight.
Teaching a class as if it were normal (except online) seemed wrongheaded; grading as if conditions were normal seemed equally wrongheaded. But turning the semester into “everyone gets an A” seemed only slightly less wrong, inasmuch as the rules of the game are at least a little fixed—and if students transitioning from high school to college still require some extrinsic motivation, then removing the biggest extrinsic motivator seemed like an own goal.
My solution was to formalize a concept that I’ve been intuiting for several years, based in part on a mishmash of pedagogical advice texts I’ve read and my own (now shockingly lengthy) experience in the classroom. (Go to a low-paying grad program in a high-rent area and you too can teach multiple classes per summer as a grad student.)
The idea is simple. B’s are easy. A’s are hard. F’s are possible—but they should also be difficult. (And, yes, in some circles the idea that F’s are possible is controversial.)
I designed a course that would allow someone who put in consistent effort over the full semester to guarantee themselves a B. Thirty percent of the course came from 15 generously graded low-stakes assignments (out of 28—drop the lowest 13!). Ten percent came from participation, which could be asynchronous. And the remainder came from short papers and a scaffolded final paper.
To get an A, a student would have to work at a consistently high level the entire time—and the rubrics reflected that the last few points in every category of an assignment would always be much harder to get than the first ones. But getting a B just required effort. And getting an F would require so little effort across so many different activities that students would (Covid and economy aside) have to actively try to fail.
Critics may object that a course designed around the concept of the “easy B” is simply adaptive to an environment where grade inflation exists. Well, maybe. But change my incentives if you want to change my mind. Much like participation trophies, Millennials like me didn’t invent grade inflation—that was our Boomer forbears.
More to the point, I think this is defensible in two ways. First, students who want an A will get a workout getting there (more so, true, in a regular semester than a pandemic one). And the bulk of grade inflation takes place at the A level.
Second, I teach big ol’ gen-ed lecture classes. I get a lot of graduating seniors or people taking the class for distribution. I teach in a public university where my students often work more hours per week than I do. For the half of students who are non-majors, my intro courses aren’t the most important classes they’ll take that term. Having a way for them to work for a defensible grade without being constantly stressed by high-stakes assignment seems like a much better way to generate intrinsic motivation to at least learn something about the subject I’m teaching.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression this worked perfectly. Boy, did some students fall through the cracks, despite the best efforts of a wonderful pair of TA squads. And I may have calibrated assignments to be too easy—although the number of students who elected to take the course pass/fail suggests they were more bearish about their grades than they should have been, given the distribution of scores I ended up awarding.
I do, however, want to suggest that we can have high standards without punishing everyone. Too many folks I’ve met inside and outside the academy view the purpose of grades as demonstrating how harsh the “real world” is—that making “good grades” hard to get is essential to preparing them for some later challenge, inevitably shorthanded as “law school”. But not every class, or everyone in some classes, needs to be about punishment—about withholding certification in a game of keepaway that only reinforces the narrative that instructors are wardens. Adjusting our approach to different students’ needs can be a more effective way of convincing them that they might actually learn something in our classroom after all.
What I’m Reading
This week, I’ve been reading A.M. Gittlitz’s I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs, and Apocalypse Communism.
I wanted something different!
I’ve been vaguely aware of Posadism, the Argentine-derived flavor of Trotskyism that’s notorious for its flirtations with the idea that fully developed Communism will develop into/attract a spacefaring utopian civilization that’s evolved beyond the need for money. And after a semester of forced marches within the terrain of mainstream international relations and foreign policy analysis, my brain needed to relax and deal with something that was a departure.
Gittlitz definitely delivers on that score.
Who knows if this is the defining book on Posadism? It’s probably the only one I—or, I wager, most readers of this newsletter—will ever read. Gittlitz presents a biography of the movement and its pivotal players, most notably Homero Rómulo Cristalli Frasnelli.
A former day laborer and soccer player, Frasnelli originally shared the pen name “J. Posadas” for radical publications before eventually taking on the identity as his own—a process that paralleled his own rise from revolutionary foot soldier to charismatic party boss to cult leader—and Internet meme.
After the eradication of Trotskyism as a major force (partly because of the assassination of Trotsky himself), Communists and Socialists who weren’t aligned with Moscow faced enemies from both poles of the Cold War—Americans hated them as Communists and backed fascist/rightist attempts to suppress them, while the Soviets were only slightly more charitable. Nevertheless, the repression of post-Second World War right-wing regimes offered organizers the possibility to eke out a living while planning for the revolution that never came.
This isn’t a history I’ve ever learned much about, and I’m sure that in my ignorance I committed a dozen offenses to leftwing history in the previous paragraphs. Mostly, I’ve dismissed these movements as fringe, since they never attained power or even much of a mass following (although Gottlitz suggests that they did have a larger audience than I would have guessed).
But here the fault is with my imagination, not Posadas’s. Just because these revolutionaries and radicals never succeeded doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t have (ask anyone in 1916 if Lenin were a plausible successor to the czar!), and just because they had a hard road in front of them doesn’t mean they weren’t significant (certainly, the CIA and right-wing regimes treated them as such).
Of course, it’s extra easy to dismiss the Posada movement in particular because it’s so clearly associated with the cosmist wing of communism/socialism, a science-fictional version of Marxist thought that essentially applied the dialectic to predict a post-terrestrial humanity. This strain predates the 1917 revolution and inspired many socialists in Russia and elsewhere before being dismissed as fantasists by post-revolutionary leaders like Stalin. If anything, the notion that technological improvement would lead to socialism seems more intuitive than the idea that capitalism would produce technological improvements without any corresponding evolution in society.
The UFO craze of the late 1940s and 1950s naturally melded with cosmism and the Soviet Union’s real accomplishments in space to produce a vision of Communism that melded extraterrestrial civilizations with human social progress. Was Posadas’s embrace of this idea—which Gottlitz convincingly argues had more to do with shutting up an Italian comrade who was transfixed by the idea—really so fringe? Gottlitz relays the Posadists’ argument that when Carl Sagan dreams about SETI (in a convincingly cosmist fashion, no less) he is hardly dismissed as fringe; less highbrow observers might also note that Gene Roddenberry got very rich indeed by selling NBC and Desilu Productions on the idea of a multi-species Communist-in-all-but-name Federation of Planets in Star Trek.
More damaging to Posadism, in fact, was its leader’s embrace of nuclear war as a means of accelerating the revolution. When the USA and the USSR eliminated each other, Posadas argued in his dictated ramblings, then the global South would be ripe to seize whatever remained of the means of production. This thesis did not endear him to Moscow, even after the Thaw, but Gottlitz suggests that had less to do with the illogic of the position from the point of view of dialectics and more to do with the idea that the revolution would come only after Moscow was fallout.
Posadism took on many of the elements of a cult during the 1970s and the movement suffered a severe blow with the death of its founder. Those twin calamities relegated it to the fringe of the fringe of European revolutionaries, already much diminished even before the Wall fell. Yet the movement has had a rebirth, both in person through its appeal to a new generation of dissidents and online as a combination joke and semi-earnest discourse.
As Gottlitz points out, Posadism, unlike most schools of Marxism, is at least funny (although it’s also a little “woo”, let’s be honest). And the notion of Communism emerging from the apocalypse may have more resonance when the apocalypse we’re fixated on is global warming, not global thermonuclear war.