Prof Talk // Paul Dosh

Photo+by+Ahren+Lahvis17.

Photo by Ahren Lahvis’17.

The Mac Weekly sat down with political science professor Paul Dosh to discuss his revolutionary grading technique and how he came to Macalester.

Photo by Ahren Lahvis'17.
Photo by Ahren Lahvis’17.

TMW: What is unique about your grading style?

So I grew up going to a Montessori school. And Montessori schools typically have an ungraded assessment system. It’s a pedagogy driven by a desire to get at students’ underlying love and passion for learning, and to nurture that passion for learning and self-motivated learning in perpetuity, all through life, through adult life. So the qualitative system of assessment that I have experimented with since 2006 here at Macalester is an ungraded, qualitative system of assessment that tries to change the incentive structure in the classroom away from what I would characterize as a competitive, grade-based system of assessment, toward a qualitative system of assessment that really is more driven by student interests and student initiative rather than external punishments and rewards.

Say I turn in an essay. What would be your first steps in grading that, and what would be the final result of your grading it?

It does vary by course. But one method I have used now in two of my courses is a portfolio approach, where the final outcome of the students’ work in the class is a portfolio of their best —revised, often multiple revisions—best work. So if you turn in a paper in say, Latin American Politics, you get it back with written feedback typically in three or four arenas: argumentation, use of evidence, written communication and sometimes visual communication, such as guidelines, figures, charts, tables and graphs. In addition to getting specific feedback, such as “your argumentation is very good but here are ways you could improve it [and] your writing style is error-free, but here are some ways you could make your writing shine,” in addition to those kinds of targeted feedback there’s a summary mark. And that summary mark is that you’re either “developing,” “satisfactory,” “revise and resubmit” or “publish.” And these are the marks that some of your work is going to move through all the way to a mark of “publish,” and that’s something that’s going to go in your portfolio. So some papers might get a mark of “satisfactory,” which means you’ve learned all I think you need to learn from this assignment, time to move on to the next one. It might be an excellent paper, but not something I really want you to spend more time on. I don’t think you’re going to get more out of it by continuing to work with it. So typically a student needs to earn four marks of “publish” in order to be able to include four things in their portfolio, and complete the course.

Do you have to give a grade at the end of the semester?

Macalester, unbeknownst to most faculty and students, has three different systems of grading, and most people are only aware of two of them. I didn’t create these. These were part of the college catalog when I got here in 2004. The one that everyone knows about is letter grades, and the other one everyone knows about is a pass-fail course. You’re limited to one pass-fail course per semester and the course you take pass-fail cannot count toward your major, unless you get special permission. But there’s this middle category, that is ‘pass-fail with written evaluation,’ and it’s not really well defined in the college catalog. But the college catalog makes clear that this type of course, as long as you get each professor’s permission, or they sign on to writing you that written evaluation, you could theoretically take all of your courses at Macalester on a ‘pass-fail with written evaluation’ basis. You can even count ‘pass- fail with written evaluation’ courses toward your major, if you get the chair’s permission. So I was interested in exploring this option that to my knowledge no one at Macalester was actually using. And so I created this system and I got the relevant folks to sign off on it, such as the chair of Political Science, Latin American Studies, for my course that counts toward WGSS, the chair of WGSS, so that it would be preapproved for a major or minor in Latin American Studies, Political Science, or WGSS. So the students who take my courses ‘pass-fail with written evaluation’ are going to get an S, or an SD, or an N, for No credit. That will not affect their GPA, and at the end of the semester they will get a lengthy, detailed, qualitative evaluation written by me, of their work, which gets submitted to the registrar. It becomes part of their file at the registrar, and when they have their official transcript sent out they can request that evaluation and any others that are on file get stapled and attached to their transcript and sent out. So they basically get a detailed reference letter out of each one of my courses.

What was so appealing to you about this system of grading?

One of the things I find really challenging about working in a competitive, graded environment is that one of the values we associate with competition is fairness. If you’re in a competition, you want the competition to be fair. But in classroom learning, fairness is a value that I think often gets in the way. If we have a first-year student who is speaking English as a second or third language and in the same classroom is a senior who has taken 10 courses in the social sciences, why would we have the same expectations and hold them to the same standards? And I find that actually getting rid of that value of fairness actually helps me tailor the learning objectives of my courses to each student in the class. There are some students for whom my class is the only social sciences class they’ll take all year. They’re excited about diversifying their schedule of non-social science classes with something about Latin American politics. Why would they make an equal investment in my course as someone for whom Latin American politics is the core of their three or four years of study here at Macalester? But in a competitive graded environment there is an important pressure on me to create a fair arena for these students to compete for the rewards of letter grades. Take that away, and I think I can create an environment that still has very high expectations and I feel like I actually get higher quality work or at least as high quality work from students in my ungraded courses as students in my graded courses.

Do you believe this should be universally applied?

I’m a believer in pedagogical diversity. I don’t think Macalester would be well served by having the overwhelming number of faculty adopt the same pedagogy as my approach or someone else’s. Since this is a maverick approach, the costs are pretty high for faculty to adopt it. Even though it’s right there in the catalog, it’s not a standard, easy thing to do.

I know you’re in the political science department. What area of political science do you teach or prefer to teach?

There are four main subfields of political science, and my subfield is comparative politics. My main region of expertise is Latin America, so I teach Latin American politics and a lot about social movements and democratization. But within this field of comparative politics I also teach about other world regions. So in my social movements and democratization courses we learn a lot about Russia, South Africa, Poland, Spain. Years ago I taught a course about China so I teach about a variety of places around the world.

Why Macalester?

As a senior at Carleton College I was speaking with my advisors and they asked me what my professional aspirations were and I told them I wanted to be a Latin American politics professor at Macalester College. They said, “Paul, that’s very specific.” And I backed off a little bit and I said, “Well it could be a school like Macalester.” So they gave me a list of about eight things to do, and I went and did all eight things. And then it worked out. Macalester happened to create a position right as I was finishing up at UC Berkeley with my PhD in Political Science and I was able to come back to the Twin Cities, I grew up here. I was able to come back home to Minnesota. What drew me to Macalester was that it was a liberal arts teaching environment in an urban area with an incredibly politically-engaged and politically-active student body. I’m a political activist, social justice activist. Social justice activism is what drives me in my professional life as a scholar, teacher and community member.

What do you do in your free time?

I like to play ultimate frisbee. I like rollerblading. I like salsa dancing. I have two children. My wife Andrea and I are married 14 years and we have an eight year old daughter, Araminta, and a five year old son, Mateo. So as you might imagine, family takes up quite a bit of my time, and that’s wonderful. The kids are both at a really fun age for exploring the city. One of the things that relates back to the topic of the interview is we have opted our children out of participation in standardized tests. So our daughter is now of age to be taking standardized tests as of last March and we actually pulled her out of school for the entire week of standardized testing and designed a week we called “Urban Explorer Week” and she co-designed a whole week-long curriculum for herself to explore the city, doing projects around the city that explored things of interest to her and then had to write up the results and give presentations of what she’d done in the community. And we’re going to continue doing that every year. So that’s a fun thing I’m doing in my spare time with my children. It also speaks to our commitment to raising our children in a way that’s consistent to our commitment to pedagogical models that really value children’s developmental needs.

So your pedagogical philosophy extends past your teaching?

Absolutely. And it’s really the same point. I really think that educational opportunities for two-year-olds and educational opportunities for 22-year-olds should be designed around the developmental needs of the student.