Histories and Legacies of Surveillance at CUNY
We write this piece as a collective of activist students, doctoral teaching fellows, and adjuncts from our home campus of the City University of New York (CUNY) because our varying experiences of surveillance are deeply felt, though profoundly contradictory and asymmetrical. We recognize that we are in a moment when there may be more attention to the presence of surveillance in higher education, given the Black Lives Matter movement and more publicized calls for getting cops off campus, as well as the shift to digital educational technologies during the COVID crisis, many of which surveil students, staff, educators, and community members without their knowledge.
Yet, our own feelings of being policed and surveilled in our schools are only in part digital and are far from new. Recognizing that colleges are spatially grounded—not floating institutions disconnected from the dynamics of power, extraction, exploitation, and resistance of the peoples and places that surround them (Meyerhoff 2019; Baldwin 2021)—we locate our experiences in the specific historical and material contexts of CUNY and New York City. Back in 1969, Black and Puerto Rican student activists and radical accomplices occupied City College at CUNY to demand, among other things, that the then largely white university system more accurately reflect the city’s demography by instituting an Open Admissions policy (Okechukwu 2019; Jordan 1969; Ferguson 2012). These activists won this demand, but as more and more Black and brown students gained entry into CUNY’s four year campuses, carceral and militarized tactics—like surveillance, policing, and push out—became more prominent and sophisticated (Gumbs 2014; Glück et al. 2014). This intensified starting in the early 1990s, when CUNY implemented its own centralized, independent security force authorized to arrest and “use physical and deadly force” (Aptekar, Mullin, and Carroll 2021; Kannan 2019), in a broader city and national context that embraced broken windows policing and mass incarceration (Pagan et al. 2020; Hunter Envoy 2013).
When we walk onto our campuses today, we are subjected to technologies of surveillance so routine and normalized that they risk being taken for granted. We walk through metal detectors and/or flash our college ID cards (Laymon 2014); pass countless “peace officers” (and often NYPD officers) on our way to class; notice cameras that might be taping our every move; navigate convoluted, windowless campus hallways that offer little space to congregate; are enclosed in classrooms where professors or administrations can hover and eavesdrop without consent (Kynard 2016). In fact, in the 2010s, the NYPD engaged in widespread surveillance and infiltration of Muslim students associations in the city, including at CUNY. It had deep and damaging consequences: Muslim students at Brooklyn College reported their distress and fear for their safety, as they were forced to practice a kind of self-surveillance, monitoring their own political and scholarly activities on campus, but also their thoughts and aspirations (Theoharis 2016; Brooklyn College Islamic Society and Muslim Women’s Educational Initiative 2020). Importantly, digital campus surveillance has intensified in recent years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, for instance, the CUNY Board of Trustees opted to continue a contract with TurnItIn, despite much protest from student and faculty activists due to the program’s well-known surveillance practices (Feathers 2020). But in noting all of these examples above, we specifically want to expand the typical notion of technology as solely digital or as relatively new to suggest that there are more deeply rooted tactics of surveillance that have long been in place in higher education. In doing so, we move beyond dominant approaches in the field of surveillance studies that attend more to “practices as they relate to knowledge about people (often distributed via cyberspace or computer database) than to issues of mobility and space” (Perry 2011, 93).
Our understanding of technologies of surveillance in higher education as multifaceted and expansive draws on educational sociologist Carla Shedd’s notion of “carceral continuum,” which contrasts with more traditional conceptions of the “school to prison pipeline.” Understanding disciplinary technologies of prisons and schooling as profoundly linked rather than discrete, Shedd sees “a nexus of institutions and . . . processes that come together” to produce an individual’s “perceptions and experiences with punishment or punitiveness” (Shedd 2020). Indeed, for Erica Meiners (2007), “As the interlocking relationships between schools and the judicial system increased in the 1990s”—in the K–12 sector as in public universities like CUNY—schools have not only increasingly “resemble[ed] prisons and apply the same disciplinary and surveillance technologies, but they also use the same language, ‘pedagogies,’ and philosophies espoused by prisons and jails” (3). Actors along the carceral continuum, then, include not just police officers and security guards, but also educators and administrators who draw on astoundingly similar technologies of sorting, containment, and silencing (Sojoyner 2016).
Grading, Surveillance, and Their Undoing
In particular, we locate grading systems in higher education contexts within a network of surveillance technologies that students and faculty are subjected to and/or enact. Recent publications drawing on the Foucaultdian panopticon and Deleuze’s notion of “control society” have theorized grades as a technology of surveillance (Johnson 2021; Nemorin 2017; Nieminen 2020). In relation to surveillance, grades are both product—assigned by teachers based on “a complex network of observations and choices”—and process, as “various stakeholders surveil students, teachers, and their respective institutions through grades and grading trends” (Johnson 2021, 56). We too view grading systems as indissociable from higher education’s broader practices of extraction and social control, with a reach beyond the space/time of one course. Grades that land on report cards become markers of worthiness and the basis for the attribution of degree, grant, scholarship, exclusion, punishment, remediation.
At the same time, we explicitly center the inherently racialized and colonial nature of surveillance. In Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, Simone Browne (2015) theorizes surveillance through African enslavement and the slave ship, beyond Foucault’s race-evasive, totalizing notion of panopticon. Browne understands surveillance not as “something inaugurated by new technologies,” but “as ongoing”; to do so “insist[s] that we factor in how racism and anti-Blackness undergird and sustain the intersecting of surveillances of our present order” (2015, 8). Indeed, the history and legacy of higher education is inextricable from the transatlantic slave trade (Wilder 2014), indigenous land theft (la paperson 2014; Grande 2018), and research practices such as eugenics premised on the dehumanization of Black, Indigenous, and/or disabled people (Dolmage 2017). These racist, colonial, and ableist foundations in turn inform violent pedagogical practices that often reify, not disrupt, race-class sorting (Kynard 2016)—like grading.
The growing critical literature on grading tells us that grades reflect graders’ biases, too often replicating normative definitions of “good” writing, participation, or comportment contingent on white, cis, straight, middle/upper class, non-disabled, English monolingual ideals (Kynard 2008). As Sojoyner (2016) notes, grading measures “compliance” more than anything else (176), whether “critical thinking” skills, writing ability, or even effort (181–82). In this sense, it is possible to see how the succession of grades (across countless classes and semesters) builds up into a surveillance apparatus that records and cumulatively gauges students’ displayed adherence to fundamentally racist, classist, xenophobic, ableist, sexist, and queerphobic norms.
Our analysis of grading at CUNY, then, explicitly attends to these dynamics, aiming to depart from universalizing, decontextualized approaches to non-traditional grading. For instance, in tracing the longer history and context of non-letter grading, studies often cite liberal arts colleges like Antioch, Hampshire, and St. Johns as examples (Blum 4). Left unsaid is that such colleges are also wealthy, predominantly white, private, and very expensive. (A rare public-school example, Evergreen State, has been undergoing rapid defunding.) In contrast, on CUNY’s predominantly Black and brown campuses, administrations have rarely embraced non-traditional grading practices. Meanwhile, prominent texts around equitable and/or anti-racist assessment often focus on contract/labor-based grading (Elbow 1997; Inoue 2019)—a practice that, we argue, still falls prey to racial-capitalist logics of “contracting.” The idea of student-teacher contracts as a way out of punitive grading practices becomes particularly fraught in light of activists’ work tracing the university’s imbrication in the debt economy (Schirmer et al. 2021), within a broader landscape of public higher education’s racialized austerity. The Debt Collective alerts us to the uncanny resemblance between credit reports (A+/A/A-) and students’ transcripts (A+/A/A-). Schooling socializes students as debtors, who owe work and time to their teachers-creditors (Wozniak 2021). We thus understand labor-based contract models—in which students self-monitor their productivity and owe teachers these records of their labor—as still inevitably reproducing the by-default racist, classist, gendered, and ableist order of the classroom. This contractual relationship disproportionately penalizes sick and disabled and/or working-class students—who have to balance their schoolwork with full-time jobs, parenting/caretaking, managing their own health, and other responsibilities. We miss such complexities through race/class/gender/disability-evasive frameworks of schooling and assessment.
This is also why we hesitate to use the fraught categories of “academic freedom” and/or “rights to privacy” in our critique of surveillance—ideals that have never existed in earnest for many students and staff, given the white supremacist, colonial foundations of US higher education. “Academic freedom” in particular has been leveraged to repress and surveil Black, brown, and/or indigenous, activist scholars (Salaita 2014) and to sponsor research practices premised on racialized surveillance, including in education scholarship (Kynard 2016). Likewise, “the right to privacy” is fundamentally contingent; as Perry (2011) suggests, our tendency to “talk about privacy in bourgeois terms” masks the “racialized practices of surveillance,” most violently targeting Black people, “justified through racial narratives about social disorder, invasion, and moral decay” (86). In this sense, surveillance is material and embodied (Browne 2015); so too are its manifestations in pedagogical practices like grading. Following Perry, we understand surveillance—in this case, as it manifests in the classroom—as more than just stealing and/or storing information about people, and their capacity to comply with regulations and rules. Grading, too, is spatial and material in its power to restrict the minds, bodies, and affect of students, faculty and staff, regulating how we control our bodies, move across space, gather in collective.
Given these dynamics, we do not believe that grading is something that can be made more fair, just, or anti-racist. We see such imagined “remedies” for grading as too often “get[ting] caught in the logic of the [carceral] system itself” (Gilmore 2007, 242). We instead move toward what the abolitionist scholar-activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007) calls “non-reformist reforms”: “changes that, at the end of the day, unravel rather than widen the net of social control through criminalization” (242). With grading as a starting point, our discussions below aim to not just critique but suggest entry points to unthink and undo surveillance toward a truly liberatory university (Reed 2020).
Process, Positionality, and Our Narratives
We offer a series of reflections, juxtaposing moments where we individually or collectively taught and/or learned outside/against grading systems. Writing journal articles won’t undo surveillance. Through narrative, we instead hope to center on-the-ground, lived experiences, as we believe students and faculty already know what we have to share. We foreground our identities as well as our positions/engagements with CUNY, but, importantly, our experiences offer spaces of overlap and divergence. As opposed to a more unidirectional format in which faculty analyze or even appropriate their students’ experiences to theorize about education and learning, we attempt a horizontal approach, where the authors co-shape the argument/story. That said, we don’t overlook the differences among us. The contributors who teach as doctoral student fellows and/or adjuncts—Andréa, Anna, Jane and Marianne—are all white, which is also indicative of the fact that unlike nearly every other campus in the system, The Graduate Center, CUNY, is predominantly white. We recognize the complexity of speaking as teachers, as many faculty push back and strive to make grading less ableist and racist, while others embody white saviorism as they teach mostly Black and brown students. On the other hand, Hailey (also an organizer) who identifies as an East and Southeast Asian USian and Joaly, who identifies as Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latina(x), and Dominican-American, write as students who have been subjected to grading.
Taken together, these narratives highlight how grades/grading systems are part of a surveillance apparatus deployed in universities to keep students and faculty on check. Anna discusses how her work as a writing tutor, which did not require giving grades, shaped her understanding of students’ thoughts, ideas, and frustrations. Hailey critiques CUNY’s Honors program, which rewards white and privileged students under the guise of grade-based meritocracy, and describes her coalitional work carving out spaces of counter-institutional learning and mutual aid. Jane writes as an adjunct and an organizer about the choice to give all their students As—initially as a response to the early days of the pandemic, and now as a way to reimagine their relationships with students. Joaly writes about grading systems forcing students to perform, apologize and conform. Andréa writes about the fears around giving As systematically and unconditionally to all students: “what will my WPA [writing program administrator] say?” How do precarious employment situations, being financially strapped, caring for children, disabilities impact how adjuncts use grades? Pursuing this reflection, Marianne writes about an adjunct-led collective experiment of refusal of grading and what it revealed about surveillance when a Spring 2020 pledge to withhold grades circulated at CUNY.
“answer the prompt unambiguously” (Anna)
For the past few years, I’ve been working as a “non-teaching adjunct” at Baruch College’s Writing Center. When the pandemic hit, that was my only teaching job (I’d had hopes to teach something new but with 2,000 adjunct jobs cut prior to the fall, that was no longer an option.) Truthfully, though, I found the work of my “non-teaching” position—which, despite its name, is just as pedagogical as any other adjunct gig—to be somewhat less stressful than classroom-based teaching. Classroom teaching is my passion, but while finishing my own coursework and now my dissertation, having a job with a discrete number of hours and that didn’t leave campus with me felt more feasible. I realize now that the task that I found most stressful about teaching in a more traditional setting was assigning grades—which I found both anxiety-inducing and immensely time consuming—not to be confused with responding to students’ writing or giving them suggestions and connections.
I was especially grateful for the chance to work with students at the Writing Center in spring 2020. In a moment in which everything was uprooted, everyone was dispersed across the city, and a foreboding sense of uncertainty, precarity, and fear followed every CUNY student I knew (to greater and lesser degrees), I appreciated that I could work individually with people at the Writing Center. Even on Zoom, it offered a degree of intimacy and connection with those on campus that had otherwise completely disappeared, for both me and the students.
Through these conversations with Baruch students, I got the sense that many of their professors were quite rigid in their grading, noting on their assignment sheets that they, for instance, never allowed extensions; automatically took off a certain number of points for incorrectly citing something in MLA (even when MLA format was never taught in class itself); vaguely noted that they would penalize for not adopting the correct “professional tone” while writing memos (this was, after all, a business school, but these instructions were often in place as early as first-year writing classes.) Not all professors espoused this kind of pedagogical approaches to writing and assessment, but this sort of rigid, hyper-disciplinary thinking pervades every space on campus, including pedagogical ones.
As one example, recently I was working with an undergrad on a project for a class in the business school; they’d chosen to write about Dubai. It was for an assignment that asked students to do something like evaluate strategies of economic development in a particular region, giving pros and cons. The student argued that Dubai exemplified thoroughly successful economic planning; though its development resulted in displacement, it was ultimately a net positive. I’m no expert on the region, but I do know that Dubai is pretty famous for its devastating inequality. So I asked them: how are you thinking through this? Can we complicate this “net positive” thinking, as it wasn’t a net positive for many in the area? The student completely understood my point, demonstrating in conversation a sharp and in-depth analysis of these complexities, but was wary to bring this into their writing. They were anxious about receiving a good grade on the assignment and so they felt they really needed to embrace a pro-business mindset and answer the prompt unambiguously.
This type of black-and-white analysis was not something overtly required on the paper’s assignment sheet; although this attitude probably stemmed from their professor, it was bigger than that too. This pressure to think and write in these ways pervades the institution’s ethos. This for-profit, all-or-nothing approach to thinking, I think, was why I felt an astounding amount of strain on students to continue to perform at a “standard” level and less leniency with grades than I expected from the part of professors. And this ethos seemed to persist even under COVID: in the semesters after March 2020, I met with an unprecedented number of students on academic probation for failing courses, seeking support drafting appeals against their expulsion (often by having to narrate their own trauma to be read by administrators they’d never met).
But because I was not the one assigning grades for this student, I was able to have this kind of nuanced conversation with the student around form and capitalism that their professor could not. Even in my own teaching, where I explicitly give students a great deal of flexibility to try new and creative things in their writing, it takes time for some of them to feel comfortable submitting assignments that don’t conform to a rigid structure akin to an ideal SAT essay (a structure that high school and even college professors praise them for), because they do not trust that I will not penalize them for it. And why would they? In my own experience as a student, even professors who claim flexible or radical pedagogical approaches, or teach activist texts and content can still fall prey to enacting typical violent modes of student discipline and surveillance.
In a sense, grading—within a network of other carceral pedagogical technologies—surveils student capitalist productivity: whether a student is modeling a properly respectable comportment, linguistic repertoire, and attitude that will supposedly bolster their success once they become full capitalist subjects. In the case of Baruch, grading is in part used to assess which students will continue to uphold Baruch’s remarkable “social mobility index” (currently first in the country, a focal point of Baruch’s advertising and branding), and which would fall short—even if the cause was a family member’s illness or death, managing several jobs as their household’s breadwinner, or navigating a global pandemic—and thus lose their place at the college.
Baruch offers a stark example of how logic of capitalist productivity infuses into grading practices, but this kind of ethos is widely pervasive in higher education. I felt it myself as a stressed-out, neuroatypical early undergraduate student more anxious about following the correct format of an assignment than exploring new ideas. But aside from isolated moments when I experienced ableism (especially before I got formalized accommodations my sophomore year), I rarely felt surveilled, per se, on a day-to-day basis because as a white student at the progressive, wealthy, predominantly white private school I attended, my grade-based anxieties did not have the same structural, deeply racialized resonances as they do for many CUNY students. Interestingly, it is campuses like my former one that are most well-known for embracing non-traditional grading structures (e.g. Hampshire College, Reed College). That the CUNY system—a primarily Black and brown, working-class institution—implicitly sanctions punitive grading practices is no coincidence: its students are also more frequently subjected to punitive modes of surveillance and policing “outside” the classroom as well.
Unsurprisingly, then, I didn’t encounter any students while teaching at Baruch who were taking courses utilizing non-punitive or anti-oppressive modes of grading. In some ways, though, the best aspects of writing center work might offer guidance of what a different mode of being in intellectual community with students could look like: one that is not bound up in a contractual relationship premised on surveillance, but instead is built around dynamic conversation, exploration, curiosity, collaboration.
“to cultivate, to grow, to study, and to imagine other ways-of-being” (Hailey)
From 2016 to 2020, I attended Brooklyn College as part of the Macaulay Honors program––a program that “awards” its members with free tuition, a free laptop, academic advisors, and various other resources. The program, however, primarily determines access to these substantial resources through a “meritocratic” grade-point system that, in practice, has historically privileged already well-served, funded school districts. From its creation in 2001 until 2018, the Macaulay Honors College did not even accept students transferring from community college, highlighting some of the strategic ways that CUNY regulates and maintains internal inequity favoring a select few. Grading as a surveillance apparatus does not merely begin and end within one’s college career, but extends outward, punishing and excluding certain high school districts, students, etc. well before they can even set foot on the campus. White students and—in certain instances often determined by race, gender, class, and immigration status—non-Black students of color have continued to benefit primarily from programs like Macaualay. Responding to this inequity, CUNY for Abolition and Safety, Macaulay Diversity Initiative, and Macaulay Peace Action (2020) wrote in an open letter to the Macaulay administration: “With a CUNY population greater than 75% POC, why is our university wide college honors program 50% white ([as of] 2018)?”
While the program primarily serves white students and non-Black students of color, the material privileges are also felt in the kind of education being afforded compared to their so-called peers at CUNY. In several Macaulay seminars at Brooklyn College aimed at “creating opportunities to learn using New York City’s unique intellectual, professional and cultural capital” (“New York City Advantages” n.d.), professors would assign projects that had students photographing, interviewing, and studying Brooklyn residents without their consent. It is no wonder, then, that an institutionally designated student space––both physically (as an exclusive lounge for honors students) and intellectually (specialized curricula)––in which access is determined by grading rooted in anti-Black, sexist, classist, ableist, and queerphobic terms––would support students and faculty who most conform to ideals of exceptionalism, elitism, and individualism.
In contradistinction to the institutional spaces of learning, relaxing, and socializing are spaces on campus, both forged, cared for, and tended to by students, workers, faculty, and various other members of the CUNY community. These spaces are never permanent as the University constantly lays siege to them via defunding, school police, surveillance, and more. The Brooklyn College Student Union, Free CUNY!, and the Kingsborough Community College Urban Farm were all groups and spaces I was a part of that practiced a kind of learning that was full of care. Study in these spaces is not motivated by an individualistic desire to achieve high grades but out of a shared commitment to each other and our communities. Through shared study we are able to collectively create zines and teach-ins on austerity, school policing, CUNY movement history, and more.
The Kingsborough Community College urban farm, a space which itself was hyper-policed and surveilled, often utilized post-work conversations to discuss the conditions of the farm as a space of work and study under an anti-Black administration. Even whilst providing and tending to resources meant to counter the inherently racist, sexist, and violently policed neighborhoods where food apartheid required a more attentive and thoughtful gardening practice, the urban farm at Kingsborough had to carry out its work whilst also defending and preserving the farm space from CUNY policing and surveillance practices at every turn. Educators on the farm would intentionally and carefully grow vegetables like okra, callaloo, collards, and more that were not commonly or typically consumed in white East Coast cultures and their dietary preferences. The food growing practices on the Kingsborough farm were intentional, strategic, and sought to undermine a wider city struggle inflected and informed by the policing practices that continue to shape neighborhoods, communities, and their borders that are constantly being re-configured to align and oblige white tastes, desires, and ways of life. Yet, those intentional and careful practices were also consistently undermined from within, unable to grow and cultivate a space where policing could not pervasively extend. Today, the farm workers have not been re-hired, the farm budget cut and barren, and the community college is currently advertising for “volunteers” to work on the farm for free, to carry out an agricultural politic and practice that does not serve the interests of the people—but the interests of the university. Regardless, there remains now more than ever a need for spaces like the urban farm to cultivate, to grow, to study, and to imagine other ways of being beyond the terms by which the university determines the most feasible, productive, or worthwhile.
“a pressure-free environment” (Jane)
One of the first things I noticed when I started teaching as an adjunct in the fall of 2018 was the power imbalance in the classroom. It’s an uncomfortable feeling—especially since I had gotten my bachelor’s degree from the same institution in the summer of 2017, so the students in my classroom had been my peers just a year earlier. As professors—even as adjuncts—we are generally able to set the rules, expectations, norms, and culture of our classes, and to be as strict or as lenient as we want with grading. That means we hold tremendous power over students’ lives, material conditions, and futures, whether we want to or not.
In March 2020, when the pandemic was at its peak in New York City and classes had been abruptly shifted online amid much anxiety and confusion, a group of undergraduate and graduate students and adjuncts from the activist group Free CUNY—which works for an anti-racist, tuition-free public university—met to discuss strategies for challenging strict grading and surveillance practices. An undergraduate student, sarah g, came up with a name for the most widely embraced proposal: “A for All.” An article (Goldberg et al. 2020) and an FAQ (2020) reinforced the campaign.
Grading is the primary mechanism through which our power is enforced, so when I threw out my rigid points-based grading system and embraced A for All, I thought it would take the edge off of the power imbalance I felt as a faculty member. I was surprised to be wrong about that, and to realize that I still held the same power in the classroom, because many students don’t trust that I am serious about A for All. In fact, they are right to be wary, because I could still change the grading scheme midway through the semester, even though it’s written into the syllabus. I know I would never do this, but how do they know that?
Still, I found A for All to be a big improvement over traditional grading. There are different ways to approach A for All. The way I use it, I give points for class participation, and students who earn enough points get an A+ grade, which at Queens College still counts as a 4.0 for GPA purposes. I also track attendance, not to punish students who miss class but to make sure I follow up with them to offer extra support. It’s still surveillance, but hopefully it loses some of its power when there are no real-world punitive consequences.
For students, A for All releases them from stress and anxiety and opens them up to learning and engaging creatively on their own terms. After the end of the spring 2021 semester I asked students to email me their impressions of A for All grading. Their comments emphasized the “pressure free environment” (all quotes used with permission):
A for All provides a pressure free environment allowing students to worry less and therefore can focus better even more on schoolwork.
I think the A for All policy takes a lot of pressure off. I didn’t think oh I’m gonna get an A I don’t need to try. I actually thought about my answers and did the readings not just look for answers to make sure I would get a good grade it made it less nerve-racking. I thought oh I’m never gonna get back anything back from this Professor because we are all getting As but it wasn’t like that. I got work back in a timely manner and I wasn’t focused on the grade so I really analyzed the feedback and I think that was new for me and really helps.
Honestly one thing I really think which was completely different in this class from all other classes is that when you know that you don’t have to study just for the sake of grade and you can actually use your energy to just learn new things in the lectures, the pressure less environment allows us to be a lot more creative.
A for All was also good for me. The pandemic chaos of the spring 2020 semester was followed by a fall semester of family crisis for me, just as I was teaching a new course for the first time and using a new online platform. A for All grading became a way to not only show grace to students—many of whom were struggling with similar family crises, unforgiving job schedules, and the strains of online learning—but to also extend that grace to myself. A for All gave me confidence that my personal crisis and any constraints it put on my teaching would at least have no impact on financial aid, degree completion, or future opportunities for students.
For these reasons, I especially encourage adjuncts to use A for All as a way to simultaneously resist the pressures that the system places on us and to act in solidarity with students. Practicing A for All also helps to avoid negative student evaluations and conflicts over harsh grading that can be used as pretexts to “non-reappoint” contingent faculty. And with A for All, students have no reason to cheat or to make up excuses for missing class, so as contingent faculty we can let go of our anxieties around that.
Despite the many advantages of A for All, it seems like adjuncts often resist it more than full-time faculty do. Are we using our power over students to compensate for our low pay and undignified treatment by the administration (and sometimes by our full-time colleagues)? Could it be that adjuncts feel a need to show that we are just as academically and pedagogically qualified as full-time faculty, and harsh grading becomes a weapon to prove our rigor, or a way to be taken seriously by students and colleagues? Given the white supremacist and patriarchal nature of the academy, BIPOC faculty, especially women, are more likely to face challenges to their authority by peers and students who question their professionalism and competence (Gutiérrez y Muhs et al. 2012)—as well as increased institutional surveillance (particularly in the case of Black women faculty members; see Kynard 2016)—and thus may face extra barriers in adopting counter-institutional pedagogies. As a rank-and-file activist in the faculty and staff union, I am often unsure of the best way to address these concerns with colleagues. If a faculty member is using overly harsh grading practices or otherwise acting against student interests, can we convince them of the importance of solidarity with students as we defend their rights as workers to teach how they want? How do we step in when student rights and faculty rights collide?
Mostly I try to use my own experience as a model and (hopefully) as inspiration for colleagues interested in trying A for All grading. For the spring 2021 semester, I was finally able to develop a more deliberate and organized approach to teaching within the A for All framework. With no need to stress out about deadlines or grades, I can consistently respond to student work with individualized comments, often in the form of questions, designed to encourage critical reflection and draw students into a conversation. When students don’t do the work, I reach out and ask if there is anything I can do to support them in getting back on track. This kind of individualized attention takes time, and I am able to do it because I am teaching only one class with 25–30 students and do not currently have to hustle multiple jobs to survive.
I have also been fortunate to feel supported in my decision to use A for All. I am completely open about my grading framework. I describe it in my syllabus and have even managed to post it on the course registration system. In an online teaching workshop, the instructor gave me positive feedback on the A for All description in my draft syllabus. At least one student review on the ratemyprofessors.com website references my A for All grading, and a student evaluation mentioned it in a comment. No one has raised objections. I do not plan on going back to a regular grading system. A for All is here to stay.
“to be open and vulnerable to get sympathy from professors” (Joaly)
During the Spring 2020 semester, as the pandemic crept in, colleges all over the world uprooted and changed to an online, distanced learning. I exhaled deeply when one of my professors (Jane) announced that everyone in the class would be receiving an A in the course. This was the first time I even heard that this was possible. But I could not fully relax, as only one of five classes that I was taking that semester would be doing this.
In Fall 2020, none of my professors came up with an innovative grading system. In our return to normalcy, the looming 11:59pm deadlines made their return. I remember one night coming home from my job as an “essential worker” and sitting down to do an assignment. Juggling 18 credits in one term and working a full-time job meant that I was always cutting it close to deadlines. I had two options: (1) turn in work that I was not happy with, but that would be on time or (2) turn in the assignment late, but that would at least be something good, something I would be proud to submit. I decided to turn it in late, 66 minutes late to be exact.
The next morning I woke up to an email: “This is late. It was due by 11:59PM. This was turned in at 1:06AM. Future assignments submitted late will not be accepted.” A short email, but one that made my heart sink. I remember reading the email heartbroken, defeated. More than ever I realized my mistakes were on full display. My professors could see me accessing the website in the middle of the night, the only time I could get work done some days. They could see me turning in work at odd hours. I told myself, “if it’s a minute late, don’t even bother; they could see the timestamp.” This type of surveillance not only made me feel anxious, but also made me wonder how this data could impact my grades. I found myself wanting to explain and apologize to professors for emailing or submitting late at night. I had to be open and vulnerable to get sympathy from professors. Some were understanding, offering extensions and reassurance, while others expressed sympathy but not any tangible support or leniency. It reminded me that at its core, higher education centered grades and productivity, not students and learning. My experience was that professors do not trust students to self-manage or have discipline, therefore we needed strict deadlines, tests, rubrics, and filler assignments to prove we were engaged. Even if it meant that the quality of our assignments were reduced and that authentic learning was not happening.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many of my classes felt like a performance. I had mastered the art of skimming through scholarly text to be able to regurgitate just enough information to write a response paper or to score participation points for the day. I found myself giving hollow responses to my classmates on discussion boards or writing assignments and curating work that I thought my professors would like. For a long time, this hindered my voice as a student. I didn’t have room to be creative, to make mistakes, to experiment, or to challenge myself academically. Every class and assignment felt make-or-break. Experimenting academically was a risk—a risk that if not accepted by the professor meant that I could receive a poor grade in the course, potentially affecting my academic standing and financial aid. At this point, academia was about producing, not about learning or understanding. Universal grading systems imply that every student is the same. That every student has the same amount of time, resources, or interests. Rigid grading systems reinforce unhealthy classroom power dynamics and gender biases, and punish students, especially students of color, for not conforming to oppressive academic standards. It leaves little space for creativity, mistakes, and healthy student-teacher relationships that are fostered on trust and mentorship and not on power and punishment.
It wasn’t until I became an Urban Studies student, a branch of the School of Social Science at Queens College, that I was able to take courses with professors who promoted my individuality as a student and allowed me to take positive risks in my writing and research. Through addressing rigid grading policies and academic policing, we’ll be taking great leaps in making higher education more accessible and valuable to students.
“With one search result he could see the average grades in my classroom” (Andréa)
My heart is beating out of my chest. 28 A+s. What happens if my Writing Program Administrator, who has already shown that her politics don’t align with mine, calls me out? Asks me for data to support this decision? Asks me for student work, proof that the students deserve these grades? My stomach is in a knot.
“Your grades have been posted successfully”
What if the compliance people come after me? Who even sees how grades are entered? I don’t know the process. It’s not transparent.
Fluttering my lips holy shit this is a major act of defiance against the institution that pays me to research what I want. They pay me, but they don’t pay me enough, it’s basically an honorarium so they can keep filling classrooms and taking tuition from students.
As always, I’m ready to fight, like Bri said, I feel the tension in my body.
I’m submitting grades the second day after the semester ends. This is a calculated decision, a choice not to submit on the first day because it could look suspicious to whoever is watching. But if someone’s watching should I have pushed it to the end of the grading period to seem less suspect?
I started giving As to every student in 2016 after my first semester teaching (so this now marks five years and nine semesters later) because subjective grading quickly made no sense— who am I to wield this power over students especially when my disabilities and pregnancies started affecting my capacity to show up bi-weekly and stick to a strict schedule?
As an adjunct, even with my disabilities, I still have class privilege and whiteness so I’ve felt “safer” to go against the grading criteria set out by the institution. But it never feels completely safe. I was close with the first WPA I worked with; when we were trying to build a case for my hybrid course (pre-COVID), he compiled grades from across the First Year Writing courses to see if there was a significant difference between students who attended in person and online. What stuck with me was the fact that a data grab of grades by the WPA was possible. With one search result he could see the average grades in my classroom.
So now I’m nervous and defiant. I turn in different syllabi to the department than the ones I teach. My syllabi are surveilled. Even sharing this in an article feels dangerous—co-optable by the institution at best, grounds expulsion/firing at worst. The meta onion peel layers of academic surveillance. I use citations in my syllabus to ground my decision in the event someone questions me. Feeling increasingly paranoid about the consequences of giving all of my students an A, I reached out to Anna to see if she had any citable sources on resisting/abolishing/getting rid of grades. It was serendipitous when she shared the collective piece A for All because I felt both connected to other CUNY adjuncts and had something concrete to hand to an administrator if I were called out. I cited “A for All” (Goldberg et al. 2020) in my grading policy section because I believe what it outlines and so I have a framework to point to.
This is the first semester I gave all A+s. The students asked for them, wanted to do extra for A+s and I said no, you deserve them regardless. And then we realized A+s can be reparative on a GPA making it the only acceptable grade.
“as you normally would” (Marianne)
In May 2020, faculty at CUNY collectively attempted to disrupt final grade submission. Until that point, uploading my grades at the end of each term had seemed both inevitable and dull. My well-intentioned pedagogical attempts to decenter grading over the course of the semester seemed always limited by the fact that eventually I still had to submit final grades. It was something I did on my own; it marked the end of my teaching work. The grade withholding campaign taught me there was so much more at stake. It helped me see final grades as yet another mechanism that keeps students, staff, and faculty in check, and thus a potential pressure point to disrupt the administration’s austerity plans.
The word was out that CUNY was about to lay off hundreds, maybe thousands, of adjuncts. The City, Hunter, Staten Island, and Queens College administrations announced drastic budget cuts under the pretext of an anticipated enrollment drop combined with decreased state funding. Brooklyn College’s president asked all department chairs to prepare for 25% cuts in budget and identify which courses to cancel by May 5 (Sandoval 2020). At John Jay College, the provost told faculty to prepare for $21 to $55 million in cuts and to lay off 40% of the faculty (Pereira 2020). Both the scale (millions of dollars and thousands of adjuncts) and the narrative justifying these drastic cuts (“we are going through a crisis”) was reminiscent of the 1970s. This orchestrated defunding of an institution that primarily serves Black and brown working class students, therefore, was not unprecedented.
On May 1st, backed into a corner, 120 students, faculty, and staff participated in a town hall hosted by Rank and File Action (RAFA, a collective of union members), and the idea of a collective withholding of grades emerged (Rank and File Action 2020b). Rank-and-file union members then drafted a resolution calling on all CUNY faculty to withhold grades. Unsurprisingly, union leadership condemned the initiative, and voted it down during a May 11 special Delegate Assembly (PSC-CUNY 2020). But especially in light of the recent Santa Cruz graduate students’ strike—the idea of organizing a wildcat campaign to withhold grades gained steam. This possibility proved disruptive enough to worry college admins. The day following the Delegate Assembly, in a move that seemed intended to undermine a possible grade strike, CUNY postponed sending adjuncts reappointment letters. Instead of May 15—the date initially agreed on during contract negotiations—adjuncts would now have to wait until May 29 to know whether they would be reappointed (Bowen 2020b). This seemingly innocuous calendar modification was perverse in its effects. Grades were due on May 28. This sudden delay meant that adjuncts would learn about their employment status for the Fall, only after the submission date for the grades. The same day, faculty at Brooklyn College received an email from the Provost outlining step-by-step instructions to submit grades (Lopes and O’Reilly 2020), detailing the credit/non credit grading policy, and reminding faculty that grades were due “no later than” the 28th.
The denunciation and pressure from both the union leadership and college administration made me feel upset and at times demoralized. But as some comrades pointed out, they also signaled that something about this tactic was potentially impactful.
On May 15, RAFA hosted another town hall, and soon after sent faculty an “urgent call to action to defend jobs at CUNY”:
we are organizing a university-wide grade strike to tell the administration that we will not accept one single layoff, furlough, or non-reappointment of any faculty or staff . . . To make such a strike successful we will need the support of the vast majority of the CUNY faculty, and so [RAFA] has created . . . [a] pledge [tiny.cc/s20cunygradeaction] ask[ing]every teaching faculty member at CUNY [to] withhold grades until at least May 28, the last day to submit grades for many classes… If we reach the minimum threshold of 70 percent of the faculty, we pledge to withhold grades further until management agrees to negotiate for the reinstatement of all faculty and staff, or as long as is needed. (Rank and File Action 2020c)
Over the following days, rank-and-file activists engaged in discussion with students and colleagues at the registrar and bursar offices. We talked about grades a lot, but not like we do in pedagogy-oriented discussions that usually focus on learning. We sought to learn more about what grades do after we turn them in. We asked how grades dictate student loan repayment and visa status, and limit or allow access to courses, majors, scholarships, and services like advisement or transfer planning. This moment laid bare for us that grades are instrumental to the system of selection, ranking, and exclusion on campus.
The pledge circulated, and faculty signed on. There was even outside media coverage (Dunn 2020; Hoff 2020). On May 21, Brooklyn College’s union chapter adopted a resolution calling for all faculty to hold on to their grades until the very last day (Davis 2020). A few days later RAFA (2020d) sent a list of demands to all College Presidents, Chancellor Felix V. Matos Rodriguez, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Governor Andrew Cuomo: “Enough is Enough: We Demand the Reinstatement of all Faculty and the Repeal of any Future Tuition Hikes or Student Fee Increases.” The action was gaining momentum: it received support from the Freedom Socialist Party (Rank and File Action 2020f) and Graduate Workers of Columbia (Rank and File Action 2020e), RAFA released an FAQ about grade withholding (2020a), and students created a solidarity pledge to support the action (Free CUNY! 2020).
As we continued to gather signatures, college administrators and the union leadership doubled down on scare tactics to undermine the collective efforts around the grade withholding. On May 26, the union president sent an email to “update [members] on the fast-developing union actions this week,” urging them to denounce the grading action: “the PSC opposes any call for faculty to submit their spring semester grades after the deadlines set by the colleges. Any request you may receive to submit grades after they are due has not been authorized by the union. The PSC recommends that all part-time and full-time faculty submit their grades by the established date, as you normally would” (Bowen 2020a). This email’s explicit call to proceed “normally” felt out of tune, as there was little sense of normalcy in a moment where thousands of adjuncts were about to be laid off. But beyond this, it helped me consider grade submission under a different light. This end-of-the-semester ritual I used to treat as a mundane, bureaucratic task turned out to be key to the surveillance of faculty, students and staff. Every day of that final week, I received an email from the Registrar with a personalized message and an attached “grade submission report”’ informing me of the number of days left to submit. These emails put us on notice: CUNYfirst is watching you. However, I do not want to give the false impression that we were up against some kind of high-tech big brother apparatus. Surveillance was not an add-on technological layer the admin deployed at the eleventh hour. It was there from the start; it was embedded in the very practice of the grade submission. CUNY is not a well-oiled machine enacting NSA-like surveillance. Surveillance is operationalized through institutional procedures of ranking and documentation like grade submission.
A few hours after the union president’s message, the Brooklyn College Registrar invited all teaching faculty to virtual office hours “to assist faculty members who are having difficulties submitting grades” (2020). The same day, the Provost sent a warning to all faculty: “Now that the spring semester is over, you must submit your grades on or before this Thursday, May 28. This year, more than ever, students are anxious about grades. Not turning in grades on time harms students’ financial aid and their ability to register for the courses they need. Additionally, students cannot graduate or complete applications for graduate school without their grades. Please submit your grades as soon as possible” (Lopes 2020). It’s pretty hard to know the extent to which faculty bought into the guilt-inducing messaging. But in their efforts to pit students against faculty, these emails helped me understand grade submission as a mechanism to divide faculty from students: the administration relies on the submission of grades to keep everyone under control.
How do faculty act in solidarity with students when their relations are mediated by the looming assignment of final grades, which hovers over all our classroom interactions? How do we subvert and eventually get rid of grades, not only through our classroom practices throughout the semester, but also at the end of it? Can we imagine different end points to our courses—outdoor gatherings, online celebrations, honoring collective growth?
In ten days, about 800 faculty had signed onto the pledge—much less than the 70% needed to begin an actual grade strike and withhold grades past the submission deadline, but nonetheless a remarkable number. Collectives like Queens College Adjuncts Unite and #CutCovidNotCUNY invited faculty to participate in last-minute grade submission parties on Zoom, attempting to turn an anti-climactic moment into a celebration of our collective power, a demonstration of what might have been. In the end, there were too few of us, our demands were not met, and, ultimately, about 3,000 adjunct faculty and staff were laid off. Yet the campaign showed that what seemed inevitable could in fact be challenged.
In seeing our narratives together, we are struck by just how rigid typical modes of assessment and learning feel. Drawing on the work of abolitionist writer-organizer Mariame Kaba (2021), we recognize that unthinking these processes might feel like an impossibility, just as with other carceral technologies—policing, prisons. We have never known a school without grading. To create one, we must build on already-existing practices of teaching, learning and organizing that center student and faculty liberation, as it is cultivated through everyday pedagogies, actions, and refusals (Grande 2018). The stories we tell here are only examples of the multitude of ways students and teachers fight grade-based surveillance: through uplifting counter-institutional modes of thinking and creating in classrooms; collectively interrogating the racist and colonial underpinnings of higher education and possibilities of resistance; sharing information about which courses and campus spaces offer refuge and resources for dissent and those to avoid; and centering the material needs of the staff, students, precarious faculty, and of the community members off campus. In these ways, advocating for the end of grading forces us to confront a wide range of questions, not only about learning, but also about the function colleges play for our communities. We are pushed to reimagine the purpose of schooling as not simply a means of race-class sorting, but a vehicle for creativity and social change.
The day-to-day pedagogies and actions of comrades at CUNY and beyond inspire us to move forward in this work. We are emboldened to publicly advocate for grading practices that have actively been denounced by the institution because of the longer and continued genealogy of organizing at CUNY and beyond, knowing that we are part of a larger community and legacy of counter-institutional organizing, even when the stakes were literally life or death. We think of the many other radical adjuncts, staff, and students who have organized before us and into the present—from the Black and Puerto Rican student activists at the front lines of the Open Admissions struggle, to the numerous modes of organizing that emerged to combat racialized dispossession at CUNY in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As students and/or contingent faculty, we know that writing this article may make us vulnerable to scrutiny from campus authorities. We note this not to artificially promote our work’s value or evoke pity, but to emphasize that these topics have real-life, material implications for us; because our precarity tells us that this institution is not made for us, and motivates us to demand not small, incremental piecemeal reforms but big changes. We write together, then, not to celebrate our own accomplishments but to articulate a common intention and find strength in community with another. We see this article as a form of collective accountability, a public commitment to continuing to imagine and practice toward an anti-carceral education that’s not just free of racialized surveillance but is a site of collective liberation.