Buttons, German, and Personal Gender Pronouns

Thanks to a mini-teaching grant from the CfT, we were able to acquire a button maker. A button maker? Yes!  

Gender matters, and while we may know how to address each other correctly in English, it may not always be clear how to do so in the target language. Just recently, a gender-neutral personal pronoun emerged in German, and sparked our conversation in class about gender, identity, and (grammatical) representation. 

We created personal pronoun / gender buttons, as to address each other in class correctly with ‘sie’, ‘er’ and ‘xier.’ The sunny day even allowed us to complete the project outside.

German House (located at University/Louisiana) plans to offer a gender button-making event on Saturday, 11/20/21 from 3-4, open to all students and faculty on campus.

Interested in creating your own class buttons? The equipment is available for check-out at the CfT.

Corinna Kahnke, Department of German and German Studies

Queerness in the classroom

Hello! My name is Alexis McKnight; I currently serve as the President of the Order of the Gown. Recently the Order of the Gown held a panel and button campaign with the Queer & Ally House and Spectrum. The goal of this campaign was to discuss queer identity in the classroom. Some of the main issues that came up in the course of this campaign were the burden of having to serve as a representative of the queer community and the struggles that some students experience with gender identity recognition, particularly with respect to the use of preferred names and pronouns. We will be partnering with the CfT to hold a panel on “Queerness in the Classroom” on Thursday this week (10/28) at 12:30pm to give faculty an opportunity to hear students’ perspectives on these issues. In this blog post, I want to take the opportunity to share a few of my own experiences as a Sewanee student as a way of previewing some of what we’ll be talking about on Thursday. We very much hope you’ll be able to join us there!

I identify as a queer woman in a largely heteronormative institution. During my time at Sewanee, I have had to represent my identity in the classroom. Like many other students, I have had awkward conversations in classrooms when the topic of sexuality arises. When I was coming to terms with my sexuality, I had to read a piece in one of my courses that contained homophobic themes. My professor provided a warning before assigning the homework and held a conversation about what to expect in the work. I knew what the theme was going to be and prepared myself before reading a hurtful poem. My professor’s thoughtfulness was incredibly helpful during what was a vulnerable time for me. I was grateful to be able to engage in a very important learning experience without having to throw myself into murky waters. The professor did an excellent job fostering an environment that offered discussion on the topic but did not invalidate anyone’s experiences. Professors can make students feel comfortable in the classroom, and luckily for many Sewanee students, many of them are doing just that.

As a cisgendered woman, I have not had instances in the classroom where my gender identity has been difficult for me to discuss. However, through talking to my peers I have heard the concerns and witnessed the challenges faced by non-cisgendered students The heaviest day for many non-cis individuals is the first day of classes. Aside from the prospect of being addressed by the wrong pronouns, they also face the possibility of their non-preferred names being shared with their peers. A non-preferred name is also colloquially termed a dead name, emphasizing that the name is no longer a part of their identity and intentionally declaring the need to remove its association with the person in question. It causes emotional stress when students have to correct their professor after roll call, and it also places students in the difficult situation of their classmates now knowing a name they do not want to be said aloud. Most students recognize that none of these actions are intentional on the part of professors, but there are a few simple things that faculty can do to ease students’ concerns. One example is to provide a piece of paper on the first day, allowing individuals to fill out their preferred names and pronouns. If this is done before the roster is shared, it removes students’ anxieties around the possibility of their non-preferred names being spoken aloud. Although it might seem challenging to recognize a person’s preferred name if you are unaware that it differs from the name on the roster, a simple solution is to check with the student’s last name, as these will often match up. Another solution is to make use of NameCoach, which is now available for all classes through Brightspace, to allow students to state their preferred pronouns and share the correct pronunciation of their preferred names. These inclusive steps allow students to feel safe in their gender identity in the classroom and to feel comfortable remaining there. 

To find out more about how you can support students in the classroom, please join us for our “Queerness in the Classroom” panel on Thursday this week (10/28) at 12:30pm in the Center for Teaching. We’d love to have you there!

Alexis McKnight ‘C22, President of the Order of the Gown

On “Rigor”

Recently, The Chronicle published Jordynn Jack and Viji Sathay’s spirited defense of inclusive teaching practices, full of wonderful suggestions about how to make success possible for all students. Unfortunately, the title of this excellent article was “It’s Time to Cancel the Word ‘Rigor,’” and its authors exhort us to “stop using the word ‘rigor.’ Ask your colleagues to stop using it.” The essay’s conditional subtitle hedges–“If it’s code for ‘some students deserve to be here, and some don’t,’ then it needs to go”–on its way to this salutary advice: “set high standards and help as many students as you can to meet them.” These authors are not insisting that inclusive teaching involves a lowering of standards, but their, er, rigidity, about language certainly makes it sound that way. 

If” rigor requires gate-keeping, obscure references to bootstraps and embarrassing metaphors of firmness, then cancelling it is a tempting proposition. Would we be losing anything of value, or would we all just be shedding a notion that makes us sound like Cruella Deville? I want to push into that “if” and argue that disallowing a word like “rigor”–and please can “grit” be banned first?–does not help us solve its misapplication. If the problem is an attitude that defines excellence as “that which has not been weeded out,” perhaps the solution ought not to be to eliminate a problem word.

Can “rigor” be compatible with inclusive pedagogy? Derived from the Latin word describing a material state of inflexibility, it became associated with “hardness of heart,” “harshness” or “severity” in the strict application of a law. Instead of referring simply to a material property, the meaning of the word drifted toward the experience of hardship–how it feels to encounter, for instance, “the rigors of the Arctic.” But when something is “rigorous,” it still also means “requiring great effort or commitment,” or holding to “strict or exacting standards…[being] conscientious” or “precise…strictly accurate or exact.” Rigor does not mean a willingness to leave some students behind; it means making our own “great commitment” to stay with every student through a challenging course that “requires great effort.”  

Inclusive teaching is a good-faith invitation to rigor without harshness, a place for students to claim the intellectual challenge they are actually seeking. We can trust ourselves to demand “great commitment” without giving our students the experience of harshness or severity. For several years now, I have asked my students, a month or so before the final exam, what kind of exam they want to take. I liken it to a musician’s recital, where their hard work and skill can be triumphantly displayed and admired; so what piece will showcase your learning? I ask them to design a section of the final exam, complete with scope of content, time limits, what materials may be used, etc. I make a mix-and-match final exam based on their answers, a bank including at least two of every kind of section they designed. They can take an exam composed of two different modules they devised themselves, or they can choose two completely different modules (designed by others). First of all, students across the board design a more challenging test than I’ve ever been tempted to make for them; more to the point, they almost always choose to combine two different formats on the final exam: they take a section of the test they designed, and they also take a section that someone else designed. Finally, they want to show their range, their commitment. This is a version of rigor–collaboratively undertaken, difficult, exacting–that I think is worth claiming. Can we give the half-broken word rigor new vitality rather than banishing it?

Lauryl Tucker, Associate Professor of English

Should we be advising students to pursue the PhD?

Have you ever had a student tell you they want to go on to study for a PhD and felt ambivalent about how you should respond? On the one hand, it’s always wonderful to hear that a student loves your subject so much that they want to pursue it for another six or seven years. On the other hand, the academic job market is pretty bleak right now. In conversations with others in my own field, I’ve heard people argue that we have a moral obligation to persuade students not to go on to grad school—or at least, not until conditions improve.

It is safe to say that Don Asher would disagree with this counsel of despair. In a session earlier this semester cosponsored by the CfT and the Career Center, he argued that even in the Covid era, doing a PhD is still an excellent choice for many students. The mistake many professors make in advising their students, he suggested, is to base their advice on the assumption that becoming an academic is the only career option available to PhDs. In fact, PhDs are highly employable in many fields, and their unemployment rates are lower than those at any other level of educational attainment. In addition, most high quality PhD programs will provide students with tuition remission and stipends, meaning that it is possible to get a PhD without going into large amounts of debt. 

Do these statistics suggest that we should be enthusiastically encouraging as many students as possible to pursue PhDs? Not necessarily. Recent reports have raised concerns about the high incidence of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues among grad students, and many PhD programs still do a poor job of helping their students to explore “alt-ac” careers. Don Asher suggests that students who do pursue the PhD should start thinking about possible alt-ac career paths from their very first year, resisting the tendency to think of these options as a “second-best” or “fallback” option.

Ultimately, of course, the question of whether we should be advising students to pursue the PhD (or other graduate degrees) depends on the student in question, the field they want to enter, the options available to them, etc. In the session, Don Asher provided us with a wealth of information and resources on everything from writing effective letters of recommendation to advising students in finding funding that we’ve collected together in this folder. Feel free to make use of these resources in advising your own students, and if there are any other resources you’ve found helpful that you’d be willing to share with others, let us know!

Mark Hopwood, Associate Professor of Philosophy

Classroom Conversions & Canonical Refuse

I play this song on day 1 as the students enter and write their ideas on slips of paper to be used in the “Canonical Refuse” exercise described here. At the end of class, after we’ve completed the exercise and done a very quick syllabus review, I return briefly to the opening song. I ask students to think with me about what they want to do with the “dust” of histories piling up everywhere around us, on us, in us. Breath it in? Bite it? Sweep it away? Push it around like paper on our desks? Let it overtake you, suffocate you? Ignore it as just so much traffic, noise happening somewhere else apart from us?

“What would it look like to teach as though your goal is to expand your field to more students?”[1] I love this question, initially posed by Carleton Green and Alice Donlan. I love it because of how it reframes enduring and urgent questions about introduction and inclusion. I also love it because it has led me to think again about classroom conversions.

Conversion is a familiar subject for the scholar of religion. For a historian like me taught to remain critically attentive to the Christonormative conjures and capital conveyances of my field of study, the converting techniques of field expansion are not uncomplicated. The missionary enterprises of higher education in the U.S. (and beyond) have longstanding and enduring ties to ecclesiastical structures, colonial projects, and racial capitalism.[2] Green’s and Donlan’s opening question thereby returns me to these histories and my present occupation with(in) them. What kind of missionary am I? What kinds of conversions do I seek? How do my expansive goals look different (or not) than those that have historically framed not only my field of study but the project of “higher” education more broadly? What about you, and yours?

To be clear, I have no final answers to these questions, but the interrogation is not merely rhetorical (though they are questions of rhetoric to be sure). “To be trained as a scholar of religious studies is then to practice a postcolonial methodology of a profoundly colonial subject,” one historian of the (inter)discipline convincingly argues.[3] To expand the field to more students means to bring them into that postcolonial practice and to introduce them to both its colonial problems and decolonizing endeavors, including how (historical) change (over time) is wrought. Does that change (always, ever) look like Christian conversion? Does expansion (always, ever) look like a colonial mission? Or, might they look different—and if so, how do we make them so? As the Religious Studies department here at Sewanee describes: “No study of religion is complete without a serious wrestling with its implications in the intimate histories and cultures of atrocity, imperialism, resistance, and indifference.”[4] To wrestle seriously with these challenges—of history and inclusion—is the very work of the field. How then to do that work? This, of course, is to return yet again to Green’s and Dolan’s question.

For most students, Religious Studies is an unfamiliar and frequently misunderstood field of study. Often “a discovery major, not a destination major,” students typically discover it only after coming to college.[5] Unlike other fields, it is rarely taught in high schools, is not well-understood as distinct from theological training, and is not often considered as a potential major until after encountering it at Sewanee as part of a general education requirement. This reality is, again, part of the defining bounds of the field itself, a frame into which students must be introduced and invited into. It is also a frame that students must be supported and encouraged to press back against, resist, or remake for themselves. Any conversion to the field is—and must be—a conversion of the field, too.[6] This is part of what I understand to be at stake in Green’s and Donlan’s question as part of their “fearless framework” for inclusive pedagogy.

Unsurprisingly, there are no small number of texts designed to help do that work. I have already cited one such example (The Religious Studies Skills Book), which I have also assigned in classes. There are many others. Scholars have endeavored to confront the question in journals like Teaching Theology and Religion and The Wabash Center Journal on Teaching, not to mention the field’s flagship publication, The Journal of the American Academy of Religion.[7] But to assign such readings to students rarely has the intended effect. As Eric Thurman recently argued, “abstract theorizing at the beginning of the course squelches their enthusiasm.”[8] (Perhaps the same is true for blog posts?)

Prof Thurman is right. I am convinced by his commitment to the concrete, even if I continue to struggle to squelch my own enthusiasm for “abstract theorizing” (witness the structure of this post).  

What follows, then, is a practical example from my own classroom, offered as an admittedly partial reply to Green’s and Donlan’s exigent question, and inspired by Thurman’s practiced approach to introductory pedagogy.[9] This teaching tactic is a deliberate attempt to navigate my own pedagogical interests in small teaching and big questions. So, too, it is an endeavor to begin again the work of (re)introducing the field of Religious Studies and expanding it to more students, amid all the converting complications of that—of our—mission.

Teaching Tactic – Canonical Refuse (a first-day-of-class exercise)

I use this tactic on day one of my Religion in American History course, but I think it could be used for many introductory courses, especially those for which students come in with a fairly strong, if sometimes under-informed or even mistaken, set of expectations about specific content to be “covered.”

I first distribute small strips of blank paper to each student as they enter the classroom. After welcoming them to the class, I ask students to spend two minutes thinking of as many people, movements, events, or themes as they can, which they think or hope will be on our syllabus, and to write each one on a different slip of paper. After the two minutes has lapsed, I walk over and pick up the trash can from its typical location and move it ceremonially to the top of a desk in the middle of the room. I explain that I am now going to ask for volunteers to read aloud one item that they wrote on their slip of paper. After doing so, that volunteer, along with anyone else in the class who also wrote that same (or a similar enough) item, then crumple up their slip of paper and, without leaving their seat, try to throw it in the trash can. I ask for volunteers until no one has any left-over slips of paper.

As students read an item aloud, I affirm the nomination in some way. The exchange becomes a simple and straightforward way for students to express and hear aloud their individual voice in the college classroom (for many it’s the very first time) and to get both an honest and positive bit of feedback for their contribution. Nearly every student will name familiar examples: the Salem Witch Trials, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr, the Episcopal Church. Students see quickly and concretely that they are not isolated in their ideas. Some, though, will raise not-so-obvious proposals, and in those moments, they will also find affirmation, having offered up a unique subject or distinctive idea: nationalism, American football, or Kanye West. Admittedly, this can also occasionally require some intellectual somersaulting and scholarly redirection (like the time a student volunteered Winston Churchill).

After all the papers are tossed toward the trash (very few, if any actually ever make it inside), I ask them to reflect on why we might be doing this. We ask about what we do with the presumptions we carry and how successful we are in tossing them away. We notice together how popular certain subjects are as they come sailing toward the garbage can from all directions at once, and we discuss why some subjects (e.g. Puritans…always the Puritans) come to mind so readily and widely. During this conversation, many student-generated ideas also help surface the ways that historical narratives are reproduced and consumed (in textbooks, monographs, documentaries, and the many spiraling venues of pop culture), and conversation in the room typically turns not only to what has been offered and why, but also what was not, the subjects more frequently forgotten or more often overlooked.

One thing I especially value about this brief exercise is how it helps illustrate the historical effects of canon in the archives of American religion. As we survey the scene—a floor scattered with the scraps of our presumptions—we reflect together on the material ways history litters and lingers in our lives, and how we continue to contribute to it in our renderings and rememberings. Students are immediately brought into big questions for the class about not just what is included in the annals of American religion (though, yes, that too) but who decides, and it urges students into the work of authorizing history. We also broach questions—even in this very first class—about what we do with the refuse around us. Tidy it up antiseptically in a neat and clean chronological order? Watch it pile up like Benjamin’s angel of history? Sweep it all apocalyptically away to start again, anew? Something else entirely? How, we ponder (abstractly? concretely?), might we begin to take up the “matter of being historical differently”?[10]

More generally, this exercise has offered students and me together a concrete moment of material connection to one another and to our historical materials—to the historical heft we inherit, carry, toss around, live with, and labor amid. Sometimes students near the garbage get knocked with the scraps careening toward the can, offering moments of thought about who and how history hurts and when it is hurled at others. The exercise helps set up a tone of serious play as we delve into the syllabus, one we aim to extend and deepen together throughout the term. It is also a valuable touchstone to which we can return, particularly later in the semester as students begin to devise research projects and pursue subjects of their own choosing, as a way to recall the dynamics of subject selection and canonical refuse in the archives of American religion.

Kati Curts, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies


[1] Carlton E. Green and Alice Donlan, “A Fearless Framework for Infusing Inclusion Throughout Your Course,” Sewanee, University of the South, 16 August 2021.

[2] Elizabeth A. Clark, Founding the Fathers: Early Church History and Protestant Professors in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); Tomoko Masuzawa, “The University and the Advent of the Academic Secular: The State’s Management of Public Instruction,” After Secular Law (Stanford University Press, 2011); Lucia Hulsether, “The Grammar of Racism: Religious Pluralism and the Birth of the Interdisciplines,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 86.1 (2018): 1-41.

[3] Kathryn Lofton, “Religious History is Religious Studies,” Religion 42.3 (2012): 384.

[4] Thanks go especially to Tam Parker for her help in authoring this part of the department description and in being such a crucial conversation partner for me and for so many Sewanee students about these important subjects.

[5] Eugene V. Gallagher and Joanne Maguire, The Religious Studies Skills Book: Close Reading, Critical Thinking, and Comparison (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 16.

[6] I thank Eric Thurman for helping me think more clearly about this particular phrasing.

[7] See, e.g., Nancy Levene “Courses and Canons in the Study of Religion (With Continual Reference to Jonathan Z. Smith)” Journal for the American Academy of Religion 804 (2012): 998-1024.

[8] Thurman, “What We Talk About When We Talk About ‘Religion’,” Teaching Tactic, The Wabash Center Journal on Teaching 1.2 (2021): 106.

[9] It is also crucial to note that my thinking about this exercise was influenced by conversations with Sid Brown and with her own published teaching technique, which also uses cards tossed and thrown into the center of the room. A Buddhist in the Classroom (State University of New York, 2008), 46-47.

[10] Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (University of Chicago Press, 2005).

Why do an FCR? The costs are minimal, the pay-off huge!

Imagine you’re teaching a class where things are not going as well as you hoped. Maybe the energy in the room is lagging. Maybe students don’t seem to be understanding your assignments. Maybe you’ve even asked for their feedback, but you’re met with blank faces, silence, and an empty email inbox. You know something is not quite right, but you can’t figure out what it is.

For me, when I am faced with such a conundrum, I turn to the Center for Teaching and, more specifically, to the Facilitated Course Reflections (FCR) they offer at the middle of every semester. The FCR program (previously known as the Mid-Semester Group Analysis or MSGA program) connects faculty with a trained facilitator, also a Sewanee faculty member, who will come to the classroom and solicit feedback from students at mid-semester.

Some may balk at the idea of voluntarily allowing an outside person into their classroom. Why would we invite observations, outside of tenure and promotion requirements? Certainly, everyone has their own comfort level when it comes to welcoming observers in the classroom. But for me, the costs of conducting an FCR are miniscule and the pay-off enormous.

First, the costs. Observation can be nerve-racking for even the most seasoned educator, and there’s a certain amount of anxiety that comes along with it. It also takes time to plan an FCR, fit it into your course schedule, and participate in a debrief with the facilitator. In my experience, that’s about where the costs end.

Now, the benefits. Yes, having an outside observer in your classroom can be nerve-racking, but when a facilitator who is not the course instructor solicits feedbacks, my sense is students are more forthcoming about both their experience of the course and the work they are doing for the course. (I particularly appreciate how much the FCR focuses on asking students what they personally do to help and hinder their learning in the course, in addition to the usual questions about how the course and assignments are structured.) Because the facilitator has no interest in evaluating the faculty member, that takes pressure off the observation and the debriefs between facilitator and faculty member feel like skills-sharing and problem-solving conversations. I also appreciate the opportunity to brainstorm about teaching with faculty members outside my departments and areas of research. While I may teach rather different courses from, say, a neuroscientist or a theologian, I benefit from the outside perspective and fresh set of eyes that educators in fields like these can offer.

Finally, while it may take time to plan and schedule an FCR, I always feel that it takes about the same amount of time as executing my own feedback collection and the time spent on the FCR is more productive and helpful for my pedagogy. Instead of spending my time writing surveys, cajoling students into taking them, and then wading through and synthesizing their responses, participating in an FCR means someone else writes the questions for students, someone else collects the feedback, and someone else synthesizes all those comments into a big picture view of the class for me (thank you to the facilitators I’ve worked with!). I can then spend my time having substantive conversations about my classroom and planning what changes I can make for the second half of term.

So, bringing an FCR facilitator into your classroom can be a bit intimidating. But the pay-off is a clearer picture of what your students are putting into and getting out of your course and the opportunity to collaborate with a colleague on how to make your course work better. After participating in FCRs, I am able to explain to my students more clearly why I make the pedagogical choices I make and offer tweaks and changes that foster a more inclusive classroom and more effective teaching in the second half of term. The bottom line? FCRs make me a better teacher.

Molly Brookfield, History and Women’s and Gender Studies

CfT Mini-Grant Report: ‘Decolonizing’ Philosophy?

On May 10th, 2021, my students and I welcomed Dr. Arudra Burra (Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi) to our class (PHIL 216—Indian Philosophy). This class is a survey of Indian philosophy from the Vedic period to the present. The course also fulfills Sewanee’s G7 learning objective (“Encountering Perspectives: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”). So to frame our inquiry into the different Indian philosophical traditions, we have been thematizing questions about perspective and inclusion throughout the semester. What does it mean to be part of an intellectual “tradition”? Is Indian philosophy one tradition or many? Does Indian thought even fit into the category of “philosophy” (which is often understood as a specifically “Western” tradition)? How have such distinctions between the “West” and the “East” come to be, and to what ends have those distinctions been deployed?

To address these questions in the Indian context, the final unit of the class has been dedicated to exploring the effects of colonialism on both modern Indian and European philosophy. These sessions have culminated in a discussion about what it could mean to “decolonize” philosophy, both as a discipline and as an intellectual practice. In connection with this question, we read Dr. Burra’s recent essay “The Lamps in our House: Reflections on Postcolonial Pedagogy”, where Burra reflects on his experience teaching European philosophy to his students in India. Here Burra asks: What does it mean to engage with an intellectual tradition which is not “one’s own”? What would “ownership” over an intellectual tradition even mean? Can such “ownership” plausibly be justified? And what intellectual possibilities might be excluded when thinking about philosophy in this way? To follow up on these questions and provide a capstone to the overarching themes of our course, Dr. Burra gave a lecture to my class entitled “Reflections (and Reservations) on ‘Decolonizing’ Philosophy”. In his talk, he explained how decolonial narratives have shaped contemporary political discourse in India on both the left and the right. Dr. Burra explored how such narratives might open up new possibilities for philosophy, while also potentially closing others. He concluded by offering various strategies for decolonizing philosophy, emphasizing that success in this endeavor should enable and promote fruitful dialogue between intellectual traditions, rather than further isolate them from one another. After his talk, Dr. Burra fielded some challenging questions from my students on these issues.

Many thanks to Dr. Burra for his illuminating talk (which he heroically offered to deliver via Zoom at 2:00am his time, so that my students could engage in Q+A with him synchronously!) Finally, I’d like to thank both the CfT and the Philosophy department for sponsoring Dr. Burra’s visit to our class, as well as Jacob McGhee for his technical support during the event.

Cameron F. Coates, Visiting Instructor of Philosophy

Making the (un)grade at Sewanee: A review of Susan D. Blum’s Ungrading: ‘Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead)’

Recently I was playing bocce ball with some neighbors when it hit me (not the ball, thankfully): My experience assigning and grading student essays is not unlike playing bocce. When I give students the assignment instructions, I throw the metaphorical pallina (the target ball) and wait for students to toss their ball / essay toward my target. Of course, I provide guidance on technique and welcome students to make practice throws (rough drafts). The pallina I throw is the “objective” standard, and most balls / essays land in its general vicinity, some very close. Assigning numerical or letter grades, however, can feel arbitrary – the closest toss gets an A, the second closest receives a B, and so on? Or does everyone earn good marks because their ball landed in the vicinity of the pallina? Should we do some grade-free practice runs and only assign grades to the final round? Perhaps students could evaluate each other’s technique?

The contributors to the edited volume Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) offer a variety of alternative approaches to the traditional numerical or letter grading system. (They also might suggest we dispense with the bocce ball metaphor because conceptualizing learning as a competition that sorts or ranks students is part of the problem. Fair enough.) The editor, Susan D. Blum, is an anthropologist of higher education, whose ethnography, I Love Learning, I Hate School: An Anthropology of College (2015), informs her two chapters. (On a side note, I found her ethnography to be valuable for understanding the experiences of students who, unlike the typical college professor, are not “naturally good at school.”)

Ungrading contains reflections from 15 instructors, including 10 who teach at the college or university level and 5 at the secondary school level. In some chapters, it was not immediately obvious to me at what level the author teaches, which evidences both the wide applicability of “ungrading” across age groups and subjects, as well as the degree of openness some college instructors have toward the kinds of alternative assignments they accept in lieu of traditionally-graded essays. (For example, one professor permits a student to make costumes for her doll collection to represent the class system in medieval England, rather than assigning the student an essay). 

The first third of the book is devoted to “Foundations and Models,” followed by sections on “Practices” and “Reflections.” Throughout the book, contributors discuss why various modes of grading or assessment do not work well. Their discussions are interspersed with personal anecdotes. For example, I found Laura Gibbs’ suggested exercise “My ten grading memories” (103) a useful starting point in thinking about how our own experiences being graded have shaped us into the instructors we are today. (I was reminded of the “shame” upon receiving my first C on a math exam in middle school, as well as the elation of reading a typed, single-spaced page of substantive comments on a college history paper, including the suggestion that I consider graduate school, while I sat on the quad at sunset.) Many chapters also incorporate philosophical reflections on the nature of learning, often backed by research in educational psychology. Readers of Ungrading no doubt are familiar with the origins of the “factory model” of schooling and how the forms of disciplinary power it exercises reproduce social inequalities. There seems to be an assumption undergirding Ungrading that not just grades but all forms of extrinsic motivation hamper creativity and that the ungraded student will flourish in some sort of Rousseauian “natural” state. Helpfully, the editor includes a list of suggested additional sources for readers who want to delve deeper into the philosophy of education.

For readers seeking a “how-to” guide with strategies they can adapt easily for their courses, this edited volume offers less than one might expect. Jesse Stommel’s chapter “How to Ungrade” exemplifies this shortcoming, devoting more space to describing the origins of the grading “problem” and justifying “ungrading” than it devotes to explaining, well, how to ungrade. I would have appreciated more chapters like the editor’s Introduction, as well as her contributed chapter, “Just One Change (Just Kidding),” in which she appends examples of documents she has created for her “ungrading” assignments. Some chapters include descriptions of such assignments but having excerpts from the actual documents is more effective. Although many of the contributors hail from the humanities or social sciences, three chapters focus on strategies for STEM courses. In one chapter, a computer science professor describes assigning coding exercises with a focus on completion and functionality: Students submit the same exercise over and over, incorporating the professor’s narrative feedback after each resubmission, until the professor agrees no errors remain in the code.  

While the book may lack sufficient “how-to,” there is plenty of journey narrative (i.e., “When I first started teaching, I used X method but now I use Y method…) recounted with humor and humility. Personal accounts of (un)grading trial and error are refreshing in their frankness and pathos. The result is a sense of solidarity that one’s grading-related mistakes and frustrations are common, as well as reassurance that there are growing communities dedicated to “ungrading” and universal design for learning. Not until page 220, however, does the editor acknowledge “the advantage of tenure” and that “only certain teachers feel themselves secure enough professionally to take these risks.”  

My sense is that faculty at a small liberal arts college like Sewanee are well-positioned to incorporate elements of “ungrading” in their courses, especially with our small student-faculty ratio and typically smaller class sizes. One suggestion offered in Ungrading is to advocate for more pass/fail courses that would “free” students from their GPA anxiety. If a course cannot be offered as pass/fail, then some contributors recommend providing students narrative feedback until the end of the semester when a numerical or letter grade is required. I suspect that employing this approach is far more challenging in a STEM course than in a humanities or social science one. This semester, I plan to start with a small change in how I assign and assess a series of short essays, offering only narrative feedback via discussions with students. (But this method resembles the “old school” tutorial approach to papers and is hardly revolutionary “ungrading.”) Have you implemented “ungrading” in any of your courses at Sewanee? If so, I would love to hear how.

-Diana Hatchett, Visiting Assistant Professor of International and Global Studies

Ambitious and Anxious

Yingyi Ma’s book “Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese College Students Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education” is a thoroughly researched and extensive survey of the lives of Chinese undergraduates in the US over the last couple of decades. With the number of Chinese students in the US increasing from 55,000 in 2000 to over 369,000 in 2019, this book provides necessary and contemporary insight. With few nuanced resources out there in English about the subject, and increasing xenophobia amongst politicians and the media in the US, the book’s greatest success is in humanizing an overly simplistic view of Chinese students. The book is also valuable for advice on how higher education institutions can better meet the ambitions of these students and alleviate the increasing anxieties as they adjust to life as a student in the US. 

Too often over the last decade, insitutitions have often focused on the pull factors in attracting Chinese students to campus, as they are much more likely to be full pay than other international students, yet there has been less focus on the true ambitions and anxieties of students after arriving. 

At the beginning of the book there is heavy data and interviews with a disparate group of Chinese students about the push factors that have encouraged over 300,000 Chinese students to travel thousands of miles from their family for an education. There are the well known tropes of escaping the rigorous Chinese college entry examination test and interest in US culture, or the soft power pull of Hollywood, but by far the greatest push is the fact that US higher education is a great way for students to set themselves apart from other future job seekers back in China.  

Prior to 2007, most Chinese students were very interested in finding ways to continue to develop practical skills in the US and find long term employment or even a pathway to immigration. However, today, an overwhelming majority of students plan to return home soon after receiving a Master’s or terminal degree. Aside from burdensome work visas and a bamboo ceiling (which is often used in reference to barriers Asian-Americans face in professional advancement opportunities, and is not lost on students from China) here in the US, the greatest lure to return to China is simply that there are increasingly more lucrative jobs back home that are near family and friends. A Master’s or terminal degree from a well known university is very attractive to these students (and something we do a great job of preparing our students for here at Sewanee). 

In every educational institution that I personally have worked at, there were a significant number of students from China, and I have been asked a significant number of times from a diverse range of faculty, staff, and students the question “Why don’t Chinese students want to make US friends and are unwilling to speak out in class.” But according to Yingyi’s data, and my own experience working with Chinese students, most arrive here with a strong desire to connect. 

According to Yingyi’s research, most students are very excited to engage in discussion based classes, socialize with US peers and professors, and develop cosmopolitan capital (or a foundation of understanding of the increasingly global, interconnected socioeconomic environment), even though they often struggle to do so. Knowing most students have these desires, I think it is imperative we also ask, why aren’t US students connecting more or reaching out, and what can professors do to help engage these students in and outside of the classroom. In our Greek Life system, we have only one student from China actively involved, to my knowledge, yet we have almost 20 students from China at our institution. Yingyi suggests there should be more intentional engagement for socializing and engagement in and outside of the classroom that extends beyond orientation.

One relevant point about the withdrawal or exclusion of students from American networks includes the let down that American rural life presents to students largely coming from urban China. For Chinese students living in the rural US, it comes as quite a surprise to many that schools and entertainment are not as vibrant or as exciting as that of Hollywood films, nor their urban homes in China. Here at Sewanee we do have access to some exciting urban centers, and more engagement or trips would certainly be helpful in giving students a taste of urban life considering transportation is often a hindrance.

There are plenty of articles and politicians portraying these students as entitled, wealthy ‘Little Emperors’ looking to buy their way through an American education and then return state secrets to their billionaire cadre parents. However, Yingyi Ma’s book refreshingly offers hard data presented to the contrary. A large portion of the Chinese students in the US, and here at Sewanee, are by no means extremely wealthy. Most are middle class and feel greatly indebted to their family for making significant sacrifices in order for them to be here. These sacrifices weigh very heavily upon the shoulders of students who hope to pay it back someday by finding successful jobs, and as a result they often are very pragmatic in their selection of a major. This extreme pressure increasingly manifests itself in the form of anxiety, and mental health concerns across the country. 

Personally, one of my greatest struggles while reading the book was knowing that the anxieties of students from China have greatly shifted or multiplied since the book was published in February of 2020, just weeks before Wuhan went on lockdown. Most of the research for the book would have been conducted prior to 2018 when Trump’s trade war really picked up steam alongside a major rise in Anti-Asian xenophobia. Over the past years a few students from China were victims of horrific homicides and random gun violence; in the US these murders barely made local news, but they were almost front page news across China. Not only have the anxieties increased exponentially, the shine of a US education as a great place to develop cosmopolitan capital has been greatly tarnished. In 2020, these anxieties lead to a 20% decrease in the number of students from China enrolling in US colleges. Regardless if the peak has come and gone, Chinese students will continue to be a significant part of US campuses, as well as ours for the near future.

Moving forward, our Office of Global Citizenship hopes to provide more sustained seminars and engagement with faculty to help professors better understand international students, as well as the opportunity for international students to better understand the US classroom and campus. Please never hesitate to reach out if you have any suggestions or questions to help our international students thrive here at Sewanee, or if you are interested in collaborating. 

I would highly recommend this book to anyone in higher education. 


Marcus Murphy, Coordinator of Global Initiatives and Instructor of Chinese

Other resources: 

If you are interested in the topic but unlikely to have time for the book, one of my favorite podcasts about China current events, Sinica, hosted a very thorough conversation with the author. I highly recommend the episode, and all Sinica episodes: https://supchina.com/podcast/chinese-college-students-in-the-u-s-with-yingyi-ma/

You can now read the book online through our library here: https://eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/detail/detail?vid=1&sid=0192757c-3d88-42ab-94b6-37194e238fb1%40sessionmgr101&bdata=JkF1dGhUeXBlPXNzbyZzaXRlPWVkcy1saXZl#AN=tigr.b3421184&db=cat07532a 

The TV show mentioned in the book “A Love for Separation” captures the educational anxiety zeitgeist through the lives of three Beijing families toiling with the plan to send their child abroad for high-school. It can be watched in its entirety on Youtube with subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPeYxzXtZRg&list=PLRWT6lKXUm2klCQ7oGWAV0cfoxrUiSmdG

If you would like a shorter option, the very entertaining film “American Dreams in China” is a 2013 blockbuster that is based on the founding of New Oriental, one of the largest education companies in China and the world which was originally focused on sending students abroad. 

CFT Mini-Grant Report: Visiting Ballet Instructor Kevin Thomas

On Tuesday, April 27, Kevin Thomas, artistic director of Collage Dance Collective was a virtual guest teacher for Ballet II and Ballet III. On that day, these classes were also open to any Sewanee students who have ever expressed an interest in theatre and dance.

As Mr. Thomas introduced himself, he joked about his extensive use of French, his native tongue, when he teaches. He shared a bit about his background as a former principal soloist with Dance Theatre of Harlem, a guest performer with the Royal Ballet, and on Broadway in Phantom of the Opera. He taught from one of the studios in Collage’s newly opened 22,000 square foot complex (built during the pandemic!) where the professional company rehearses and he and his faculty train 250 students. We were inspired to learn that they also engage with an additional 500 students in the Memphis community each week.

I was particularly impressed with Mr. Thomas’ ability to “read the room” over video and teach the mixed levels of students who were present, offering them specific, useful feedback that they can continue to work on beyond this class, and offering appropriate levels of challenge. The students commented that he made them feel simultaneously at ease and inspired to put forth their best effort. As a participant-observer, I danced parts of the class with the students while observing them and, at other times, stood back to fully observe and remain out of the camera’s view. It was a gift for me to witness the different approaches to exploring concepts that the students most connected with and which images and phrases allowed them to access familiar ideas in new or more fully-realized ways.

I also observed Mr. Thomas’ values as a teacher emerge as he guided the students through the class, some of which illuminated areas that I tend to place less focus, and revealed some areas that I can place more attention in my own teaching. In particular, an emphasis on strength in the arms coming from the back, “like bird wings” was a powerful image for the students. We now have access to visual examples of Collage’s professional company performing this imagery in Kevin Thomas’ re-imaged choreography of The Firebird ballet, inspired by African culture. The ballet premiered the same week as our classes in an on-air broadcast by a Memphis television station. We all left the classes sweaty, uplifted, and inspired.  

-Courtney World, Associate Professor and Director of Dance