Rhetoric & Composition I: Autumn Quarter 2013 Rotating Header Image

Course Contract

Autumn Quarter, 2013 DePaul University

Imagine that this weren’t an official course for credit at DePaul University, but instead that you had all seen my advertisement in the paper and were freely coming to a writing & editing studio for a class in writing & editing.  We would have classes or workshops or lessons, but there would be no official grading.  Of course I’d give you evaluative feedback now and then, pointing out where you’ve done well and where I could suggest an improvement.  But I wouldn’t put grades on your individual pieces or give you an official grade for the course.

I believe that a writing-&-editing studio situation is more conducive to your learning and to my teaching goals than the one we have in this course—where many of you are not here by choice and I am obliged to give an official University grade.  Therefore, I will try to approximate the evaluative conditions of a writing-&-editing studio course.  That is, I will try to create a culture of support:  a culture where you and I function as allies rather than adversaries and where you cooperate with classmates rather than compete with them. An example of that would be our collaborative efforts to develop collective expertise around reading and responding to the New York Times.

Conventional grading often leads students to think more about grades than about writing; to worry more about pleasing me or psyching me out than about figuring out what you really want to write or how you want to write it; to be reluctant to take risks with your writing; sometimes even to feel you are working against me or having to hide part of yourselves from me.

For these reasons, I am using a kind of contract for grading.  I will give you plenty of feedback on much of your writing.  But I will not put grades on your papers and my comments will have no effect on your final grade for the course—up to the grade of B.

You are guaranteed a final grade of B if you meet the following conditions:

(1) Attendance.  According to course polices, “you may take two unexcused absences during the course. Beyond those, each absence will reduce your course grade substantially, and more than four absences will result in a failing grade.”

(2) Bring the print edition of the Sunday New York Times to class: In order to receive credit for this course, you need to bring the print copy to class — every class — unless we made other arrangements during Week 2. (If you have delivery problems, recall that we brainstormed six or seven or eight strategies that will result in getting a copy of the New York Times for class.)

(3) Assignments. We do a lot of reading, writing, and revising in this course, and we will review and discuss your work at various stages in its production. You should plan ahead in order to stay abreast of the course calendar and to allow time for the most important parts of the writing processes: rereading, revising, and rethinking.

Perplexity.  For every assignment, you need to find some genuine question or perplexity.  That is, don’t just tell four obvious reasons why dishonesty is bad or why democracy is good.  Root your paper in a felt question about honesty or democracy—a problem or an itch that itches you.  (By the way, this is a crucial skill to learn for success in college:  how to find a question that interests you–even in a boring assignment.)

Thinking.  Having found a perplexity, then use your assignment to do some figuring-out.  Make some intellectual gears turn.  Thus your paper needs to move or go somewhere—needs to have a line of thinking.

Critical Thinking. This is the one common element that underlies all of our assignments, activities, and discussions. Critical thinking is easy to identify when listening to or reading other people’s work, as they have reflected on their biases, assumptions, and received-wisdom ideologies. It is not so easy from the writer’s or speaker’s position, however, because these are intellectually demanding challenges.  

(4) Participation and your contributions to the intellectual life of our class:

  • Raising interesting, relevant, and generative questions that help us understand issues under discussion
  • Being respectful
  • Active listening (excellent background on Listening and Critical Thinking)
  • Helping us to stay focused on truth-seeking behavior in the things that we read and talk about
  • TBA

Getting an A
As you see, the grade of B depends on behaviors.  A grades, however, depend on quality.  Thus you earn a B if you put in good time and effort; I will push you all to get a B.  But to get an A you have to make your time and effort pay off into writing of genuine excellence (and also meet the conditions for a B).  Notice that for grades up to B, you don’t have to worry about my judgment or my standards of excellence; for higher grades you do.  But we’ll have class discussions about excellence in writing and usually we can reach fairly good agreement.  Your mid-term reflections and final portfolios will play a big role in decisions about excellence.

Knowing where you stand
This system is better than regular grading for giving you a clear idea of what your final grade looks like at any moment.  For whenever I give you feedback on any major assignment, I will tell you clearly if you have somehow failed to satisfy the contract for a B.  I will also tell you if I judge your draft to be genuinely excellent and thus to exceed the contract for a B.  As for absences and lateness, you’ll have to keep track of them, but you can check with me any time.

Grades lower than B
I hope no one will aim for lower grades.  The quickest way to slide to a C, D, or F is to miss classes and show up without assignments.  This much is nonnegotiable:  you are not eligible for a passing grade of D unless you have attended at least nine of the 10 weeks worth of classes, and completed all of the major assignments.  And you can’t just turn in all the late work at the end.  If you are missing classes and behind in work, please stay in touch with me about your chances of passing the course.

I agree to this form of contract grading for WRD103, Autumn Quarter, 2013:


Name: _________________________________________________

Date: ________________


[Adapted — with respect and with gratitude —  from “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching,” Elbow and Danielewicz, ScholarWorks@UMass Amherst, 2008]