#MYFest22: On Questions and Ungrading Equity

I posted ten questions I’ve been considering throughout #MYFest22 on a Twitter thread recently:

The complete list of questions is:

  1. How do we upend the norms of education such that we can embrace a communal vision that foregrounds intentionally equitable hospitality in open & emancipatory ways?
  2. What barriers (real & imagined) stand in our ways of enacting this?
  3. What practices does this entail?
  4. How does online differ from F2F & what tools would we use in each?
  5. Where are the equilibrium/friction points (i.e. where do emancipatory pedagogies become inequitable)?
  6. If changing our classrooms with an intervention, what does success look like? When/where/how do we know it’s better than what we were doing before?
  7. What systems must be broken to make this kind of education possible? How do we replace them with something better (not worse)?
  8. Where does our pedagogy become entangled b/w people, methods, technologies, contexts, purposes, & values? What do those entanglements look like? How do they matter in terms of opportunities, constraints, & ethics?
  9. How do we strategize emergence within the pedagogies & interventions?
  10. Although I think all of these words imply “education with the purpose of specifically liberating oppressed groups”, how do we ensure the marginalized are supported & centered in our work?

For my context, I’m really thinking about questions 2 and 5. In terms of question 2, it translates to “what barriers exist that keep me from the pedagogy of my dreams?” for me. And are those barriers real or imagined? How can I tell the difference?

Because the honest reality is that if I cross real barriers beyond what’s acceptable, it will have a real consequence for my work and my life. How much of a consequence? This is also something I don’t know.

For question 5, this has been a question I’ve been asked over and over again – when do emancipatory pedagogies become inequitable? Where/When/How do they break?

So, since I’m currently leading a track in #MYFest22 on Ungrading as Emancipation: Theory and Practice, I’ll try to write down some of my thoughts. This is, however, nothing like a comprehensive list or explanation.

I think emancipatory pedagogies become inequitable when one (or more) of three things happen: 1. the faculty enacting the emancipatory pedagogy faces barriers they cannot mitigate well or at all; 2. the students have not learned the skills to be able to assess or evaluate themselves sufficiently; or 3. care and equity are not both applied consistently.

In terms of the potential barriers faculty face, three major categories can be delineated: intersectionality, which can include structural, cultural, disciplinary, and interpersonal (including identity) lenses; cognitive biases, which can include, but are not limited to, Consensus, Dunning-Kruger, Belief biases; and COVID, which includes secondary traumatic stress (STS) and exhaustion.

Let’s talk about intersectionality first.

In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw originated the term intersectionality in her paper Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex to describe the many ways race and gender interacted in the employment experiences of Black women (Crenshaw, 1991, p. 1244). When Crenshaw was asked what intersectionality was during a keynote speech for NCORE 2021, she clarified intersectionality as a concept that describes how structures come together to systematically oppress, and therefore decrease the power of, individuals with overlapping identities that are not the society’s dominant identities (Crenshaw, 2021). According to Collins and Bilge (2020), “intersectionality investigates how intersecting power relations influence social relations across diverse societies as well as individual experiences in everyday life” (Collins & Bilge, 2020, p. 2). These definitions highlight the critical inquiry and critical praxis of intersectionality – this theoretical framework is not just about identity, nor is it solely about structural oppression or the power of one individual or institution, but the intersection of these notions within the real world as analyzed through scholarly and activist work.

Collins and Bilge (2020) view intersectional power analysis through four domains or lenses: structural, disciplinary, cultural, and interpersonal. The structural domain of power describes fundamental structures of social institutions. The cultural domain of power “emphasizes the increasing significance of ideas and culture in the organization of power relations” (Collins & Bilge, 2020, p. 9). The disciplinary domain of power “refers to how rules and regulations are fairly or unfairly applied to people based on race, sexuality, class, gender, age, ability, and nation” (Collins & Bilge, 2020, p. 12). How do we experience this convergence of structural, cultural, and disciplinary power? When we experience this convergence while highlighting the aspects of our individual lived experience, we are analyzing intersectionality through the interpersonal lens.

These lenses allow us to examine emancipatory pedagogies through power differentials and the interconnections between them (perhaps in an entangled pedagogical fashion?). When an instructor tries to determine whether an emancipatory pedagogy will help bring more equitable structures to their classroom context, these power differentials may work to empower or dissuade an instructor from adopting the pedagogy fully or at all.

While our intersectionality may or may not allow for the adoption of emancipatory pedagogies, cognitive biases may undermine our use of them.

Cognitive biases are part of our autonomic processing of our lives; they are shortcuts that enable us to make quick decisions when needed. However, our cognitive biases are not always accurate. Cognitive biases are absolutely essential for our survival and cannot be “gotten rid of” but they can be mitigated. Mitigating cognitive biases requires slowing down and thinking carefully (i.e. slow thinking) to acknowledge and work around the bias so that we can tackle more complex, wicked problems.

To give a sense of what cognitive biases are and how they work, three cognitive biases stand out to me in considering emancipatory pedagogies:

  • Consensus Bias or the False Consensus Effect: We think people agree with us more completely and often than they actually do. This is particularly problematic in power differentials when one party is silent (most often students). Which leads to the question – how often do we assume students are ok with their grades because they were afraid to speak up?
  • Belief Bias: We tend to judge arguments based on the plausibility of the conclusion rather than the strength of the evidence. We believe grading is fair; therefore, it is fair (at least in our minds). Even when there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that does not support this conclusion. “Why do conventionally produced grades feel so unfair? Because those grading systems take the biggest variable, teachers and their necessarily subjective judging, and use them to make grades on diverse students…Grading feels unfair to so many because, well, it is racist and White supremacist.” (A. Inoue, 2021)
  • Dunning-Kruger Effect: The less we know, the more confident we are. The more we know, the less confident we are. This may explain the reluctance to characterize #ungrading as a specific something; anything that does not harm students in the same ways grades do is better than doing nothing. But it may explain why, without some amount of normalizing what effort, time, etc. is required to highly achieve in one’s classroom, students self-assess either WAY higher or WAY lower than they should.

An amazing infographic detailing more cognitive biases can be found here. The cognitive bias codex, which details more than 180 cognitive biases, can be found here.

Finally we get to the trauma, including secondary traumatic stress, and exhaustion of COVID. The overwhelming and continued trauma of the COVID pandemic, possible world war, white supremacy, misogyny, non-functioning government, etc. has made our lives & futures very unstable. We are all experiencing “uncertainty about travel and social gatherings, trouble focusing and completing tasks, and general burnout, to name a few…We’re all tired, and talking about exhaustion over and over again is, well, exhausting” (Gold, 2022).

We need to be acutely aware of the trauma we bring to the classroom and the trauma our students have and continue to experience. Being gentle with ourselves and each other helps but will not ultimately address the core issues. Integrating trauma-informed teaching into our classrooms is a way to bring our pandemic learnings into the new normal.

Trauma-informed teaching strategies include (but are not limited to): creating safe psychological and physical spaces, expecting the unexpected, promoting consistency and reliability, intentionally building relationships, asset framing. Several resources are available at the end of this blog to get you started.

In higher education, everyone is exhausted too.

Some will say that we don’t have time to stop and think — that the relentless requirements of enrollment, tuition, retention, and graduation metrics make carving out such time impossible. But not carving out that time is equally unsustainable. Without time to breathe, assess, and chart a new path, higher education risks collapse in many places, hollowed out from within by the disillusionment, burnout, and departure of dedicated faculty and staff professionals.

(Denial, Sorensen-Unruh & Lehfeldt, 2022)

As higher education faculty and an emancipatory pedagogue, my major concern when using emancipatory pedagogies is that each member of my classroom community feels like they have been both cared for AND treated equitably. Kittay has argued that the principles and practices of care, with their focus on relationships, fundamentally undergird egalitarian justice (Kittay, 1987, 1999). “Ethics of Care, also known as Care Ethics, has developed historically from the feminist tradition of recognizing, and requiring, that we can and should respond to marginalized members of the community with care and empathy” (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2018). However, most higher educators have not had training in how to promote the ideals of care and equity throughout the classroom.

The equity-care matrix Bali and Zamora (2022) propose may help faculty better scaffold equitable faculty-student, student-student, and student-self interactions. The equity-care matrix centers the questions “What is equity without care? What is care without equity?” (Bali & Zamora, 2022, p. 2) and results in four quadrants: systemic injustice (no equity and no care), contractual equity (equity without care), partial care (care without equity), and socially just care (care and equity) (Bali & Zamora, 2022, p. 7). In online environments, intentionally equitable hospitality (Bali et al., 2019) allows us to practice socially just care by systematically advancing and centering the voices of oppressed and marginalized communities while extending hospitality to all. Specifically, intentionally equitable hospitality

envisions the ways in which parity of participation can be practiced in design, and then how it can be embodied in the moment of facilitating a conversation with care that does not assume paternalistic knowledge of how participants wish to be seen and heard, but one that focuses on resisting power dynamics that suppress agency of those furthest from justice, yet opening a hospitable space for each participant to join and participate on their own terms.”

(Bali & Zamora, 2022, p. 10)

Modeling intentionally equitable hospitality throughout our emancipatory classes may allow emergent student communities to think about and promote equity throughout their group interactions. But collectively we need to find ways to enact socially just care that do not exacerbate emancipatory barriers, problematic power dynamics, or a weaponization of care. Practicing intentionally equitable hospitality may also be a way to show responsiveness all students, including those in marginalized groups.

This is, of course, just the beginning of the dialogue. I welcome you to add your thoughts about when emancipatory pedagogies are inequitable as well.


Bali, M., Caines, A., Hogue, R. J., DeWaard, H. J., & Friedrich, C. (2019). Intentionally equitable hospitality in hybrid video dialogue: The context of virtually connecting. eLearning Mag (special issue). https://elearnmag.acm.org/archive.cfm?aid=3331173

Bali, M., & Zamora, M. (2022). The Equity-Care Matrix: Theory and Practice. Italian Journal of Educational Technology, IJET-ONLINE FIRST. https://doi.org/10.17471/2499-4324/1241

Collins, P. H., & Bilge, S. (2020). Intersectionality (2nd ed.). Polity.

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989(1), 139–167. http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241–1299. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1229039

Crenshaw, K. (2021, June 8). NCORE Keynote Interview [Keynote]. National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education. https://ncore.ou.edu/en/ncore-2021/keynotes/

Denial, C., Sorensen-Unruh, C., Lehfeldt, E.A. (2022). After the great pivot should come the great pause. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/after-the-great-pivot-should-come-the-great-pause

Gold, J. A. (2022, March 9). Here’s Why Pandemic Fatigue Is (Still) So Draining [Online Article]. Self. https://www.self.com/story/reasons-pandemic-fatigue

Inoue, A. (2021, June 2). Why does conventional grading feel so unfair? [Online Blog]. Asao B. Inoue’s Infrequent Words. http://asaobinoue.blogspot.com/2021/06/why-does-conventional-grading-feel-so.html 

Kittay, Eva Feder and Myers, Diana T., ed. (1987). Women and Moral Theory. Rowman and Littlefield.

Kittay, Eva Feder. (1999).  Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependency. Routledge.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2018, October). The Ethics of Care (EoC) and Feminism. Module 9: Gender Dimensions of Ethics. E4J University Module Series: Integrity & Ethics. https://www.unodc.org/e4j/en/integrity-ethics/module-9/key-issues/ethics-of-care.html

Some trauma-informed teaching resources:





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