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Educational Philosophy and Theory

doi: 10.1111/j.1469-5812.2008.00440.x

An Immanent Machine: Reconsidering
grades, historical and present
_440

762..778

Charles Tocci
Teachers College, Columbia University

Abstract
At some point the mechanics of schooling begin running of their own accord. Such has
become the case with grades (A’s, B’s, C’s, etc.). This article reconsiders the history of grades
through the concepts of immanence and abstract machines from the oeuvre of Deleuze and
Guattari. In the first section, the history of grades as presently written until now is laid
out. In the second, the concepts of immanence and abstract machines are described, and
in the third section, problems are raised by reconsidering grades as machines (grade-machines).
Keywords: grades, immanence, abstract machines, Deleuze & Guattari

Introduction
It is easy to fall into the habit of regarding the mechanics of school
organization and administration as something comparatively external and
indifferent to educational purposes and ideals ... We forget that it is
precisely such things as these that really control the whole system even on
its distinctively educational side.
John Dewey, Educational Situation, 1902, pp. 22–23
In February 2007, the United Stated Department of Education released another of
its ‘report cards for the nation’, this time focusing on the educational performance
of high school graduates in the class of 2005. The report notes that while student
performance on the National Examination of Educational Progress has held steady
in recent years, student grade point averages have actually increased by roughly
10% since 1990. To this provocative contradiction, the authors write, ‘[t]here are
many possible reasons for this apparent increase, including “grade inflation,”
changes in grading standards, and growth in student performance’ (Shettle et al.,
2007, p. 12).
These are three bold assertions about grades: that grades are subject to manipulation; that grades are tied to variable standards of measurement; and, notably
last, that grades reflect student performance and the inaccuracy might lie in the
standardized assessment. This critique of grades is predicated on a central notion,
one left implicit in the creation of any report card—that a tiny inked marking, be
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it a letter or number, can well and accurately represent such matters as learning,
knowing, and academic performance. When made explicit, the idea takes on
strange qualities. Again, from the national report card: ‘In 2005, high school graduates earned an overall grade point average of 2.98, or about a “B” letter grade’
(Shettle et al., 2007, p. 12). Now, consider it restated: the quality of learning and
academic performance of high school students in 2005 is the number 2.98 or about
the letter ‘B.’ How is it that a number or a letter is the representation of the corpus
of teacher-student interactions within schools? How is this possible? What made
this possible?
Several histories have posited a chronicle,1 but this exploration into grades works
otherwise. This article reconsiders the history of grades through the concepts of
immanence and abstract machines from the oeuvre of Deleuze and Guattari. In the
first section, the history of grades as presently written until now is laid out and
followed by a survey of contemporary considerations of grades. The second section
presents the concepts of immanence and abstract machines in order to problematize
the previous section. In the final section, grades are reconsidered to work like
machines, and in doing so questions are raised about the conditions and contingencies
in which grades occur. This article does not weigh in on issues of whether or not
there should be grades, how to improve grades, or how grades influence student
learning; instead, the intent is to trace out the way grades both constitute and are
constituent of schooling and the formation of students.
History of Grades As It Has Been Written Thus Far
In post-Renaissance Western Europe there was a transition made in the culminating
products of learning; the apprentice model of copying, repetition, and eventually
masterwork was replaced by examinations, at first oral and later written. Several
broader social forces conspired to create such a shift including the Reformation,
the formation of a mercantile class, the spread of the moveable type-press, the
steady increase in literacy rates, and the beginning of modern scientific knowledge.
In large part, these forces also fed into the 16th Century development of curriculum
from the earlier age of scholasticism; the methodization of teaching and the logical
mapping of knowledge into branches, espoused by Erasmus and Ramus, respectively, spread throughout Europe and the European colonies over the course of a
century (Hamilton, 2001). The overall shift was away from the teacher as scholastic
model towards curriculum as ordered course of study, and in tandem, examinations
shifted from emulations of the teacher to performances of curricular mastery.
There is no evidence that these early examinations were graded as such; they
were evaluated and considered, approved or reproved, and responded to orally or
in writing. Examinations were a public showing of learning in refined presentation.
This was a model carried to the Americas and implemented at the first educational
institutions (Cureton, 1971). For example, the following is a description of examinations at Harvard College, 1646:
Every scholar on that proof is to be found able to read the original of the
Old and New Testament in the Latin tongue and to resolve them
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logically[;] with all being of honest life and conversation and at any public
act hath approbation of overseers, and Masters of the College may be
invested with his first degree. (As quoted in Smallwood, 1935, p. 8)

Here the examination is a public act of bearing proof, specifically logically founded
knowledge of the Bible and a capacity to speak Latin. In considering this proof,
the ‘Masters of the College’ made up-or-down votes; proof was sufficient for
granting a degree or not. And among the approved candidates, often a valedictorian
and salutatorian were selected and publicly recognized (Smallwood, 1935). This,
of course, indicates some form of ordering and ranking, but no record exists of
how these ranks were determined.
Ranking students, though, was common practice at the early American colleges, and
often a source of great consternation for students; students were initially
ordered by familial status and this order could be changed by the college rector as
a disciplinary measure against the student. This system occurred contemporaneously
at Oxford and Cambridge in Britain, and this is the likely source of the practice
in the North American colonies (Smallwood, 1935). In the absence of historical
records, it suggests that the student rankings and valedictorian/salutatorian designations inscribed in university archives reflect not academic performance, but instead
some mixture of familial status and personal behavior, be it accuracy in recitation,
piety in ecclesiastical observation, or some sort of general misconduct. It was
not until 1767, in the wake of violent student protests which caused physical harm
to college President Thomas Clap and the college tutors as well as damage to a
number of college buildings, that Yale ended the practice of ranking by status
(Smallwood, 1935).
The first archival description of what is considered to be ‘grades’ is inscribed in
the diary of Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College, on April 5th, 1785: ‘Present at exam.
58. Sick 2. Out of To 11. Of these 58, 20 Optimi, 16 2d Opt., 12 Inferiores (Boni),
10 Pejores’ (Stiles, 1901, p. 154). This small notation was part and parcel with another
change to the examination process; where in past years, examinations were adjudicated
by a board of scholars with the college rector or president, examinations from
1785 on were evaluated by the college president and the college tutors. Smallwood
(1935) indicates that this decision was made in order to more efficiently and specifically judge the work of an ever-growing student body, one that had outstripped
the college’s capacity to continue the practice of evaluation by ‘Masters of the
College’.
Grading as a system was particular to Yale for 28 years, though there is no clear
evidence of its use each year. The approach was simplified and quantified in 1813
to a numerical scale, 1-4 (one corresponding to optimi), in a move to facilitate the
aggregation of grades and the specific designation of the student (Boyd, 1998;
Smallwood, 1935). By the 1830s, Harvard started a similar system, first using the
1-4 scale and seven years later changing to a 1-100 scale. In 1869 the faculty at
Harvard voted to de-link students’ conduct from academic measurement and
award grades only for scholarship, arguing that gentlemanly behavior should be
accorded a different evaluation beyond straight calculation (Smallwood, 1935).
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The first recorded instance of grades in and of United States public schools occurred during a review of the Boston school system in 1845. A proto-standardized
exam was given to students across the city and straight percentages of right and
wrong were computed. The approach supplemented the typical practice of publicly
ranking students in order of merit and, in some cases, giving students medals in
accordance to relative merit among classmates. Massachusetts Board of Education
Secretary Horace Mann noted that the examinations removed the ‘officious
interference of the teacher’ (as quoted in Cureton, 1971, p. 3).
From these early, Eastern educational centers, the general concept of grading
spread with the movement of educated merchants and social elites as well as
improved means of travel and communication (Smallwood, 1935). Still the particular
grade forms varied widely among the colleges, secondary schools, and primary
schools which implemented grading (Rugg, 1915; Odell, 1925). For instance,
between 1860 and 1880, Harvard moved from the 1-100 scale to a quartile system
(students ranked in groups of 25% relative to each others’ performance) and then
to an A-E scale (Smallwood, 1935). Meanwhile, the majority of American universities
moved to a related 1-5 scale (Cureton, 1971). By 1901, the ‘S’ for satisfactory and
‘U’ for unsatisfactory was being widely used for the youngest students in elementary
school, yet Nashville public schools developed a standard ‘passed’, ‘conditioned’,
and ‘not passed’ scale (McClusky, 1920; Cureton, 1971). The University of Georgia
was pioneering a system of 1* at the highest and then down 1–3 (Boyd, 1998) at
the same time that Knox County, Tennessee aligned the 1-100 scale with the A-F
scale (in this case, ‘F’ literally corresponded to ‘failure’) (Kirschenbaum et al., 1971).
The famed ‘grading curve’ was first devised at the University of Missouri in
response to an inordinately high failure rate in the natural sciences and an inordinately
low failure rate in the Humanities (Meyer, 1908). The notion was simple, that
grades, like any other natural phenomena, should be appropriately distributed over
a normal curve.
The implementation of grades both in part constituted and was a constituent
part of two related, major movements in American education: the rapid expansion
of public schooling and the rapid expansion in pedagogical knowledge. This first
movement not only swelled the number of students being schooled, it demanded
the construction of countless new schools and new administrative techniques.
There was unprecedented stress placed on the capacity of American schooling at
all levels. To deal with a quickly growing student body, ideas and practices were
borrowed from another burgeoning field of knowledge which also included clear,
scientific designations of rank and quality: industrial management (Callahan,
1962). The use of grading in its various forms became a tool of efficiency in dealing
with the student body on a mass scale.
The second movement, the rapid expansion in pedagogical knowledge, shared
the characteristic of efficiency and the tenets of scientific management (Callahan,
1962), but it also incorporated another relatively new science, psychology (Harris,
1898/1969; Thorndike, 1904). Whereas efficiency was a response to the growing
student body, the expansion of pedagogical knowledge occurred in response to the
bodies of students: how they learned, acted, reacted, and could be accurately, precisely
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measured. To do so meant moving the curriculum further away from the individual
teacher and into the sphere of formal, pedagogical knowledge (Popkewitz, 1986;
Hamilton, 2001).
Grading, in whatever form, played two key functions by the early 20th century:
to efficiently, scientifically organize the student body and to scientifically measure
student learning through the formal curriculum. This is a distinction, though, not
of the historical moment, but in the historical literature. For instance, William
Torrey Harris, educated at Yale from 1855–1857, later became superintendent of
St. Louis schools and subsequently United States Commissioner of Education from
1889–1906. During his tenures in administration, Harris was central in pioneering
the implementation of grades as a curricular and a managerial reform, one that
improved the over all functioning of schooling (Byerly, 1946).
Over first two decades of the 20th Century, there was an explosion of literature
on grades and grading. In general, grades were considered a key administrative
element of pedagogical knowledge, one which permitted the functioning of large
schools from elementary through higher education. Yet debates occurred over the
source of and elimination of teacher bias in grading2 and the creation of standardized
grade forms to create coherence across geographic regions and levels of schooling.3
After the close of World War I, the literature on grades and grading continued to
debate ways to grade better, ways to remove teacher bias, and ways to more
accurately measure specific student learnings.4
There was a broad upheaval in the late-1960s through the mid-1970s where the
purpose and rationale for grades were questioned along with other fundamental
tenets of American pedagogy (Marshall, 1968; Simon & Bellanca, 1976). Grades
were particularly singled out, though, as potent devices of social control continued
discrimination (Atkinson, 1975). During this period of sometimes ephemeral change,
a number of colleges permanently introduced ‘pass-fail’ grading options while other
universities were founded as educational institutions which did not grade, for
instance New College of Florida, Hampshire College, and the University of
California-Santa Clara. But few permanent inroads were made into secondary and
elementary public education, and with the issuing of A Nation At Risk (NCEE,
1983)debates about grading returned to discussions of eliminating teacher subjectivity and improving precision as standardized measures began to gain a foothold
in administration of schooling on state and national levels.5 Moreover, the standard
grade forms became well cemented as pedagogical mainstays: the A-F scale matched
the 1-100, the 4-point grade point average, pass-fail, and the S-U elementary
designations. These are often used in to represent learning across a range of schooling
contexts, from the individual student report card to the report card for a nation.
Two Lines through the History as Written
This history of grades, as currently written and outlined above, is one of form and
rationale: grades as schooling products and tools. The literature sketches three
distinct contours: the initiation of grading as a practice at Yale; the spread of
grades; and the regulation/normalization of grades as a part of formal pedagogical
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knowledge. In scholarly writing the impetus for each movement appears necessary,
requisite, and imperative given changes in the social conditions: the rapid increase
in school attendance compelled the use of grades as tools of efficiency; the rise of
scientific management specified the structures for grades as representations; and
the development of scientific psychology as well as learning theory compelled
grades as precise measures of learning.
These two lines, efficiency and psychology, are elements of the scholarly literature and were parsed as distinctions in the historical documents. The implementation of grades as an administrative and managerial tool for rapidly growing school
was underpinned by the acceptance of grades as useful, if not also precise, representations of student learning and performance. This coupling, first propounded at
Yale in 1785, became a facilitating factor in the creation of public schools systems
for the mass of youth as well as the expansion of higher education institutions; ever
greater scales of schooling could be achieved through the simple representation of
learning (grades inked onto paper). As psychology became formalized as a scientific
field through the 19th century, examinations took on new dimensions, no longer
simply as recitations of learning to be adjudicated, but as indicators of learning as
a psychological process. Grades were an already-in-place element of schooling that
became a place of connection between the administration of the school and the
psychology of the student. This was a connection between the management of the
student body and the management of the bodies of students.
The debates of the early 20th century about eliminating teacher bias and creating
consistent grade forms indicate at once that grades had become a key element of
pedagogical knowledge but also that their function was still somewhat uncertain;
their position as a representation was problematic. In many ways, this debate
persists in related discourses. There is little written about grades, per se, but arguments over how to best assess learning and represent learning have broad political
implications and are the realm of pitched battles. The recent literature on grades
plays out arguments both in the critical theory and the post-structural veins.
Recent Literature
The recent literature on grades falls into roughly two categories of contemporary
theoretical study: Marxist-based critical literature6 and more recent post-formalthought inquiries.7 There is a third, ancillary group which has recently presented
critiques and studies of grades, but from a structuralist, modernist perspective mostly
concerned about technical and motivational aspects of grades.8 These scholars
continue, in different permutations, similar debates from the early 20th century:
that grades can be perfected to more accurately measure learning; more efficiently
manage schooling; and eliminate teacher bias in the act of grading.
The critical literature on grading presumes that the act of grading carries with it
ideological implications and forms of social control (Atkinson, 1975). As such,
grades are a key mechanism in the political processes of schooling, which differentially sort students according to ideological compliance in the form of academic
performance and behavior (Simon & Bellanca, 1976; Lysne, 1984). This occurs
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both within schools and across schools reproducing various social divides and class
systems (Apple, 1996).
The post-structuralist literature on grading aims at a different critique, to problematize grades as representations and the position of grades in pedagogical
knowledge. When viewed from a post-formal-thought position, the nature of grade
as a representation becomes a normalizing force, one which excludes far more
discourses than it includes. Moreover, by identifying teacher bias as a source of error
as opposed to engaging the contested, shifting contexts in which grades are given,
the grades themselves are positioned as neutral (Genishi, 1997). This fits into a
broader critique of assessment and pedagogical knowledge as discursive productions.
By denying the political formations of schooling and its components, processes of
schooling normalize the differentiation of students, which has broad social consequences for the benefit of some and the detriment of others (Kincheloe & Steinberg,
1996). When viewed as enmeshed in other social networks, the processes of schooling,
including grades, serve to mark out people’s relative social position through paths
that extend from the school to countless other institutions (Roth & McGinn, 1998).
From the overlaps in these fields of literature, a portrait of grades emerges. A
differentially educated public is the intent of efficient, scientific school management;
to create a public with desired attributes and qualities is the outward function of
school. These may range from technical skills to certain habits and dispositions,
but the key is that these attributes and qualities are sufficiently reproduced on the
mass scale of a population. This suggests an outward function of grades, that they
are put into circulation as symbolic representations of the individual. For instance,
the grades on a high school transcript, once inked onto paper, move in many
directions at once. The grades become a rationale for granting a diploma, evidence
for college matriculation, the reason for hiring at a job, a representation of the
individual student, an artifact of the school itself, and an element in innumerable
aggregations about how students academically perform. At once, this is an identifying of the student through broad terms as well as an identifier for the student.
The representation becomes more real than the student.
Conversely, the grade is also an arrangement of multiple components. The grade is
a pedagological relationship between teacher and student as well as a class of students;
the number or letter committed to paper encodes a broader set of social relations within
the school-institution. Here are management strategies, tools of examination, measurements, judgments, assessment, and the spontaneity of daily interaction (fun, cruelty,
argument, collaboration, etc.). And above all, the grade is the reproduction of a
dominant representation, a public signification of tiny proportions (a letter, a number),
yet broad implications. Grades, then, work in two simultaneous registers—on the student
body (the mass of pupils) and the bodies of students (each individual pupil), at once
an aggregation and an individuation—subject positions writ large and microscopic.
Immanence and Abstract Machines
There must be a further step for further reconsideration of grades. For this task, I
employ conceptual ideas from Deleuze and Guattari, specifically immanence and
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abstract machines, in order to explore the relation between various forces. Moreover,
the epistemological and theoretical approaches brought to bear through Deleuze
and Guattari allow for explorations of grades that seek out as-of-yet unconsidered
facets as well as posing problems to existing chronicles. They bring to the surface
basic assumptions of evolutionary change, cause-and-effect, progressive development,
and a-contextual consistency. This illuminates dynamics and relations otherwise
obscured, injecting a fundamental uncertainty into exploration. The result of this
approach, not often used in education scholarship, is the creation of new problems
and possibilities for grades and for schooling.
Immanence
The concept of immanence,9 as particular to Deleuze and Guattari, is a fundamental
epistemological position undergirding their work. Put briefly, the concept of immanence posits that moments are formed by the relation of forces present. As such,
immanence is portrayed as a plane, a surface upon which different social forces are
arranged. As the relationships between forces shift, so does the moment. There are
no deeper currents or symbolic dimensions on a plane of immanence; it is a fluid
surface that flows in any number of directions.10 There is no causation on a plane
of immanence. Social forces that form a moment are in perpetual movement; a
moment is formed by the specific, particular relationship among forces that will
change in any number of possible ways.
The history of grades as it has been written and grades as presently considered
intermingles lines of efficiency and psychology. Brought together around the actions
of the student, grades are a vital place where theories of schooling, practices of
schooling, and experiences of schooling come into contact and result in a tiny inked
marking, one which represents the schooling process in terms of student performance.
But how did this become possible? How did grades become an element of schooling?
The archival materials show that the first site for the deployment of grades was
Yale College in 1785, but identifying a place invites the question: what were the
conditions at Yale which made grades not only a possibility, but a possibility realized? Smallwood (1935), the only historian to yet directly investigate the origin of
grades, argues that it was the growing student body and a need to more efficiently
evaluate examinations that lead to grades. This is a reasonable conjecture, though
there is no direct archival evidence of such a condition leading to the implementation
of grades.
There were, though, a number of other conditions present at Yale around 1785
which should be considered: enrollment was both increasing and becoming more
diverse in relation to social class; works from the Age of Enlightenment were
increasingly present at the college; the role of the college as a Calvinist institution
contrasted with the growing Deist movement in the United States; the college’s
curriculum was becoming more varied and courses of study more specialized; the
American Revolution had recently ended and the States were operating under the
Articles of Confederation; and the college was in the midst of an era of student
rebellions. While student rebellions at Yale College had been most frequent and
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violent under the rectorship and presidency of Thomas Clap from 1740–1766,
student rebellions continued through the 18th and into the 19th century. Indeed, a
year after first implementing grades, Yale students took part in a violent rebellion
which lead to great damage to the campus and chased off a number of tutors. In
this age of Enlightenment, revolution, and rebellions, there seems to be more to
grades than efficiency.
Forces, though, are not the sole elements present in an immanent plane. Social
forces form not the deployment of grades specifically, but form the particular
conditions and contingencies in which the deployment occurs. It is within these
conditions and contingencies that a possibility is realized. To further illustrate: the
social forces noted above were immanent to the same plane as Yale in 1785. The
arrangement of these forces, as they flowed from a previous arrangement, formed
a particular body of formal knowledge, material objects, and desires on the part of
persons. This is the more specific context for the deployment of grades: the knowledge
underpinning the concepts of grades was existent; the material objects of a large
school-institution were existent; and the desire to employ such knowledge, to be
schooled, and to rearrange the school-institution was existent. Again, the realization
of grades out of these conditions and contingencies is arbitrary; other possibilities
were captured in the conditions and contingencies. Nonetheless, the deployment
of grades refigured the conditions and contingencies that flowed into a student
rebellion in 1786.
As particular to the works of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, immanence
posits that the distinction between the discursive and the non-discursive is an issue
of representation, representation within some strata of knowledge. Instead, the
relative movement of social forces to one another, form conditions and contingencies
which forge specific connections between the discursive and the non-discursive.
It is the continual flow of the social which charges potential for new possibilities.
The plane of immanence is a surface in continual motion, a system of social forces
forming conditions and contingencies which charge possibilities; the arbitrary realization of some possibilities rearrange conditions and contingencies in the flow of
social forces.
The plane of immanence precludes any transcendent coherence or causal inevitability; the relative connections and movements among conditions and contingencies
manifest social forces. In this arrangement, each act is contingent, conditional, and
arbitrary; a moment and its attendant forces at work are only ever apprehended and
experienced as they are occurring (in media res). They overrun their representation
as a discursive production. Every realized possibility is simultaneously innovative,
repetitious, creative, resistant, compliant, unruly, and disciplined. Each product
should be considered from many paradoxical angles and as unexpected connections between the discursive and the non-discursive (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987;
1994).
As writers, Deleuze and Guattari are not fond of definitions or singular explanations;
rather, they allow words and concepts to take on a multiplicity of connotations
throughout texts. But below are two of the most direct descriptions of immanence
in their oeuvre.
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The plane of immanence is not a concept that is or can be thought but
rather the image of thought, the image thought gives itself of what it
means to think, to make use of thought, to find one’s bearings in thought.
It is not a method, since every method is concerned with concepts and
presupposes such an image ... Nor is it opinions held about thought,
about its forms, ends, and means, at a particular moment. The image of
thought implies a strict division between fact and right: what pertains to
thought as such must be distinguished from contingent features of the brain
or historical opinion ... Are contemplating, reflecting, or communicating
anything more than opinions held about thought at a particular time and
in a particular civilization? (Deleuze & Guattari, 1994, p. 37)
The plane of immanence is like a section of chaos and acts like a sieve. In
fact, chaos is characterized less by the absence of determinations than by
the infinite speed with which they take shape and vanish. This is not a
movement from one determination to another but, on the contrary, the
impossibility of a connection between them, since one does not appear without
the other having already disappeared, and one appears as disappearance
when the other disappears as outline. (Deleuze & Guattari, 1994, p. 42)
What might immanence mean for a historical exploration? As an epistemological
position, an immanent consideration of history exploits gaps, excites ruptures in
existing explanations/representations, and poses continual problematics to any
accounting; it invites the question: what other possibilities were present to the
moment? To avoid the inevitability of grades sprouting from a historical moment,
the conditions and contingencies need to be explored for a range of possibilities
charged with potential.
The literal accounts of grades recounted above have always followed the rationale
of the one possibility realized: the creation of grades at Yale; the proliferation of grade
forms; the development of grade practices; and the formalization of grading as a
component of a broader pedagological knowledge. There is silence on the conditions
and contingencies which made grades, as they were realized, but one possibility at
the historical moment. And from particularity, a host of other historical and epistemological problems are suggested: actual acts of giving grades; getting grades; grades
as events; the contingencies upon which grades were produced; the micro-level (school,
classroom, interpersonal, sub-personal) reconditionings which occurred; and the
macro-level (knowledge, practice, institutions, politics) reformations, reshapings
and redirections. An immanent exploration does not argue what caused grades to be
invented, whether or not there should be grades, how to minimize/eliminate teacher
bias, how to more accurately/precisely grade, or how to best align grades with learning.
The exploration is a complication of, a compulsive problemitization of notions such
as teaching, learning, schooling, and educated and their historical development within
the specific, particular conditions and contingencies in which they were realized.
As realized, grades also become a contingency within the social scene; grades both
constitute and are constituent of the immanent social forces. In this way, the
duality of local and global are set aside because the key concern is the particular and
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specific arrangement of the moment. The economic context of the post-Revolutionary
War period related to the swell in college enrollment, and in this a small connection
is made between grades, size of enrollment, and economics. They are implicated in
one another from this historical conception which also raises questions for the
present day: how do grades differ in economic contexts? How do grades differ in
the size of school? In mass systems of schooling, how do grades circulate, collect,
and dissipate? In capitalist systems, how do they individuate and particularize?

Abstract Machines
When considering a social scene as a plane of immanence people and actions are
no longer conceived of as unitary, intentional, or distinctly human productions.
When exploring immanently, the task is to find the relation between forces and the
relative moments therein. There is no presumption that an action is the result of a
cause, intent, or a motivation. On a plane of immanence, acts are the province of
machines, both real and abstract.
A real machine is a physical movement; an abstract machine is the working of
knowledge, or more specifically, an application of knowledge. To illustrate, imagine
a person is speaking and another is listening. This sets a scene where one individual
is committed to one act and the other individual to the other act. Immanently, it
might be considered as the mouth, tongue, and larynx forming a real machine, a
speaking machine. In conjunction, they create the movements of air which are
speech sounds. The ear and its multiple parts form a hearing machine; its work is
to turn movements of air into neurological signals. But listening is an abstract
machine. To make sense of the speech sounds, to interpret them as speech sounds
and search for understanding, that is the application of knowledge. Compressions
of air and neurological signals are imprinted with a code, in this case meaning, and
further processed as such. And this abstract listening machine might feed into an
abstract talking machine which produces words for the mouth to speak.
This is not intended to be an arcane, difficult treatment of speaking and listening;
it is meant to strip out the knowledge of how people function and make it strange.
If hearing is considered in the mechanical way, then all the social presumptions of
how a person displays listening are called into question: eye contact, head nods,
not fidgeting, and so on. Those are part of a social formation. To consider mechanically
is to pull out the social forms and to separate the knowledge that frames an act
from the act itself. It is to trace out the discursive elements of actions.
In the parlance of Deleuze and Guattari, grades are abstract machines: acts that
distinguish, classify, categorize, and divide bodies and then inscribe them with
markers of subjectivity.
(Machines) are binary machines, obeying a binary law or set of rules,
governing associations; one machine is always coupled with another. The
productive synthesis, the production of production, is inherently connective
in nature ... the binary series is linear in every direction. (Deleuze &
Guattari, 1983, p. 5)
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The segments stem from binary machines, which are necessarily very
diverse. Binary machines of social classes, sexes (men/women), ages (child/
adult), races (black/white), sectors (public/private), and subjectivizations
(ours/not ours). These binary machines grow more complex as they intersect
and collide with one another, confront each other, and cut us up in every
direction. They are dichotomizing rather than dualistic, and they can work
diachronically. If you are neither a nor b, then your are c; the dualism has
been transposed, and no longer concerns simultaneous elements to be chosen,
but successive choices; if you are neither black nor white, you are mulatto;
if you are neither man nor woman, you are a transvestite. Each time the
machine with binary elements produces choices between elements that don’t
fall into either category. (Deleuze & Guattari, 1983, p. 77)
Machines, both real and abstract, are found in immanent explorations. This
illuminates discursive elements, both of the present and from the historical moment.
The physical actions of persons are real machines, operating in an immanent field
of conditions and contingencies. Abstract machines, such as they are, articulate and
feed into each other. Grades, which parse relative success and failure in schools,
feed into higher education, occupations, social classes, and so on. Grades become
one signifying bit, one tiny inked marking, one inscription on the educated body
which is fed into a modern mechanosphere (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987).
Grades also parse relative success and failure in schools by enacting evaluations
on the relations, movements, and bodies of students: gradient success, failure, and
un-graded (unschooled). All activities and assignments put up for assessment are
grist for the grades and the fine distinctions they stamp out. By reconsidering
grades-as-machine as opposed to ‘how a teacher gives grades,’ the emphasis is
turned to the specific, particular, non-attributable nature of the event. As such, this
wrests grades away from any particular lines of educational inquiry, such as educational
psychology or curriculum history and places the grade at the nexus of various
different knowledges, forces, material objects, and desires at a given moment. The
transcendent idea of human intention is stripped out of the action in favor of an
immanent view of elements coming into momentary connection amidst so many
conditions and contingencies. This is the grade as abstract machine—grade-machine.

Grade-Machine
Grade-machines, set in motion, work in the contingent conditions of schooling.
What pedagogical knowledge is being put into use? What material objects are
present? What desires are at play? What are students doing? What is the teacher
doing? What has already happened in this relation, this classroom, this school?
What other mechanic productions are present (for instance, special education,
behaviorally disturbed, gifted, and other categorical designations represented in
pedagogical knowledge)? Inputted, these materials are marked by the gears of
grades: measurements of learning; analysis against criteria (standards); elements of
whim and imprecision; strategic designs; mathematical operations; and so on. The
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outputs are tiny, inked letters and numbers that parse the student body and the
bodies of students into an array of designations (A-F, 1-4, 0-100, S-U). This is a
double move, at once folding the bodies into pedagogical knowledge and inscribing a mark on subjectivities. Key to remember, though, are the elements of whim
and imprecision within shifting contexts. In this way, there is something slightly
erratic; something other than continual reproduction occurs with each marking of
grades.
The move to a consideration of grades-as-machine is a move closer to immanence, to radical empiricism. The emphasis becomes the actual gears and workings
of mechanical production from the materials present and denies transcendent
notions of causality, necessity, inevitability, and intention. The idea of grading as
a discursive act is undermined; grade-machines are the working of specific
elements coming into contact, in this case knowledge about evaluation and student
works.
The following comes from Guattari’s description of Jean Oury’s psycho-clinic,
La Borde, a place at which Guattari worked for decades.
At this stage of development, the institutional process demanded that
an internal mini-revolution be undertaken: it required that all service
personnel work to be integrated with medical work, and that, reciprocally,
medical staff be drafted for material tasks such as cleaning, cooking,
dishwashing, maintenance, etc ... . And yet, in a few months time, the clinic’s
institutional landscape would change radically. An old washerwoman
proved very capable at running the print workshop and editorial committee
of the newspaper; another excelled in sporting activities, a former metallurgist
showed great talent leading mime shows. (Guattari, 1995, p. 190)
La Borde, in an attempt to find new forms of treatment and care for the mentally
unwell, was reorganized such that each member of the institution rotated through
each of the roles in the institution. It was a dramatic break in the repetitive mode
of modern bureaucratic existence. The hospital had been controlled by machinery
internal to its function, machinery previously thought external. The self-running
machinery of the hospital was apprehended and reconstituted; the categorical
designations once produced by institutional abstract machines were stretched to
the point to tearing.
What we aimed for through our multiple activities, and above all through
the assumption of responsibility with regard to oneself and to others, was
to be disengaged from seriality and to make individuals and groups
reappropriate the meaning of their existence in an ethical and no longer
technocratic perspective. It was a matter of bringing forward the sort of
activities that favor an assumption of collective responsibility and yet are
focused on a re-singularization of the relation to work and, more generally,
personal existence. The institutional machine we positioned didn’t simply
remodel the existing subjectivities, but endeavored, instead, to produce a
new type of subjectivity. (Guattari, 1995, pp. 191–192)
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In this context ‘the slightest gestures, the shortest encounters’ take on a multiplicity of new meanings because abstract machines have been reformed, the same
abstract machines that once parsed psychotic/medical expert/laborer, sick/well. The
categorical designations as well as the fine distinctions within each category have
been rearranged. With each member of the clinic rotating through the pre-existing
institutional subject position, attendant representations have become less real and
more contingent upon the particularities of each person.
This suggests a rupture in the historical account. The deployment of a new
schooling machine, grade-machines, was realized from some specific, particular
conditions and contingencies, from some momentary possibility. It points to an
arbitrary shift in schooling and pedagogical knowledge through the introduction of
new processes and categorizations of student bodies. The deployment of grademachines is implicated in this diagrammatic change, a rearrangement in the
immanent forces at work that set the conditions for mass systems of schooling both
public and private. Grades are constituent of and constituting a mass system,
folding in social forces in specific and particular ways to form both the bodies of
students and student bodies. While grades were an outward product of schooling,
grade-machines became the internal machinery which parsed students’ actions;
once deployed, grade-machines ran of their own accord through schooling, rearranging the subject positions of schooling and education through categorical
designations and fine distinctions within those categories.
Moreover, grade-machines differentially produced the body through schooling,
newly distinguishing the student body and the bodies of students. The increasingly
molecular parsing of the bodies of students and the aggregation of individuals into
a body of students occur in parallel. A specific behavior, movement in the classroom,
or response is marked such that the single student produces grist for grades machines
resulting in long lists of grades with intricate relationships to one another. The body
of the student is parsed endlessly in these determinations where some acts are left
invisible while others are tagged with representation. Over the course of time, the
body of a student produces streams of grades which are in turn aggregated. The
student, as found in grade books, transcripts, and the documentation of schooling,
is a composite of grades—grade-machines fed into aggregating machines. The increasingly parsed body of the student is reassembled, but into what? What image do
grade-machines stamp out of the body of students—on to paper, on to magnetic strips?
A larger aggregation creates the student body. Whereas the bodies of students are
parsed and fed into grade-machines, the machines which collect and compile information across numerous times and spaces produce a different composite, one with
an uncertain and shifting relationship to the elements from which it was derived.
To search for the traits of ‘American schoolchildren’ or to speak of the performance
of a school is to rely on the mechanical dissembly of students, imprecise and
whimsical marking, re-collection, and mechanical reassembly as an aggregation.
Set in motion from Yale in 1785, this is machinery that runs of it own accord; an
indispensable element in what makes mass schooling possible. But given that
grade-machines are part of contemporary contexts and contingencies, what new
possibilities can we realize in this historical moment?
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Notes
1. For instance, see: Smallwood, 1935; Cureton, 1971; Kirschenbaum et al., 1971; Small,
1973; Durm, 1993; Boyd, 1998; Hargis, 2003.
2. For instance, see: Hell, 1906; Smith, 1911; Starch & Elliott, 1912, 1913, 1913a;
Finkelstein, 1913; Boring, 1914.
3. For instance, see: Cattell, 1905; Rugg, 1915; Nicholson, 1917; Odell, 1925; Cureton, 1971.
4. For instance, see: Odell, 1925; Davis, 1931; Ayer, 1933; Bixler, 1936.
5. For instance, see: Lysne, 1984; Leiter & Brown, 1985; Crooks, 1988; Takei et al., 1988;
Hargis, 2003.
6. For instance, see: Atkinson, 1975; Simon & Bellanca, 1976; Lysne, 1984; Apple, 1996.
7. For instance, see: Kincheloe & Steinberg, 1996; Genishi, 1997; Roth & McGinn, 1998.
8. For instance, see: Leiter & Borwn, 1985; Crooks, 1988; Takei et al., 1998; Hargis, 2003.
9. The concept of immanence laid out by Deleuze and Guattari intentionally differs from
the classical, ecclesiastically influenced Western notion of immanence where all objects
are pervaded by a divine force. Instead, Deleuze and Guattari follow Spinoza in arguing
that there is no single pervasive force, but that collections of material and social objects
form their own array of forces by way of various, dynamic inter-connections. In its way,
Deleuze and Guattari’s use of immanence is a strategic, backhanded expropriation of a
term that had fallen out of common use and is redeployed in their work with intentional
irony, at once a tweak of Western traditions and the reinvention of an old idea.
10. It is important to note that the imagery used in Deleuze and Guattari is not intended
as metaphor; it is the actual object. To write that society is considered as a fluid surface
is to pose a specific image that readers should attempt to visualize literally: that society
functions like water poured on to a table, running in any direction not blocked, a thin
surface layer spreading in numerous directions of its own accord. I follow Deleuze’s and
Guattari’s use of images in this way because I find it a useful tactic in thinking through
problems as well as a key piece of their philosophy. As such, the images posed in herein
are not figurative, but literal. This is an invitation to think imaginatively with this text.

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