The Last Mile Problem

In supply chain management last-mile describes a similar problem for transporting either people or freight. In freight networks, parcels can be delivered to a central hub efficiently via ship, train or other means, but they must then be loaded into smaller vehicles for delivery to individual customers. In transportation networks, “last mile” describes the rising marginal cost of getting people from a transportation hub such as an airport or train station to their final destination.


What’s New? Another semester, another academic year, is behind me and this round of final grades felt better than those in the fall. It is impossible to know why. Is it the difference between first year students experiencing their first semester in college and those who successfully completed the entire first year? Is it the transparent adjustments I made to my ungrading policy? I like to think it is the adjustments I made to our writing journey over the course of the semester. Most of my students ended the semester with an expanded toolbox as writers, rhetoricians, and humans, but equally important to me they have developed their critical thinking skills to include setting goals and reflecting on their journey with those goals.

Original: There has always been a last mile problem in education where completed work was not turned in or turned in late, but in recent semesters (in our new endemic pandemic reality) this problem of nearly completed student work not making it into my hands at the end of a unit or (worse) at the end of the semester is overwhelmingly stressful for me. A recent episode of All the Things ADHD (I Shouldn’t Have To Do This) helped me better understand the last mile problem. But that doesn’t mean I know how to solve it.

I have been teaching first year college writers for decades and there have always been students who regularly attend class and yet never turn in any writing. These students have always baffled me but as my praxis has shifted following our early years of pandemic education they weigh on me more and more. Our class time is devoted to creating a joyfully authentic community of writers. Through our writing and sharing we get to know each other very well and learn to care about each other. This is beautiful but also dangerous for a teacher – especially when caught up in the higher education machinery that requires a grade at the end of the semester.

However that caring community of writers is an essential part of my praxis where community support and feedback balance the authentic writing we engage in every class meeting. We are growing as writers, but we are also growing as humans because our humanity is our most powerful tool as rhetoricians. An important part of my job is to help the developing writers and rhetoricians in my classroom to collect more tools for their metaphorical toolboxes and so while our writing journey is very personal and authentic it also includes the building blocks of our unit deliverables. One of the great joys of my teaching life is watching my students assemble their This I Believe and rhetorical analysis essays and when they cleverly slant those essays my delight is unbounded. Then after midterm we engage in the best work of all and spend weeks writing about our memories, lives, and dreams then assemble the artifacts we created along the way into manifestos. I love everything about this work and in their final reflections my students note the many ways this journey is a formative experience for them as writers and rhetoricians. That is my life’s work. The people who provide my paycheck do not agree. Those people want grades submitted for each student so that student will in turn provide them with a tuition (and housing etc.) check the next semester. That is the Faustian bargain upon which we have built higher education.

I do the best I can to help my students land softly despite all the ways the system (and our society) supports crashing (and burning) but there are students who haunt me. Early in the semester a teacher asked me how I graded reflection (as that is the foundation of my praxis), but that question does not weigh on me as much as this question: how do I grade the writer whose work in class meets or even exceeds every expectation but rarely (or never) submits that written work? What can I do to get that work from their notebooks into my hands so I can pass them out of this required class?

One of my early career mentors gave me this piece of advice in the form of a guiding question: who is served by this student repeating this class? That advice has served me well over the years when debating final grades for students. I straight up told these students that I could not pass them without some written work to assess their ability to meet university expectations for the class. I felt icky saying it to them and later when typing it here, but what is a teacher to do?

Mind The Gap Logo by rrward

Author: Deanna Mascle
#TeachingWriting and leading #NWP site @ Morehead State (KY): Passionate about #AuthenticWriting, #DeeperLearning, #PBL, #Ungrading, and #HyperDocs.

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