Columbia students join the call that all pandemic grades be “A”s, and that nobody fail

In earlier posts (here and here), I described the risible and insupportable demands of many students during the pandemic crisis, a crisis that has forced virtually every college in America to resort to online teaching.  This requires severe adjustments to be made by both teachers and students, and nobody is a happy camper. But students seem in some cases to be taking advantage of the situation. Students at both Harvard University and the University of Texas at Austin, for instance, have petitioned for all grades this semester to be As (or A-minus), with no possibility of any other grade. Other students are asking for an “all pass” system in which nobody can possibly fail, no matter how little work they do. Harvard Law students have asked to get their licenses to practice law without having to take the bar exam.

Although the students couch their demands in terms of practicality, avoidance of mental illness, marginalization, and so on, the fact is that what they’re really asking for is to get good grades without having to do any work. So far no university I know of has adopted the “all A” or “no fail” systems, and good for them for not falling for this student carny trick.

But that hasn’t stopped yet another prestigious school, Columbia University, from also petitioning for an “All As” policy. The petition, at the screenshot below (click to read) seems to have lost 13 signers overnight, so I don’t know what’s going on. But at any rate their views are supported by another professor at Columbia who has sworn to give all of her students As (before reading further, guess whether she’s in the sciences or the humanities). I’ll link to her op-ed in the Washington Post below.

Click on the screenshot to read the piece.


And here’s Jenny Davidson’s piece.  Actually, the headline is a bit misleading. While she herself is giving all of her students As, and thinks this is a viable option, she’s also willing to considering giving every student a “Pass”, so long as no students fail.

What the petition and the op-ed by Davidson have in common (yes, she’s an English professor) are these things:

  • Giving grades below A or failing students disadvantages marginalized students
  • Giving grades below A reduces equity
  • No student should be failed under any circumstances
  • Any ranking system at all fosters competitiveness, which makes students anxious or depressed
  • Students deserve to be treated with “kid glove” grading systems because they face other challenges with the pandemic, like child care, having other people around, and dealing with virus-induced anxieties
  • People want to use the pandemic to push items on their ideological agenda that have nothing to do with the pandemic
  • Students will not abuse an “all As” or “all Pass” system by doing less work
  • Meritocracies are bad, and grades feed into that

I’ll give just a few quotes from both of these articles, though I don’t expect that Harvard, U Texas, or Columbia are going to give in to their entitled students. I do expect readers will have their own arguments for or against these policies. But remember, they don’t include a pass/fail (an option I would consider) or a “grading or pass/fail” option, where you can choose to get either a grade or a Pass/Fail, and either before the class starts or towards the end. I would also consider tuition rebates: maybe not this semester, but certainly if colleges teach remotely this fall.

From the petition:

The option of failing a student should be unequivocally removed: Under the current circumstances, Pass/Fail cannot be considered a “safer,” more equitable option, so long as it preserves the possibility of a grade of “Fail.” For many students returning home to dangerous, precarious, and unsafe conditions; having to support their family members; having to work; living under extreme stress of mental health; and more, means failing is a very real possibility. For the most disadvantaged students within our community, the ability to complete even the “bare minimum” required to pass is uncertain. Professors across Columbia University schools will redesign and edit their syllabi in unanticipated ways. Further, they will be unable to accommodate for all their students’ needs, and undue pressure and burden will be placed on students to explain their unique situations to their professors. In classes where participation and one assignment count for the majority of the grade, students are at elevated risk of failing if they cannot complete that one assignment for personal reasons and/or due to the suspension of meaningful instruction and library access. For people who might have family members or loved ones affected by the COVID-19 virus, completing their assignments and showing up to class may be the last thing on their minds, and those are typically the measures by which a grade is given.

and

Given that we propose eliminating the “Fail” grade under this policy, we believe in a universal grade that does not depend on typical academic performance: All academic courses will undoubtedly no longer hold the same academic quality, and students should not be penalized for being unable to produce their normal quality of work. Students will face challenges building individual relationships with their peers and professors. However, some students will be more affected by the lack of in-person instruction than others, specifically small seminars, language courses, studio classes, lab-based classes, and will be more likely to fail. Under these conditions, typical measurements of achievement and ability in coursework no longer meaningfully apply. Recognizing these exceptional circumstances, some professors have already significantly reduced course work, or even announced that they will be giving A’s to all of their students, but this show of compassion and awareness of the needs of their students will be overruled by the Pass/Fail policy. We argue that an “A” grade in a typical class represents that we have more than met expectations—given the difficult circumstances, the mere act of showing up to class and offering support to our community at this time is doing just that.

This is the funniest one, at least to anyone who’s ever taught students:

It is misguided to believe students will abuse or benefit unfairly from an “All-A” policy: The situation we find ourselves in today has shown us, more than ever, that the foundation of meritocracy in an inherently inequitable world is a fragile one. We urge the administration to act in good faith and assume, as admissions officers did when they made their decisions to accept each and every one of us, that students still want to get as much value out of their education as they can afford to. In striving to do so despite these unprecedented challenges, we should be recognized for our efforts.

That is an argument, of course, for either not grading or giving everyone As.

Yes, of course there are students who don’t study for grades, and who truly work hard trying to learn. But if you think nobody is going to slack off when they know they’d get an A or a Pass for doing nothing, I have some land in Florida I want to sell you.

I don’t want to run on too long here, but here’s Davidson explaining that all her students should get As because they’re done “significant” work. If that’s the case, why doesn’t she just give As every semester, and not just during the pandemic? (I have to add that Davidson writes extraordinarily poorly for an English teacher, reaching for rote words and sentiments at every turn.)

I wrote to both of my classes a week ago to say that I would give everyone an A based on the work they’d done already. Regardless of what my university’s leadership ultimately decides about distance learning, I intend to do exactly that. The reading and thinking they have done already has been significant, and as a tenured professor, I am in a position to make that decision on my own without fear of consequences for violating administration policy.

“Significant”? What does that mean? “Deserving As even before they left school?”

And what she says below—that students are stressed and insecure normally—make an even stronger case that she should give everyone As all the time, forever:

Even before the first cases of covid-19 were diagnosed in the United States, many undergraduates were already reporting that they experienced food and housing insecurity. Not every student has a bed to go home to, let alone a good Internet connection and the privacy and quiet conducive to deep focus. A cascade of harsher effects are about to follow as the pandemic rolls through the nation: from wage and job loss for students and their family members to significant fallout as the health-care system moves to prioritize the surge in coronavirus cases over care for patients with other serious illnesses.

I can guarantee you that every Columbia student either has a computer or good internet connection, or that the University will ensure these things for those students who lack them.

In the end, everybody has to make sacrifices during these times: not just students but faculty, who, in my view, truly hate teaching remotely. But the students, it seems, want to use the pandemic to improve their situation: to get higher grade-point averages, to get the chance to avoid working, and to do all this in the name of “equity” (remember, these students are from one of the most elite colleges in the U.S.).  Well, I sympathize with their severely degraded way of learning this semester, but I don’t sympathize with their desire to avoid all grading and all ranking. As the Dodo might have said, “All students must have As!”

 

 

34 Comments

  1. Posted April 27, 2020 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    “… students still want to get as much value out of their education as they can afford to.”

    Yep, and what they “value” is of course A grades.

    “In striving to do so despite these unprecedented challenges, we should be recognized for our efforts.”

    Yep!

  2. Jonathan Dore
    Posted April 27, 2020 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    A self-defeating demand, showing that they haven’t thought through its implications. If this was implemented, everyone would know it, which would mean grades from this year would, forever afterwards into their future, universally be regarded not as As, but as worthless.

    • DrBrydon
      Posted April 27, 2020 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      In all the record books this quarter will always have an asterisk.

  3. Posted April 27, 2020 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    That land in Florida, Jerry. Would it be waterfront?

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 27, 2020 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      Well, to paraphrase Mr. Warhol, in the future all land in Florida will be waterfront for 15 minutes.

  4. Charles A Sawicki
    Posted April 27, 2020 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    “It is misguided to believe students will abuse or benefit unfairly from an “All-A” policy:”
    Yeah, right!
    I believe that students signing these sorts of petitions are working diligently to reduce their stress levels. What could be less stressful that getting As for lazing around your house. Hopefully, about the normal fraction of students will fail to encourage all students not to adopt this irresponsible approach to their lives.

  5. eric
    Posted April 27, 2020 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    I find it weird that an English professor, of all people, is on board with this. That subject is IMO one of the ones best suited for continuing itself on line.

    Somewhat aside (but also relevant), my 3rd grader’s teacher just used Zoom last week to hold an entire class meeting. No penalty for students who couldn’t make it, but the point being that even “class discussion” can be accomplished on line fairly easily now. If 9-year-olds can do it (with a bit of parental help for the set-up), then surely undergrads can.

    Further, they will be unable to accommodate for all their students’ needs, and undue pressure and burden will be placed on students to explain their unique situations to their professors.

    So, my company is giving extra leave to people who have unique needs. Here is what my explanation to them looked like for the one day I needed it: “Time requested: 8 hr. Reason: child care. I can provide additional details if required.” How is this hard?

    The situation we find ourselves in today has shown us, more than ever, that the foundation of meritocracy in an inherently inequitable world is a fragile one.

    How many grads, do you think, would flip their lids if they were told they would earn only a minimum wage for the rest of their life, in order to prevent meritocratic evils?

    • Filippo
      Posted April 27, 2020 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      “How many grads, do you think, would flip their lids if they were told they would earn only a minimum wage for the rest of their life, in order to prevent meritocratic evils?”

      Excellent conjecture.

      • Jon Gallant
        Posted April 27, 2020 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

        Wait a minute! Surely the abolition of meritocracy, and the resulting minimum wage for everybody, would not apply to those whose outstanding qualities got them a position of English Professor at Columbia.

  6. DrBrydon
    Posted April 27, 2020 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I consider a lot of these calls for giving A grades to be disingenuous when the authors feel that meritocratic grading is itself unfair. They aren’t interested in making the system work, but in breaking it in favor of their preferred replacement (which appears to be needs-based grading). To the millions of us who are continuing to do our jobs remotely, the idea that working from home, as opposed to the dorm or the library, is too hard doesn’t evoke much sympathy.

    • eric
      Posted April 27, 2020 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      I get the idea that students who go home to family issues can get sucked in and not be able to find the time for their school work.

      What I don’t get is this complaint that they can’t possibly be asked to talk to their professor about a reasonable accommodation. If the above is your case, act like an adult and talk to your teacher about it.

      • boudiccadylis
        Posted April 27, 2020 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

        Acting like an adult in this day and age is a specious prospect at best. Asking a “student” of any age to act as an adult is requiring some sort of a miracle. Besides why should they act as an adult when a bit of whining will get them what they want without the stigma of maturity. One doesn’t consider the energy expended/compared to the events.

  7. Christine Marie Janis
    Posted April 27, 2020 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    I think you’ll find it’s the dodo, not the Red Queen, as in “everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”

    Of course, we could be dealing with a Red Queen effect (or perhaps an inverse one) here as the stakes get lower and lower.

  8. Brujo Feo
    Posted April 27, 2020 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Davidson is completely blowing a golden opportunity here. I mean, if “[g]iving grades below A or failing students disadvantages marginalized students,” then why not level the playing field but good?

    Let’s give all People of Color an “A,” and to all Uncolored People an “F.” De-marginalizing writ large!

    And if that seems too overtly racist, make the dividing line based on sex, or class, or just go full Oppression Olympics when deciding who gets what.

    • A C Harper
      Posted April 27, 2020 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      Yes I appreciate your sarcasm, but what then if all Uncoloured People identified as People of Colour?

  9. pablo
    Posted April 27, 2020 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Future employers should know that degrees from Columbia are participation trophies.

  10. ploubere
    Posted April 27, 2020 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Just give them all degrees and be done with it. Those will have about the same value as free A’s.

  11. sabre422
    Posted April 27, 2020 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Shortly after May 4, 1970, colleges and Universities shut down and closed all over the USA. While the shootings and deaths at Kent St. shouldn’t be compared in any way to the serious crisis we are now experiencing resulting in closed campuses,I don’t recall any significant attempts from student groups to receive a free ride for course work not completed. I was enrolled at UNC and being enrolled in a Science curriculum, you had the choice of selecting an “incomplete” or taking an exam during the early part of the summer semester, or early in the following Spring semester. I used all three options. I believe there were other choices available to students in different fields of study, but I don’t recall anything approaching the process some of our students and faculty today are demanding.

  12. A C Harper
    Posted April 27, 2020 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I stumbled across my old degree ceremony program the other day and noted a couple of my fellow graduates had an ‘Aegrotat’ degree.

    According to Wikipedia:
    An aegrotat degree is an honours or ordinary degree without classification, awarded to a candidate who was unable to undertake their exams due to illness or even death, under the presumption that, had they completed those exams, they would have satisfied the standard required for that degree.

    Not so common now in the UK, but an option that recognises some students will be hard hit by Coronavirus measures and others who worked despite the distractions will get their full degree.

    What future employers will make of an Aegrotat degree probably depends on how common they are.

  13. Posted April 27, 2020 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Everyone gets an A? What would the Incredibles say?

  14. Posted April 27, 2020 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    If everyone gets an A, can getting an A provide any honor? Why not give everyone a B?

  15. Posted April 27, 2020 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Tell ya what, this kind of offer would definitely help erase the expected decline in enrollment as students take a semester or a year off because of the pandemic.

  16. Curtis
    Posted April 27, 2020 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    My local K-12 district has switched to pass/fail. If a senior was passing in March, they will graduate with passing grades in everything. I am not sure if I like it but I understand.

    AP tests are what bother me most. They will only cover material learned through March. Since the point is to get college credit, their benefit has dropped considerably (but not the price.) It really sucks to be a senior in high school.

  17. JezGrove
    Posted April 27, 2020 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    They will end up devaluing their results entirely: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-29950843

  18. yazikus
    Posted April 27, 2020 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    If anything, perhaps they ought to switch to narrative evaluations in lieu of grades for the time being. That would at least offer insight into their significant work.

  19. prinzler
    Posted April 27, 2020 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Passion or sincerity in a request does not necessarily mean it carries any merit.

  20. Posted April 27, 2020 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    That’s complete BS

  21. Ruthann Richards
    Posted April 27, 2020 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Yes, that is complete BS. How about giving everyone a C? At least that is passing. Then those who really want an A or B can do the work to prove they have earned that grade. What a novel concept!

  22. Posted April 27, 2020 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    In the mid to late 70s, I heard complaints from professors about pressures on them to give students good grades, often not deserved. (Bell curve junked.)It wouldn’t surprise me if that continued. So, already grades became degraded in too many universities. Too many universities now also accept unprepared students who must take remedial courses in Math and/or English before they can take college-level coursework. Therefore. some degrees are of questionable value. (I assume that’s not the case in certain courses of study at certain universities.)

    When classes began in this school year (term, or semester), students probably received information from their professors about necessary course work, when it was due, and what the grading elements would be. If the professors carefully tracked what each student did to meet specified requirements up to March (or whenever school shut down), there should be enough information to assign appropriate grades. I think a “Passing” grade would be extremely unfair to students that worked hard throughout the time class met. I think it be equally unfair to those that worked hard to give an A grade to every student regardless.

  23. Taz
    Posted April 27, 2020 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    “I don’t understand why so many of my Calc II students are having trouble – they all got As in Calc I”

  24. Posted April 28, 2020 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    A cascade of harsher effects are about to follow…

    A cascade of harsher effects is about to follow…

    I give this English professor an F in Grammar 101.

  25. Stephen Wilson
    Posted April 28, 2020 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    “Any ranking system at all fosters competitiveness, which makes students anxious or depressed?”

    Good luck with ANY job, then, snowflake.


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