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.
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!”