We’re now scrambling to transition everyone to remote learning on short notice, addressing each obstacle that arises as a problem to be fixed. Yes, taken individually, each student who doesn’t have a laptop or WiFi access off campus, who didn’t bring their textbooks home when they left for spring break, or whose survival depends on a paycheck now lost can be helped. Online learning and conferencing tools may groan under heavy usage, but we can hope they won’t break. We can also hope faculty and staff won’t break under the huge additional workload entailed in moving courses online that weren’t designed to be taught that way: a translation that poses particular challenges for science labs and practical classes in everything from physical therapy and nursing skills to dance and music performance.
But the cumulative stress on the system is too great, and the inequities in the ways this will all play out for different students means that grading as we know it is already over for the semester. It’s time to abandon our preconceived ideas about what needs to happen in a college class for a student to get credit for it.
Instead, colleges and universities should adopt three central principles to ease stress on students, who are reeling like everybody else: Strip down work expectations to the bare minimum; introduce mandatory pass-fail at the very least (opt-in pass-fail would just put undue pressure on our most driven students, many of whom already suffer from chronic anxiety and depression) and consider giving enrolled students A grades as a default; and work to wrap classes up as quickly as possible in most cases, so students can turn their full attention to other pressing matters.
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.
But many instructors don’t have the job security that would let them make this choice unilaterally. And what happens when teachers in any given department or institution start to fall ill and it’s not reasonable to imagine finding a substitute to take over for grading?
Education isn’t just about mastering material and improving skills. Education is about ethics. It’s about learning how to be a better member of a community, whatever that community is (a classroom or a college, but also a family, a workplace, a civic polity). It’s about understanding how to balance the drive toward intellectual development and mastery of new concepts and material with self-care and the sane management of responsibilities to the broader community.
Learning how to shift priorities in the face of new information and circumstances is an essential component of education. We are not prioritizing the right values when we focus so narrowly on academic matters while our students are experiencing a flood of other practical and emotional demands on finite resources.
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.
At the same time, students and faculty with children are experiencing massive new demands in terms of child care now that schools and day cares are shut down. Other care responsibilities, especially for elderly and disabled loved ones, are likely to expand dramatically as well. And the policy of social distancing puts enormous extra pressure on everyone.
Naysayers raise objections that it’s unfair not to give our students full recognition of their excellence. They note, correctly, that grades are needed for scholarships, fellowships, graduate school admissions. They worry, also correctly, that the consequences of such a move for millions of students with educational loans and visas that require letter grades to remain in good standing would be devastating.
But none of this is set in stone.
We are so used to spending our time assessing and evaluating that we risk forgetting that those results are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. We’re the ones who make the policies, and we can change them to meet the needs of changing times.
Federal and state regulation of the conditions that trigger revocation of a student visa or the retraction of loan commitments can be changed. We should be talking to state regulators about temporarily waiving program and degree requirements that might limit the flexibility of colleges to grant degrees to students expecting to finish this semester. We should be looking ahead to the fall semester and thinking about how classes may need to be retooled in the light of work that’s compromised this semester, especially for languages, the natural sciences and the quantitative social sciences that build very directly on the previous semester’s work. We should be working not just nationally but internationally to develop a consensus around best practices for how the academic work students have done this semester can be best noted and appreciated as they apply for jobs and graduate programs and so forth down the road.
We can support students and colleagues along the way. And we must also support faculty not on the tenure track, college teachers who despite their excellent skills and credentials are wildly undercompensated for the work they do, and who in many cases don’t know from one semester to the next not just what they will teach but whether they will be hired to teach at all.
With the best of intentions, and under intense time pressure, administrators have pushed faculty to think only one step ahead rather than encouraging us to look at the bigger picture. It’s an elaborate form of denialism, a way of soothing ourselves with frantic activity when it would be smarter to quiet our minds and call on flexible imaginations and nerves of steel.
What students and teachers alike need is for university leaders to help us all to do the right thing: to modify the semester’s coursework and system of evaluation so that it can better accommodate the sharply intensified financial, health and emotional demands of life in spring semester 2020.