Let’s stop pretending that school isn’t stressful. Deadlines and grades create pressure, and this pressure is supposed to motivate students to work hard and care about classwork. This is the transactional system of education that students and teachers have used for decades. Even under normal circumstances, many educators argue that this system is flawed. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, when over 25,000 Americans have already lost their lives to COVID-19, it’s absurd to expect students and professors to maintain the same level of rigorous, transactional education that occurs when we live on campus. By the time this crisis has run its course, everyone will know someone who has died OR know someone who knows someone who died of the virus. We are facing a plague, and the country has never before seen a lockdown situation like this. The stress of the pandemic alone should be enough for educators to consider altering their curriculum and their expectations for students.
Imagine trying to complete your schoolwork without an adequate WiFi connection. Or without a private room in which to study. Or with young siblings, whom you are suddenly tasked to look after. Or with financial instability. Or with the knowledge that your parents are “essential” workers, risking infection every day. Or with a mental disorder that is extremely heightened in your home environment. I know many of you reading don’t have to shut your eyes to empathize with this situation: You’re living it.
In a system that emphasizes exceptions, students feel pressure to demonstrate need to the AEO or Dean of Studies office in order to receive accommodations; this is the system in place during a regular semester. Whether or not you agree with that system to begin with, we are currently in a scenario where we have hundreds of students who can demonstrate “need.” Instead of making case-by-case adjustments that force individual students to prove their trauma, it’s time for Vassar to make the definitive choice to serve its least privileged members in this time of international crisis. It is irresponsible for the Committee on Curricular Policies to maintain a grading system that causes failure to loom over the heads of their students in an unprecedented crisis such as COVID-19.
The Pass/Fail option afforded by the current NRO system only reinforces the discrepancy between the most privileged and least privileged members of our community. The students who are most at risk of failure are the same students who do not have access to strong WiFi, financial stability, food security etc. An optional pass/fail system means that those of us in the most underprivileged situations may still feel pressure to prioritize school work over our well-being, all for the sake of a “pass” that will still place us at a disadvantage compared to the students who were in the position to obtain a good letter grade.
In discussions with Vassar’s administration, everyone from President Bradley to Dean of Faculty Kathleen Susman to Dean of Studies Debra Zeifman cites “agency” as a justification for the current opt-in NRO system. What they fail to acknowledge is that not every student faces the same set of choices. The ability to get an A is based on your level of privilege more than anything else. The concept being docked a grade for failing to work hard enough at your schoolwork is laughable when some members of our community have no choice but to allocate their energy toward an immunocompromised family member or get a job to support a parent who has just been laid off. The “choice” of opting to receive a grade is a fallacy, since only those who feel capable of improving their GPA will opt for a grade. And in this time of global crisis, only those of us in privileged positions are capable of obtaining an A. We know that many students’ choices are limited by their circumstances; why are we pretending that every student has the equal opportunity to earn a good grade? (Perhaps because if we admit that grades are based on privilege, that calls into question our entire system of transactional education—but we are not ready for that conversation yet.)
Many people, including students, believe that these issues should be solved case-by-case, rather than with a blanket policy. To this, I have to ask: How many cases must there be until a policy is warranted? We’re functioning under extraordinary circumstances. More than 200 students have already reported that their mental health has been an overwhelming obstacle to their remote learning. Overwhelming faculty with individual requests for accommodations and varying requirements is not the solution. Forcing each and every student-in-need to bring their trauma to their professors is not the solution when the coronavirus’s death count grows daily. Only a no-fail model can take the pressure off of faculty and students alike who find themselves in vulnerable situations.
I know there are many students who are not in vulnerable situations, and it’s easy to ignore issues that don’t affect you. In fact, that’s precisely how systems of oppression are perpetuated. In an environment where true equal opportunity to achieve is maintained, someone else’s A does not diminish yours. However, if we continue to function under a system that reflects the inequalities of our student body, we will only accentuate that privilege in the long run. In the Double A system, the lowest grade a professor can award is an A minus. We recommend this policy because it affords the students who are concerned about graduate or medical school the opportunity to improve their GPAs, but without stratifying our community along the lines of privilege.
We know that Vassar students want to address the inequality advanced under the current policy; over 1,300 members of our community have already signed a petition in favor of Universal Pass. Since the creation of that petition, a coalition of students has begun to take action on this issue under the name Nobody Fails VC. Our complete list of demands encompasses several issues, including fulfillment of work study allocation and financial transparency regarding the emergency fund, but the implementation of a no-fail system is our priority.
Though the faculty’s original vote was in favor of the NRO system currently in place, this vote occurred in early March. Circumstances have changed since then; more counties and states have implemented lockdowns and more faculty members have since come to the realization that a no-fail policy is the only equitable solution as more students advocate. When Dean of Studies Debra Zeifman and the other members of the CCP re-voted on the issue, the general faculty was not included in the decision. Nobody Fails VC is determined to make another re-vote happen, this time including all faculty members. Furthermore, even if the CCP is unwilling to implement a formal Universal Pass or Double A policy, all departments and individual professors should consider the importance of grade equity and assure their students by implementing a no-fail policy in their classrooms.
If you’re hesitant to strike, I understand. Many students have reported feeling uncomfortable refusing to attend class and halting their assignments. Luckily, there are a variety of ways you can help us advocate for Universal Pass. If you’re willing to participate, to any degree at all, please explore the strike guidelines, which were emailed to you last week by Nobody Fails VC. Your fellow students depend on your support.
[Corrections and Notes (04.22.2020): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Pomona College and The New School had implemented a Universal Pass policy. Pomona College will give students a grade of either “Pass,” “No Record Pandemic” or “Incomplete.” The New School will give students a grade of A, A-, or I (Incomplete). The sentence referring to Pomona College and the New School has been removed.]