In final week of classes, faculty weigh efficacy of student strike

On Monday, April 20, student group Nobody Fails Vassar College (NFVC) launched a round of strikes on classes and other online gathering spaces. NFVC’s main mission is to persuade Vassar’s administration to institute either a Universal Pass (UP) or Double A (A/A-) system for the Spring 2020 semester to better accommodate students who have been most disadvantaged by the spread of the ongoing global pandemic.

Currently, the College has adopted a Universal NRO policy for the semester that allows students to choose between their desired minimum letter grade and a PA (pass) grade. Any student may withdraw from a course at any point, up to and including the day after the conclusion of final exams. Additionally, under this grading scheme, faculty can adjust their individual grading practices as they see fit.

The administration promises that the current Universal NRO policy will guarantee that no students fail and ensure that there are no forced withdrawals or opt-in incompletes. However, the students of NFVC believe the NRO policy still falls short; for one, they explain on their website, “The current “no-fail” option in place is for students to withdraw from a course at the very end of the semester. While this is technically not failing a class, it means that the student will not receive credit for their work during the semester.” NFVC argues that this would disproportionately impact students who are lacking resources or are dealing with other compounding impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. Due to these unforeseen obstacles brought on by the public health crisis, these disadvantaged students are more susceptible to failing classes and would then have to withdraw from their class and not receive credit for the coursework they completed. Thus, they are more likely to face detrimental costs, such as paying for an extra semester of tuition, taking classes elsewhere, graduating late or dropping out of college entirely.

As alternatives, NFVC demands that the College implement either a UP or A/A- grading system. UP would guarantee that every student passes all of their classes and does not receive a letter grade while A/A- would ensure that each student receives either an A or A- for all of their classes. NFVC asserts that UP or A/A- would be more equitable grading models than Universal NRO because they would alleviate some of the stress placed upon individuals facing issues of housing or food security, WiFi connection, illness within the family or any other vulnerabilities during this ongoing public health crisis by taking regimented grades off of the table entirely. 

To advocate for this position, the founders of NFVC mobilized students to participate in organized action against the current grading system. In an email from NFVC to the student body, the organization provided potential participants with two different strike approaches. They could either choose to not attend Zoom classes or attend Zoom classes without providing their video or audio and make their icon a strike graphic designed by NFVC.

Professors have differing views of the NFVC strikes. It is important to note that many professors are not in a position to go on the record on this issue, given junior and contingent faculty members are less secure in their employment compared to tenured faculty. The professors who were willing to be quoted by The Miscellany News regarding the strikes are tenured faculty. Generally speaking, of the professors with whom The Miscellany News spoke have been respectful of students’ right to strike. Some expressed the belief that the NFVC movement exemplifies the civic agency and passion of the Vassar student body and raises pertinent questions regarding the inherent inequities of academia. 

Professor of Religion Jonathon Kahn commended the members and supporters of NFVC for their advocacy: “I applaud the sentiment behind the strike. I certainly love that students are being active.” Additionally, in an emailed statement to The Miscellany News, Dean of the College Carlos Alamo wrote, “I’ve had positive interactions and conversations with the group about these issues and appreciate their continued engagement.”

However, while there are educators who have applauded the spirit of NFVC, many are still reluctant to fully support their chosen method to achieve grade equity. Although Kahn supports a school-wide UP system and has instituted a Double A policy for his own classes, he is wary of the practicality behind the demonstrations. “Generally, strikes are for laborers against their employers and students do not constitute laborers in this situation. They’re not going to be hurting the institution in the way that a worker hurts their employer by not producing the thing that the employer is trying to create,” he explained. “I get that there is a real desire to insist that assessment needs to be understood differently … I just, from a practical matter, don’t see how striking classes gets them to that end.”

Some professors and faculty have even posited that the strikes may make an already difficult learning environment more challenging. In her discussions with faculty and the Dean of Studies class advisers, Associate Dean of Faculty Kathleen Susman noted the discomfort strikes may cause in a classroom setting. She stated, “The strike threats have intimidated particularly new faculty. Many faculty were very worried about the other students in their classes and the anxiety provoked in them by the threat of a strike or active disruptions in their classes.” 

Beyond the classroom, faculty have also been critical of the fervent dialogue on various social media platforms between Vassar community members. Professor and Chair of Economics Paul Ruud explained, “On several occasions, I discussed the policy and related activities with students. What struck my students most, and me in turn, was the character of a public argument among students on Facebook. I have not seen it. Apparently there was a lot of shaming. None of my students wanted to participate; I wouldn’t either.” The divisive rhetoric surrounding the strikes has evidently polarized the College community.

As an alternative to the strikes, several professors have promoted tactics that encourage students and faculty to engage and converse with one another. Ruud, who is using the Universal NRO policy in his classes, is still tailoring his class to the particular demands of his students. He has done so through open communication between himself and his students: “My approach to grading is part of a broader attempt to respond to the difficulties my students and I face. For example, I am covering the course material differently, going deeper on fewer topics, and I am asking my students to do smaller but more frequent assignments … We have been working together to figure out what seems to serve them best within the limits of what I can manage. In some individual cases, we have changed the course format to accommodate significant personal challenges.” 

While the NFVC coordinators have recognized and praised instructors who have been effectively communicating and accommodating their students, they also argue that the increased responsibility of professors to understand every individual’s particular situation can be difficult. On the NobodyFailsVC website, the organization’s members posit, “Not all students have been able to receive support, even after working with their professors and Dean of Studies. Not all students are in positions to firmly advocate for themselves.” They proceed to proclaim, “When a student’s needs in these exceptional circumstances go beyond the scope of what a single professor is able to influence, having an overarching policy would be essential.”

Ultimately, no matter which grading policy prevails, there will always be some sort of disagreement. As expressed by Professor Kahn, “There’s complications any which way you go.” No single policy can appease the entire college community.
As the grading debate proceeds, both educators and students alike continue to promote what they believe is best for the Vassar community, even if their solutions may not be the same. In his emailed statement, Dean Alamo shared, “While we may not always agree on tactics and approaches, we all share a profound desire to support all members of our community as much as possible during this difficult moment.”

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