This piece is part of an ongoing scope—a collection of multiple pieces from various viewpoints—addressing the discourse surrounding University President Lee Bollinger’s decision to make all courses pass/fail for the spring 2020 semester in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of Barnard’s major selling points is the notion that it’s a safe, supportive, nurturing community. It’s another addition to the “best of both worlds” narrative—you get the resources of a big, prestigious research institution, while still being able to build meaningful relationships. In my short time here, I have seen the greater Barnard and Columbia community band together several times, through student-led initiatives such as the fall 2018 Aramark boycott and support from faculty and staff in the wake of Barnard first-year Tessa Majors’ tragic death in December.
In the past two weeks, I’ve watched Barnard and Columbia students alike support each other in the chaos caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak—from helping each other move out to creating mutual aid funds on social media. Having this community support made being forced to leave even harder, as I wasn’t just leaving my college campus a few weeks early, I was leaving my friends and family.
This past Friday, Columbia and Barnard announced that a pass/fail policy would be instituted for all classes. Almost immediately after these announcements, my social media feed was flooded with reactions to the policy changes. Some students demanded that the pass/fail grading system be optional instead of mandatory. Others argued that this policy be kept, claiming that opt-in policies promote inequality. Several other ideas have come up, including an A/D/F grading system, the universal pass system suggested by a group of Yale University students, and a universal A policy. Each policy and proposal has variations that come with their own set of pros and cons. The largest distinction between the policies was that some were advocating for opt-in/opt-out systems that left the decision to the individual, while others pushed for a universal policy.
It was almost shocking to see how quickly the atmosphere shifted. The defense for opt-in was largely focused on the idea that pass/fail grading makes students less competitive when applying for graduate programs, or that it was unfair that those who were on track to earn A’s this semester had to sacrifice their hard work for students who would struggle to perform well academically in the midst of a global pandemic. The strength and solidarity that had been built through mutual aid was quickly abandoned as soon as grades entered the conversation.
Students across the nation have acknowledged the potential effects of opt-in programs: A collective statement from Yale student groups stated that “opting-out would in turn place incredible stress on first-generation low-income students who would now have to balance caring for their family, holding down a job, and excelling in a full course load.” Like these students, I would not truly have the choice to opt-in. As a Black woman, I have different resources than my peers and would be held to a different standard in graduate school applications under normal circumstances. If I were to “choose” pass/fail grading due to my current extenuating circumstances, my choice could potentially raise questions when my future applications are evaluated, making the admissions officers wonder why I couldn’t just do the work like everyone else.
Many have rightly pointed out how universal pass/fail could still disadvantage members of our community—those on outside scholarships, or those on academic probation whose future status depends on letter grades this semester. What I am instead in favor of is a policy that benefits every student and their extenuating circumstances. It is entirely valid to be concerned about how pass/fail will affect your future of education and employment prospects (the idea that I may not have a summer job now has certainly crossed my mind). However, I think we should not advocate for whatever policy benefits us as individuals most, but for the one that benefits our community most.
When we return to campus, it will be crucial to remember the many systematic flaws of higher education that this pandemic has revealed. What accommodations, such as remote learning and remote paid work, could have existed for students with disabilities all along? Will we continue to accommodate students for extenuating circumstances that impact their health and performance after this pandemic? Further, is our idea of community so student-centric that we lack regard for professors scrambling to accommodate these class changes, essential workers on our campus, and others facing job insecurity in the midst of this pandemic?
The issue of this semester’s grades will come and go, but issues like housing, job insecurity, and inaccessibility will not. It is crucial that we continue to implement practices like mutual aid both in the midst of this pandemic and in the future if we truly want to see our community move forward.
Elizabeth Burton is a sophomore at Barnard College majoring in education and women, gender, and sexuality studies. She promised herself to stop letting people live in her head rent-free, but here we are. She encourages people to contribute to and seek out mutual aid, both now and after this is all over. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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