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.
These days, my heart skips a beat whenever a new email from University President Lee Bollinger lands in my inbox, but when I received news that all classes will be graded pass/fail, my heart sunk.
As a student in the dual degree program between the School of Engineering and Applied Science and Columbia College, this was going to be my last (and second) semester at Columbia College. I had hoped to shine. After semesters of overloading classes, treading down multiple tracks only to find they were not for me, spending countless nights burying my head in textbooks in computational complexity and abstract algebra, existentially quivering over my academic choices, and so much more, I finally had the chance to take more classes in sociology, a field I had been eager to dive into. Part of me also wished for this year to be the one that I finally got to make up for those C’s sprinkled throughout my transcript. All my graduate school plans, I had told myself, depended on this.
However, within the span of a week, my hopes for embarking upon personal projects, deepening friendships, and enjoying a few more weeks inNew York City all fluttered away. Overnight, I packed up my room and fit all my five years of college into the back of an SUV. And now, I am told that the work I’ve poured into this semester will not be reflected in my grades. No graduate school program or fellowship will be able to look at my grades for the semester and draw inferences about the type of student I am in the humanities and social sciences. I am hit with the realization that my GPA will stay exactly where it stands, and that’s that.
I didn’t know how to react. Life at home is by no means easy: My mother works at a manufacturing plant and is paid by the hour, and my father’s job is also in a precarious position. One of my first priorities now is to find some type of remote work so that I can help save for possible rainy days.
Despite my situation at home, I wanted to keep a lettered grading system for the semester. When confronted with uncertainty, I try not to become over-encumbered by my emotions, and I attempt to find solace in work. When all else failed, my academics were going to be my safe haven; I saw my grades this year as measures that would provide me with some sense of security for my future.
But my head tells me a different story. Maintaining a traditional grading scheme, or even allowing students to uncover their grades, would stir up additional sources of stress for a significant number of students and professors. Though students with extenuating circumstances were allowed to remain on campus, some still chose to return home to be with family. In the middle of the whirlwind of a pandemic that is only beginning to unfold, many lack the time, the resources, and even the heart to continue to learn. So long as letter grades are still being issued, students’ ability to achieve higher grades will remain on unequal ground—not only due to differing socioeconomic circumstances but also out of a range of relational, emotional, and situational factors.
Those who would choose to pass/fail their classes may inevitably feel the pressure to uncover grades if their peers did the same, especially if they end up vying for similar opportunities. Structural impacts would be difficult to avoid and even harder to predict. In the face of systems and communities that are changing by the minute, the last thing anyone should have to worry about is their grades or where their priorities lie.
Without a forced pass/fail system, professors would need to keep track of each student’s unique circumstance and attempt to sort through the ambiguous nature of maintaining some notion of a just grading rubric. They too have been asked to make adjustments on such short notice, some having to uproot and revise the entire syllabus for the remaining weeks. I’d rather our teaching resources be spent on improving course experience and caring for students in this season. My head tells me that a blanket pass/fail system may be the only policy that ensures some semblance of order and equality.
I spent my afternoon thinking about whether I should sign the petition or the counter-petition. I understand that both those who advocate for optional pass/fail and those who wish it to remain mandatory have their reasons. Fingers can be pointed at either side; people can always be accused of being “privileged.” Perhaps for some who wish to have their grades uncovered, it can be said that they’re “privileged” enough to still be able to achieve the grades they want; and for some who wish to keep the blanket pass/fail for all classes, it can be argued that they’re “privileged” enough for this semester to not matter as much. I don’t have an exact answer as I sit here, heart not fully willing to accept Columbia’s decision. All I know is that in these unique moments, we, as students and as people, are called to try to hold onto everything with open hands—including our grades.
Riancy Li is a born-again senior in Columbia College studying sociology. She believes that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are the best things America has introduced her to.
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