As the Columbia community continues to grapple with the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis, each new day seems to dawn with news of fear and tragedy. While many professors have done their best to adjust to these new circumstances, some students have said that their professors have chosen to ignore this and have increased their workload with the excuse that students will “slack off” otherwise, and there are others who are actively using the “F” grade as a threat against their students. The standardization of academic practices during this crisis is essential to providing an equitable educational experience to all. The Committee on Instruction of all four undergraduate schools each has the ability to adjust academic or instructional policies to further reflect our current needs.
When considering students’ perspectives, the results were even more concerning In an anonymous survey we conducted among the undergraduate students, the majority of the 64 respondents said they believe they are in danger of failing (78 percent), while an even larger majority (88.5 percent) believe their peers are at risk of failing due to new policies implemented by professors. While we understand this is not representative of a majority of the undergraduate experience, the responses demonstrate an inconsistency in what faculty have been able to implement.
Respondents reported professors requiring students in different time zones to attend class at 4 a.m., asking students to submit weekly response papers (on top of preexisting coursework), and even ignoring deadline extension requests from students who are in difficult home situations. According to the comments from the survey, some professors have announced that grades of C+ will be an automatic fail. Instructors are insisting that “not turning in all of the assignments or missing class would be considered grounds for failing—even though under the normal grading policy, these would just be grounds for a grade reduction, not an automatic fail.” One of our survey respondents reported that their professor refused to grant extensions following the death of a family member. Some students claim that instructors have said that they intend to make classes harder, under the assumption that being at home will allow students to “study better.”
This being said, not all responses were worrying. There are instructors going above and beyond to help students. Some professors canceled finals altogether, while others have shown kindness through deadline flexibility. One of our professors, for instance, scheduled extra office hours twice a week to reduce the stress of attending classes at night. However, to ensure that no student is left out on such accommodations, we must not depend on the leniency and the generosity of individual instructors.
Nearly all respondents said that it is challenging to complete coursework at this time. Students have lost jobs, parents have been laid off, and people’s lives are in danger. Members of our community are spread all across the world in different time zones with different levels of access to resources. Some international students are still being held in quarantine facilities, as per the policies of their respective countries, with no contact with family or friends. Students may have been forced to return to abusive home lives, and First Generation-Low Income students may not have stable internet connections at home. Some Columbia students, FGLI or otherwise, find themselves having to take on new roles at home, such as caring for younger siblings. How can anyone put academic work first when the threat of being unable to pay rent or put food on the table looms frighteningly close?
Many graduating seniors are scrambling to recover their lost job offers in the midst of a crumbling economy. Some, unable to go home after the semester ends, are at risk of being homeless now that there is the uncertainty of whether Columbia will offer summer housing. Despite this, we are expected to proceed with our daily lives as if nothing is wrong. We are told to continue reading Plato and coding assignments—even as our world is falling apart. We understand that the Columbia College and General Studies COI sent out “Guidelines for Teaching” last week, but the School of Engineering and Applied Science has yet to make its position known. Even more disturbing is the fact that our survey shows that some faculty members may intend to ignore directives given from the University Administration and will insist on enforcing these unreasonable expectations upon their students. We must re-evaluate how we judge academic merit, as well as what pedagogical tools we choose to chart our students’ learning.
Based on the responses we collected, we must immediately make changes to how academic instruction and evaluation is currently being conducted at Columbia. First, make real-time participation optional for students in different time zones, as well as students in the Eastern time zone who might not be able to maintain the same schedule off-campus. Second, mandate flexible homework or assignment deadlines, to the best of the instructor’s ability. Allow students to opt-out of certain assignments completely without penalties if they are unable to complete the work for whatever reason. Third, mandate instructors to adopt a take-home/online format for their exams. Fourth, prohibit class curves that establish a fail quota. Most importantly, remove the option of failing a class.
COVID-19 is not a normal situation. Educators cannot treat the situation as if it were. It is necessary for Columbia to issue an updated academic policy that will hold faculty members accountable. Although the responses we have collected are only a representation of the student body, in reality, a lot of us are struggling. Given the fact that certain faculty members have not seen fit to respond to this crisis with basic human decency, intervention from the administration is the only thing that will protect our at-risk students.
Milaine Thia, Jessica Xu, Joon Baek, and Jino Masaaki Haro are undergraduate students at Columbia College, Barnard College, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. The survey, first created by Milaine and Jessica, asked students about their experience with online education and the pass/fail grading policy.
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