Make all courses pass/fail now

By ALLISON STANGER

BOCHU DING
View other op-eds abut Middlebury’s remote grading policy here.

This is a reprint of a piece published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on March 19. You can see that version here.

I’m a visiting professor of government at Harvard, on sabbatical from my regular teaching job at Middlebury College. Like my colleagues around the world, I am trying, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, to remake a course meant to be taught in real time, face to face, into a rewarding distance-learning experience. I am teaching a small seminar and am confident I can make that transition. I am much less confident, however, that I can also grade students fairly when they have relocated around the globe.

Some institutions in recent weeks, including MIT and Smith College, have converted all of their courses for the spring semester to mandatory pass/fail to address the extraordinary challenges being faced by their students and faculty. Other colleges should follow their lead. Changing all courses to pass/fail and adding an asterisk to everyone’s transcript would eliminate any problems with fairness while allowing students and faculty to focus on creating a meaningful learning experience in anxious times.

In normal times, it makes sense to have individual faculty members determine fair assessment. But these are not normal times. Students were forced to leave campus on short notice and are now scattered around the world. Some will be tuning in from distant time zones, others from situations where a stable internet connection is an unaffordable luxury good.

Both Harvard and Middlebury have extended the deadline for converting a course to pass/fail, so students without access at least have that option. But it is unjust that some students should be forced to choose that path while other students continue to receive letter grades. That problem is solved at a stroke by a universitywide policy to switch all classes this semester to pass/fail.

Such a policy would also help with the matter of academic honesty in courses that require timed examinations. Questions about fairness only multiply for large lecture courses that have social distancing between faculty members and students embedded in the very structure of regular assessment. My son, a math and computer-science major, reports that one of his friends — a top performer — has been approached by multiple students asking if they could collaborate on assignments, including the final exam, in the new remote world. The student shared his concerns about cheating with the professor, who responded that he would just have to make the exam harder.

I can imagine measures to administer exams online in such a way as to minimize dishonesty, but all of these problems evaporate with a mandate from on high to evaluate outcomes using pass/fail. The same is the case for those worried about a negative effect on applications to graduate school.

The truth is that everybody would benefit from a pass/fail policy. Faculty members could focus on engaging students for learning in demanding new circumstances. Students would get a respite from direct competition with their peers to focus on both individual growth and doing their part in a common endeavor (a skill we are very much going to need in the months ahead). Parents could focus on loving and nurturing their children rather than worrying about how to assist them in navigating or gaming a new system.

Much as it did in shutting down, the university would reaffirm its commitment to the ties that bind us at a time when the world needs it most. If a few institutions lead, others will follow.

Some may protest the shift as unfair, because it invalidates the accomplishments of those who were at the top of the grade hierarchy when the regular semester ground to a halt. But what does excellence actually mean when global public health is under siege? The measures that are necessary to contain the pandemic require the strong to sacrifice their short-term selfish interests for the sake of other humans and the sustainability of our democracy.

Colleges could reinforce that commitment by recognizing that it will be impossible to decide what is a fair grade when the world seems to be spinning out of control for all of us. It is also a way of acknowledging that what we do together in face-to-face education cannot be replaced with a high-speed internet connection.

The pandemic has a way of taking all of us back to core questions about what we value and why, and the matter of grading while the plague rages is no exception. If our purpose in teaching is to engage students in the joy we ourselves have experienced from learning and the life of the mind, removing letter grades from the interaction, especially in dark times, only reinforces our shared commitment. Social distancing to flatten the curve is all about making small sacrifices for the good of others. Myopic, self-interested behavior, after all, is what got us into this predicament.

Global problems such as pandemics and climate change can only be addressed collectively; we can’t see each other as competitors in a zero-sum-game. In opposition to both experts and institutions of higher learning, President Trump has insisted that we live in a ruthless, might-makes-right world, where the strong do as they can and the weak as they must. It is up to each and every one of us to prove him wrong, to show that the human instinct to care for others can be stronger than the desire to dominate and dictate, that the hardships that lie ahead of us are also an opportunity to build a world that sustains and rewards empathy and community rather than the unfettered pursuit of power. A “pandemic asterisk” semester for all would be a step in that direction.

Allison Stanger is a professor of international politics and economics at Middlebury. She is currently on sabbatical at Harvard University, where she is teaching a course on the politics of virtual realities and holding fellowships with the Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics and the Ash Center for Democratic Governance.