Optional Pass/D/Fail is community failure


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

A week since I was asked to leave Middlebury, my family has set up a makeshift office for me in our living room. We bought a WiFi extender so I could Zoom from this basically unused far corner of the house. I’ve been baking, walking my dogs and decluttering our house during my extra week of spring break. My parents will start to work from home this week; thankfully, Covid-19 has only changed their place of work, rather than putting them out of a job altogether. My younger sister is starting her second week of remote learning and has set up her own office in another room in the house. It’s a full house and it’s more family time than I bargained for, but I have everything I need and more to have a successful semester.

I am one of many Middlebury students who has gone home to nothing more difficult than a little too much family time. Other Middlebury students are not so lucky. My friend is living with a friend because her parents live abroad and the ticket home is too expensive. Another is returning to an abusive household. Others don’t have internet access, or their parents have lost their jobs as a result of Covid-19, or their younger siblings are home from school and they are expected to watch them while their parents are working. Needless to say, the remainders of their semesters are going to look a lot different than my own.

This is why I support universal pass/fail. Universal pass/fail ensures students an equal grading scale as opposed to optional pass/fail, which gives students the choice to opt in or out of traditional grading for the semester. The problem with an optional pass/fail system is that students like me will have no trouble opting in for traditional grading, while others — those with more difficult home situations, for example — might face competing priorities that make pass/fail the only feasible option.

I know I do not work any harder than many of my classmates, but I also know that when it comes time to apply to graduate school, our transcripts may say otherwise if I am able to earn letter grades while less-advantaged peers must choose Pass/D/Fail. Plus, graduate schools such as the prestigious Harvard Medical School have already said that they will recognize pass/fail grades as valid to fulfil medical school prerequisites, “provided it is the policy of the college/university to only award pass/fail grades.” I do not think that any student should be punished academically because of their living situations — nor do I think I should be rewarded for coming from a home that is not negatively affected by Covid-19. Only with universal pass/fail will we be able to do right by ALL of our students.

What drives the pushback against universal pass/fail is the unwillingness of privileged Middlebury students to forego the unmerited benefits they receive from said privilege. It’s a pattern I’ve seen time and again at Middlebury — I find that oftentimes, students are willing to acknowledge inequity, but fall short when it comes to rectifying it. Students would rather have the semester positively affect their GPA than stand in solidarity with their peers.

This petition serves as a litmus test of community empathy. I encourage my peers to reflect on their own reluctance to implement universal pass/fail. If your reason for not signing is because you want a couple of A’s, then you are complicit in perpetuating a system that benefits the privileged and precludes those without means from succeeding. When I wrote this there were only 250 signatories. Although that number continues to increase, there is still a large group of students who have yet to sign. If we really cared about our community and its most vulnerable members in this time of crisis, more students would have signed by now. As a reflection of Middlebury’s commitment to uplift those without means, the response to universal Pass/D/Fail so far has been pretty telling.

Lily Colón is a member of the class of 2021.5.

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