An open letter to faculty on the opt-in policy

By QUINN BOYLE, JACK BROWN, and RATI SAINI

The following letter was co-signed by 23 Middlebury students and emailed to all Middlebury faculty on April 14. It has been lightly edited in accordance with The Campus’ style guidelines.

Deans, department chairs, faculty,

We write to express our concerns with Professor Priscilla Bremser’s motion to change Middlebury’s grading policy to a credit/no credit system this semester. Our aim is to offer some perspective on the importance of maintaining grades. Our reasons are as follows:

I. Any binary grading system introduces new inequities in spite of its efforts to eliminate others.

Consider the student who worked diligently the first five weeks of the semester. Mandatory credit/no credit now puts her on par with the student who slacked off. This is an inequity introduced by the proposed change.

Consider the student who had a rough first year. Like many students, she learned to manage the difficulties of college academics during her first year and that yielded undesirable grades. Now she needs as many semesters as possible to improve her GPA. Mandatory credit/no credit disadvantages her relative to students who had stellar first years, already have high GPAs, and do not need every semester thereafter to improve. This is an inequity introduced by the proposed change.

II. We view grades as a fundamental underpinning of college scholarship. The quest for a high mark inspires quality. On campus or off, Middlebury’s mission is to develop students of rigor and wisdom. Evaluations are a central part of that mission, and the distribution of grades reflects different degrees of engagement.

Furthermore, grades currently serve as one of the few sources of motivation for maintaining routine during a period of crisis. Revoking grades will reduce academic engagement among students driven by the prospect of reward. Online learning already decreases the quality of our education in spite of our professors’ best efforts. In a time where many are desperately seeking engagement, preserving the one incentive that brings out the best in students seems essential.

III. Opt-in respects choice, including the choice of students to try to overcome obstacles. The administration already has a solution that works. It gives students ample time to decide whether their condition merits pass/fail. Overcoming hardships should be a Middlebury value, not an anti-value. Why should we assume students cannot persevere? Students may reflect on this semester as a time in their lives in which they overcame difficulty. Let them write their own stories. Any additional effort to mandate pass/fail as a “one size fits all” is overreach and diminishes the value of this semester.

Professors will tailor their courses to meet the spirit of the times. A biology professor’s judgement on how to best do that may not reflect a political science professor’s. Instead of mandating compliance with a binary system, grant each professor the opportunity to meet the challenge of the day in a manner they deem sensible.

We recognize that we write this letter in good health. If any one of us were to become sick, the college already has an instrument in place (the pass/fail option) to assist us through our ailment. If one of us were to exercise that option, we would never expect the college to force our classmates to do the same.

To that end, Middlebury ponders how it can help students handle stress. In our view, it has already done its job in delivering us the option to manage our own.

IV. Since the college announced its policy, students continue to operate under the assumption that they will receive grades. A late proposal to impose a single binary on everyone, contrary to our expectations, is itself disruptive. If the faculty wanted to act, it should have acted immediately when school closed, not weeks later. Students have already made sacrifices to preserve their grades. Their interests should be considered. Come May, students currently leaning toward the pass/fail option may determine a quality grade is within reach. Allow them to decide.

Recall that the previous Student Government poll included three grading systems, including the implausible dual A/A- policy. In truth, Middlebury is considering two live options. As such, we encourage faculty to ignore polls with little insight to offer.

Middlebury students are comparing their current academic experience with hometown peers’. It is in our interest that those comparisons reflect Middlebury’s continued effort to deliver an academically fulfilling semester.

The college has an obligation to deliver an education that empowers students to engage — for many of us that includes grades. For many of us, that is what we believe we are paying for. Stripping students of grades raises serious concerns about Middlebury’s commitment to academic freedom, a principle outlined in the college’s handbook. Even off campus, we know the product we signed up for. Honor that.

We recognize that questions of how grades will affect departmental honors, Cum laude and other distinctions will inevitably arise. Let that debate be handled another day.

No grading system will satisfy everyone’s needs. What we do know, however, is that our current system encompasses the widest array of interests. While some of our peer schools have adopted binary grading systems, many fine institutions have not. We urge you to lend serious notice to our arguments and vote to reaffirm the college’s current grading policy.

Wishing you good health,

Quinn Boyle ’21.5

Jack Brown ’22

Rati Saini ’22