March 27, 2020

Take It from an Instructor—Let’s Leave Letter Grades Behind This Spring


Saumya Jain / The Chicago Maroon

Since beginning robust self-isolation a week and a half ago, my days have taken on a tedious pattern. I wake up, have coffee, read the news and Twitter for an hour, and then slouch into my home office, where I attempt to read in the service of reworking my spring classes, which are to be taught online in light of COVID-19 and our new distance-learning mandate. Invariably, after six or so hours have passed, I will be lucky to have made it through 40 pages. My mind is inevitably elsewhere: refreshing news sites, texting family and friends to see how they are doing, worrying over stuff I might need from the store. 

Among instructors trying to port classes online for next term, my situation is enviable. Unlike many of my colleagues, I have no children who, with school and childcare canceled, require full-time supervision. And unlike many graduate instructors, untenured instructors, and non-tenure-line instructors, I have adequate space within my home to work. Diversity in instructors’ circumstances for the spring is of course paralleled in the diversity of their students’ circumstances. Teachers and students alike are faced with additional stressors compounding the anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and boredom induced by the pandemic. 

The College should abolish quality grades for the quarter, mandate the use of pass/fail, and permit classes taken as pass/fail to satisfy general and major requirements. Teaching in emergency conditions and through novel media like Zoom, instructors should not be permitted to issue quality grades for the spring quarter; with their attention pulled in a thousand directions, students should not be subjected to the additional anxiety of trying to gain an A. Details can be worked out later, as particular majors and programs figure out what all of this means. But this should happen now. Doing so would reduce student stress, relieve instructors of the burden of inventing untried mechanisms for assessment, and publicly dispense with the comforting fiction that this spring will be like any other spring, only online. 

Some colleagues have suggested to me that UChicago will never shift to a pass/fail system, even for a single, exceptional spring quarter, because of our vaunted brand of academic rigor. What the pandemic crisis has demonstrated to me, however, is that there is a rigor to taking care—or, at least, in the effort to not be careless. It would take a certain kind of stupefied neglect to not see that faculty who have generally not taught remotely might not be equipped to assess remote learning outcomes with the same precision as they grade in-person class performance. It would take a certain kind of carelessness to imagine that students, who generally will not have much experience in online learning, situated in diverse, difficult circumstances and with variable access to important educational tools, can be equitably assessed in relation to one another. Finally, as the case count spikes and the death toll mounts, as our friends and family become ill, the fantasy that we can carry on in our online classrooms, business as usual, will have been revealed to be just that: a fantasy, a denial of reality, an uncaring response to the permanence of crisis. This fantasy is utterly lacking in intellectual rigor and indulging in it will not be a sign of our academic superiority, but rather of a callous disregard for our community members’ well-being. 

The University’s intellectual culture generally assumes that our collective commitment to thinking together and knowing together is not rooted in coercive externalities such as grades. At the best of times, grades are stupid, and seem to continue to exist only because they are meaningful for future applications to graduate and professional schools. These are not the best of times. Suspending quality grades for the spring will not equate to the suspension of our collective desire to think with one another. Suspending quality grades will enable our online classrooms, in whatever form they take, to become anxiety-free havens for criticality and creativity, a place to think without disciplinary compulsions. If anything, getting rid of grades will allow for more rigorous, more daring relations to our shared objects—when, that is, the affective and psychological burden of the pandemic is manageable enough for us to be present to think together. 

Students and faculty from elsewhere have written brilliantly on the need for institutions to align classroom expectations with students’ and instructors’ realities during a pandemic. In response, many peer institutions have shifted to pass/fail, to be marked on transcripts as an emergency measure: Columbia, MIT, Harvard Law, and so on. The only meritorious argument for retaining quality grades through the spring has been advanced by students anticipating future application cycles; our peers shifting to pass/fail demonstrates that future application readers will fully understand a transcript filled with Ps for the spring 2020 quarter.

Institutionally recognizing that students in the spring may have a difficult time producing a term paper for assessment or focusing on their problem set is not to resign ourselves to a future without intellectual commitment or rigor. Notionally, quality grades function as a measure that communicates student learning outcomes according to a rubric that itself assumes a similarity of student learning conditions and a similarity of student access to resources. (Of course, we all know that grades have long since been corrupted into a gamified target.) We are in a measureless situation, a pedagogical scenario incommensurate with anything any of us has experienced, and one in which instructors cannot assume that students share similar learning conditions or have equal access to resources. The retention of a measure in the absence of the structures that gave some (small) sense to that measure simply ignores the intense crisis conditions we are operating under. 

I cannot and will not assess students with a criterion that presumes that they, and I, and the world are operating normally. I urge the University to shift to universal pass/fail grading for the spring. In the absence of such a policy, I urge my colleagues to assign As and only As for their classes, and to communicate this class policy to students at their first meeting.

Chris Taylor is an Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of English.