By Zainab Firdausi, ASP 2020
(with inputs from Sparsh Agarwal, ASP 2020)
As a student in her final semester at Ashoka there is a lot that I am coming to terms with, especially the abrupt manner in which my life for the past four years has been disrupted. And it is with a heavy heart that I must write this piece, which is an indictment of the University’s approach to the issue surrounding grading accommodations in light of the global pandemic.
At the outset, I would like to acknowledge the unique situation we find ourselves in, and especially the unenviable position of the University leadership in this crisis. The administration is probably dealing with multiple issues at the same time; the timeline and form of academics, admissions, construction, employment of workers, and upcoming semesters have all been disrupted indefinitely. To adjudicate an adequate response to all such issues in a matter of days is a heavy ask, and a heavy burden. And it is on this basis, that I would request the university administration and Board of Management (BOM) to rethink their decision regarding the retainment of the global grading policy in Spring 2020. Through this letter, I will present different reasons as to why this isn’t the most ideal manner in which students’ issues can be addressed, especially since this is the 7th ever pandemic that humanity has ever experienced.
Firstly, since economies have practically come to a halt, and countries are mostly shut, there are a lot of people in immense turmoil. If nothing else, this emergency should teach us all to be empathetic towards one another, especially, since any pre-existing socioeconomic differences amongst us are now exacerbated. As an institution that takes pride in its diversity, we must be sensitive to the different and disproportionate ways in which different members of our community are affected by this crisis.
The proposal put forth by the BOM places all decision-making responsibilities vis-a-vis grading on professors. The faculty at Ashoka are renowned for their achievements and work; but academic laurels do not always necessitate empathy. This is not to say that our professors are cruel or hard-hearted. Instead, it is a reflection on the fact that empathy is not equally distributed, and making current grading measures and coursework exclusively reliant on the varying personalities of faculty is unfair.
Normally environmental fairness has been guaranteed by virtue of being on campus. Similar levels of access to faculty and resources ensures ceteris paribus in academics. But as we study from our homes and elsewhere, this assumption remains shattered. We are learning how to live under the absurdity of quarantine, in a faltering socio-economic environment, where indefiniteness and uncertainty are the only things in abundance. Living in such circumstances, to be subjected to a system which will exceedingly rely on a faculty member’s judgement of someone’s else’ situation adds to the absurdity at hand. This decision leaves too much to fate and chance. It does not recognise that the degree of accommodativeness is heavily reliant on others’ judgement of someone’s hardships. It also does not account for discrepancies that may arise from this system, e.g., some professors may allow students to not submit any finals, while others may only provide an extension for the same.
Though this is hypothetical, there are actual instances of exams being cancelled in favour of 5000 word essays; something for which a month of online classes cannot prepare even the best of us. Moreover, these manners of assessment are not those under which many of us decided to enrol in particular classes, and if that is subject to change, then so must the metric of judgement. Though the disparities are myriad, the resulting outcomes, i.e., our grades, will rest on the same method of comparison to previous academic terms, even as this semester will be completed under extraordinary circumstances.
This brings me to my third point, the email by the ADAA explicitly says, “students who provide good reasons that show that making special accommodations available to them is reasonable will be treated accordingly”. Isn’t it safe to assume that everyone is currently worse off than they were a month ago? Our troubles are many and different, but they are still troubles. It is also intrusive that someone must testify to their dire straits and then hope for some leeway. Some have aged grandparents to look after, some are facing food shortages, some have unspoken worries such as layoffs of family members, and some just do not have a stable internet connection. Are these the conversations that students must have just to get respite from class? Especially when this uncertainty is already adding to the anxiety of entering an economy in recession? Placing the onus of proving difficulty on students is cruel— it is borne out of a position which is unable to fathom the impact that this crisis can have on the families of students studying at Ashoka.
Finally, if we are modelled on other liberal arts colleges abroad, then we must follow in their footsteps and aid students through these difficult times. The petitions and letters sent by other students explicate the steps taken by institutions such as Duke, Harvard, Swarthmore among others. And if we judge ourselves by the standards of Indian educational institutions then we must see that several of them have called for a hiatus, and put the semester on pause. In comparison, the response by the BOM reveals little acknowledgement of the extenuating circumstances, which, in all probability, are only going to get worse from hereon. It is exactly this conservativeness in response that has plunged most countries into excessive turmoil. This is not the time for proposing timid solutions, we must collectively take cognisance of our troubles and alleviate them with inclusive and innovative solutions.
I am not advocating for a system that allows faculty to only grade between two letter grades, nor am I advocating that the semester be put on pause. I am making an entreaty to the administration to exercise more empathy towards its students, and thus, reduce the pressures of a completely decentralised grading system for this semester. Especially one which requires each one of us to make individual cases of our hardships several times; the fact that campus now lies vacant is already testimony to that. This is a time for the administration to utilise the tools at its disposal, and thus allow students to take the semester Pass/Fail* or reduce burdens in some other acceptable manner such as having our transcripts reflect the circumstances under which this semester was completed.
For those of us who think that a change in grading systems will affect future prospects, we must remind ourselves that the entire world is facing the same issues as us, and that there probably is no university that is not affected by this in some way. It is unfortunate that students were not even given explanations as to why all the grading systems proposed by them were rejected. Moreover, no unequivocal assurance has been provided that all faculty members were consulted before announcing the retainment of the global grading system.
As I write this, unemployment claims have probably risen, the markets may have crashed further, more people will have died, and more will have fallen sick or run out of food. We need an institutional acknowledgement of the fact that members of the Ashoka community are not immune to these troubles and that we have our trusted university to fall back on. Our strength as an institution lies in our ability to educate and evaluate students differently. This ability is now being put to its own test; a test of adaptability, and we must pass it.
*On the Pass/Fail System: The model employed by Swarthmore College is most appropriate for our case. All students take classes Pass/Fail, and at the end of the semester if one thinks they have fared well, they get the option to “uncover” their grade. Therefore, a P would reveal an A, A-,B+ and so on until the last passing grade. However, the option to hide uncovered grades is not available. All classes take P/F will be given credits.