New grading system still burdens already exhausted students

To start off, I am glad that Calvin has updated their grading system in response to the move online due to COVID-19, but there are several issues with the system the administration has chosen.

Similar institutions have changed all classes to pass/fail, given students the option to change to pass/fail, or given students the option of choosing to receive credit or a letter grade for a class. In contrast, Calvin’s new system still holds students to pre-pandemic standards of achievement for all classes besides two.

A report to faculty senate explained that this decision was made as a middle ground between options, keeping letter grades in place as a motivation to finish out the semester strong. The reality is that conditions are far from those we were operating under before the pandemic, and the grading standards for all classes should reflect that.

When I refer to pandemic conditions, I mean both physical and mental/emotional changes. Many  students have had to pack up their lives and relocate across the country or the world. Students may have to share spotty internet with their families or look after younger siblings while their parents work from home. Students are unable to talk with professors in person during office hours. Students may struggle to make ends meet between rent and lost jobs. Students are working through the sadness of having to abruptly say goodbye to friends and the anxiety that loved ones might get sick. Added together, students are bearing an unprecedented mental load, as are professors, who also have to teach in a new medium, and the grading system should reflect these new conditions for all classes. The option to receive a Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory grade instead of a letter grade should be available for all classes, as it would hold all classes to the same standard. This option would retain motivation for students wishing to improve their GPA through a letter grade, but offer relief to other students.

Even the most productive and motivated students are struggling right now. As a senior, my priority is not acing all my classes, but passing them as I apply for jobs in an already fraught job market where many companies have instituted hiring freezes. We should not pass judgements on students’ individual capacities for work during this time. The notion that if we all just work harder we can overcome pandemic conditions is ableist at the very least, especially for students with learning disabilities that are exacerbated by a lack of structure and face-to-face contact.

The idea that we must try to “persevere” and “flourish” during a pandemic only adds to the destructive notion that our worth is measured by our productivity. A Protestant work ethic cannot fend off disease, anxiety, or existential dread, no matter how much we wish it could. What students need at this time is not more pressure to produce, but relief and permission to focus on the mental and physical health of ourselves and loved ones. More pressure will only lead to burn-out.

Perhaps this grading structure was made out of a desire to show that Calvin and its students, alone among all other students and universities, are still capable of doing quality work under pandemic conditions, which, in my opinion, is due to a misguided sense of exceptionalism. Calvin is not special simply by merit of being Calvin, able to succeed where others cannot. By putting more stress and anxiety on students rather than giving them more breathing room, Calvin’s grading system is likely to bring about the opposite intended result. Other institutions seem to understand this, with many prestigious schools having opted for pass/fail grading for all classes.

This pandemic has shaken up everyone’s lives. We have all lost a sense of stability and instead have an uncertain future where we don’t know when we’ll see loved ones next. Since our lives have been overturned by the pandemic, we also must overturn our expectations for normal work output.

This may require that standards be lowered; perhaps units can be combined or a book dropped from the syllabus. For those worried, we know that Calvin students can excel. Past semesters show us this, and future semesters will also confirm this. We shouldn’t let a fear of dropping standards cause us to put undue pressure on ourselves this semester. Instead, we should focus on things that help us maintain sanity and humanity to help us get through this pandemic. 

We should allow this time to be a fallow season, where we simplify—writing three lab reports instead of four, reading five books instead of six, baking bread, calling loved ones, and leaning on God anew with each day.