Professors should uphold rigor when assessing students even in the pandemic (opinion)

Professors should uphold rigor when assessing students even in the pandemic (opinion)


Back in March, Inside Higher Ed published a brief news story about two nursing professors at Widener University who were caught on a video that went viral, revealing that to each other they had said about students, “Let ’em fail.”

OK, immediately, that sounds bad. Yet I’m not convinced it’s quite that simple. I think there is more to unpack here as we embark on the fall semester, with COVID still impacting how we teach and assess our students.

If you’ve been following discussions on social media about pandemic pedagogy this past year, you’ve seen the conversations about how much to uphold pre-COVID standards of rigor and how much to cut students some slack. Virtually any post in which a faculty member sensitively conveys that they are stressed out about how much they can expect of students is met with what I would call the grace and compassion police, who insist faculty shouldn’t demand very much from students. You know the type. They seem to be the same people who are the most performatively woke about anything and everything.

The fact is that students may fail — yes, even in a pandemic — and that doesn’t make someone a bad educator. But the current absolutist narrative all over teaching pages is that a person is a complete monster if their students have failed this past academic year. This also intersects with a sentiment that has endured nationwide among many parents of students of all ages: that educators have somehow not really been teaching this year. Of course, ask this of almost any teacher, and they will tell you this continues to be more work than ever.

The shame/blame game toward instructors is real. It turns out that same shame/blame game and the hostility that is imposed on faculty from the outside also persists among other faculty who deny support to their colleagues for not agreeing with their views about assessing student performance. This can wreak havoc on instructors, piling on more negativity and guilt trips and making people feel never good enough.

That’s hardly a productive mind-set for regaining momentum as we return to classes this fall. And, if you’re like me, especially given the resurgence of COVID in most states, you are still engaging in a residual form of pandemic pedagogy that keeps you thinking about these issues.

I remember back in March 2020 when I was trying to wrap my head around how I would proceed with my classes suddenly shifting to online, even though I had taught many online classes before; I was on the phone one evening with my mother, a former educator, who was deeply beloved and respected by students and colleagues. Over my own 26 years of teaching, I have still often relied on her for feedback and a reality check. This phone call would turn out to be our last one in which she gave me teaching advice, as she died six months later.

But I remember saying to her, “Mom, I just want to say screw it, it’s a pandemic, grades are stupid anyway, maybe I should just give ’em all A’s. That’s what these students seem to want — it will likely make for better evaluations, and the administration will probably be happy with this as a move toward retention.”

Even on little sleep, weighing just 85 pounds, at once alternating between too much psychotropic medication and not enough, and with her voice raspy and frail, my mother insisted with great certainty, conviction and clarity, “Debbie, no, you can’t do that. What about the students who work very hard and do a beautiful job? That’s not fair to them.” I quipped back about how life is not fair, and pandemics are not fair. As mothers often do, she reeled me back in and prevailed upon me to rethink this.

I have come around to her way of thinking, and I am glad I did.

When I was a young girl, my mother communicated to me, a student overly obsessed with earning A’s, that the process of learning was much more important and longer lasting than the product of the grade, and I knew this was something she conveyed to her students. I have repeated that mantra often to my own students over the years. In that March phone call, I thought my mother’s urging was a betrayal of her years of trying to inspire me to tamp down my overemphasis on grades. The more I’ve reflected on that conversation, the more I see it’s both/and. It was like Oprah’s message of “You get a car, and you get a car” had poisonously infiltrated higher education with “You get an A, and you get an A.” My mother was arguing that, in that line of thinking, what does it mean to earn an A?

Assigning A’s to everyone might initially seem like the correct gesture of goodwill at a time of crisis, and it seems woke to all the undercurrents of what people are enduring these days. And at a time when it is on trend to talk about ungrading, specs grading, labor-based grading and default grading of B and B-plus, it’s hard to be the one person who’s articulating that the full range of A through F grades may exist for a reason.

I hear and read about colleagues who refuse to assign grades of D and F and sometimes even the C range, who have no penalties for late work, who allow endless revisions, who will meet their students virtually in the evenings and on weekends, and who readily offer incompletes as a solution — even when a student has done virtually nothing all semester. I hear these colleagues simultaneously complain about how overworked and exhausted they are.

The message in all this is clear: such educators lack boundaries. It’s like the ideology of self-sacrificial parenting has fully infiltrated educational settings and become self-sacrificial teaching. We know no one comes out the winner there, neither children nor parents, and the parents’ intimate relationship or marriage usually is the main casualty. The same is true for students and educators: no one wins. Like children who can see how to manipulate self-sacrificial parents, so, too, do students learn how to maneuver among educators who are unable to be both gentle and firm. Meanwhile, students also see through the compensatory charades of instructors who do people-pleasing cartwheels, and ultimately, their respect for education — and often the educator — diminishes.

In the past year and a half, I’ve noticed a significant increase in the number of students who have emailed me vaguely claiming “confusion” and “stress” about anything and everything. They’ve often also been the ones posting questions to their peers on social media about what the easiest classes are or where they can secure the gimme A’s. Confusion is frequently code for “I haven’t read the syllabus or the assignment.”

When I’ve asked students to explain what they are confused about, they generally respond in a dug-in way: “I don’t know. I’m just confused.” I have replied by telling them that they have to be more specific and even cite lines from the syllabus or assignment that they do not understand so I can clarify.

Sure enough, every single time, I’ve received an email back that shows they finally read the document more carefully and found the answers, or they’ve written back at least having shown they have done their part. I wonder how many professors actually appropriately dare to put the monkey on the student’s back, refusing to simply give away the answer and instead help the student know how to find it?

Moreover, when students submit work knowing full well that they neglected to do the assignment, how and why does that deserve a good or even decent grade? Can papers merit a zero? Absolutely. They can also merit 100 and everything in between.

Some colleagues believe that grading papers for anything but the content is a racist and classist practice. They tell me I’m using privilege if I don’t allow for every excuse or if I assign grades that run the gamut of A to F. I teach about issues of oppression and privilege in every course every semester, and it’s a main subject of much of my writing. Yet these days, it seems “privilege” is invoked as a critique and an easy put-down by some people when they simply don’t agree with you.

Instructors are afraid to stand their ground or to say no to students for a number of reasons. Contingent labor is, of course, one of the roadblocks as people need, want and deserve job security and are concerned about anything that could get in the way. People of all ranks often worry about the impact of teaching evaluations on promotion, tenure and job searching.

But “no” remains a reasonable response. It’s not a no of cruelty or preventing someone from achieving their dreams. You can deliver a no gently and firmly, and in ways that compassionately confront students, demonstrating for them the integrity of the educational process. In fact, it’s often from such experiences that students derive a great deal of pride when they accomplish their goals.

I truly believe it is possible to maintain the three-ring circus all at once: 1) to employ pedagogy based on principles of social justice, shared investment in classroom dynamics and nurturing a multiplicity of voices; 2) to uphold standards of rigor with a determination of top-notch performance versus what is not; and 3) to engage in self-care as educators. That means that an ethic of care is directed both outwardly toward students and to the enterprise of teaching and learning as well as inwardly toward ourselves as educators.

I think what my mom was trying to tell me in that phone conversation was a reminder to not participate in practices and trends that render teaching an empty charade, or that reduce its integrity, or that devalue it as others outside higher education have done. Hers was a clarion call about remembering education as something sacred.

When I was a little girl running errands with my mother, we routinely ran into former students of hers, even from decades earlier. And they always commented on how hard she was, how far she pushed them and yet how much they adored her. Challenging and hard, fair and kind: that, too, is how I’d want my teaching tombstone to read.



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