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Fall term grading returns to normal, raises questions of equity

In the wake of the uncertainty of last Spring Term, Carleton chose to make all classes mandatory pass/fail (S/Cr/NC). This term, however, Carleton students are receiving traditional letter grades for their courses. 

“Lower-level question”: Grading policy not addressed over summer

President of the Faculty George Shuffelton, who was responsible for organizing the final faculty vote that determined the Spring’s grading system, explained that “the measure that we passed explicitly said that this was something we were doing for Spring 2020, and so it had a kind of time limit.” 

Education and Curriculum Committee (ECC) Student-at-Large Rayna Phelps recalled that when they were talking about the grade systems for the Spring, “one of the deans of the college made it pretty explicit that this plan wouldn’t automatically apply to the Fall even if we were fully online.”

Shuffelton explained that the choice to make the mandatory “scrunch” (S/Cr/NC) policy apply to only the Spring Term “wasn’t so much because we were looking ahead to the fall, but just knowing we were under extraordinary circumstances.” Shuffelton added that “we would revisit it if necessary… but we didn’t want to try and guess what the future was going to look like.” 

Likewise, Professor of Chemistry Deborah Gross stated that “by default, we were back to normal grading unless we chose to engage with that conversation again, which did not happen, or at least didn’t happen formally.” 

The ECC minutes confirm that a grading system for the Fall was not mentioned in any of their first five meetings of Spring Term. In the last meeting of the term, Professor of Geology Sarah Titus “noted that there has not been a discussion yet about next year’s grading policy, which needs to be considered. [Co-chair of ECC Dev] Gupta thanked Titus for planting that idea for a future agenda topic.” Neither of the two ECC meetings over the summer mentioned the topic even briefly, however, so it appears that the co-chairs declined to add it to the agenda. 

Manjari Majumdar ’22 observed, “The decision to return to traditional letter grades seems to have been made for us, which is odd because there seems to have been so much contention around the matter last term. Administrators could have sent out a poll if they didn’t want to deal with another Moodle debate.”

Why was the grading policy conversation not reopened once it became clear that by Fall Term, the college would still be entrenched in a global pandemic, with many students still studying remotely? In CSA Vice President Brittany Dominguez’s words, “everyone’s situations at home or wherever they are actually are still very volatile… we are still in a pandemic.” 

Professor of English and American Studies Adriana Estill speculated, “I think the college kind of determined they were going to make things as normal as possible, and normalcy includes keeping grades the same.” 

Alé Cota ’22, one of the students who led the petition for mandatory scrunch in the spring, said, “it was kind of inevitable that Carleton would make us go back to grades because they fought us so hard in the spring. And it was only because a lot of other elite schools decided to not have grades that Carleton was like, ‘Ok, sure.’ But a lot of other schools went back to grading [this fall].” 

The ECC meetings in the spring and over the summer were largely dominated by the question of whether students would be allowed to return to campus, how the academic schedule would be amended to facilitate health and safety, and various other logistics revolving around the ultimate decision to reopen campus. 

Whereas in the spring the ECC had faced significant pressure from faculty and students to consider alternative grading schemes, Shuffelton reported that “we did not hear strong pressure from the faculty to extend the policy… There was not a strong voice of faculty saying we should extend the mandatory scrunch policy into the fall.” He recalled extensive discussion among the faculty of “what worked and didn’t work in terms of pedagogy,” but not much of an emphasis on “the grading portion of it.” 

Shuffelton believed that this was largely due to “the scale of everything else that we were also thinking about for the fall, that there were so many other questions that we were answering,” and though he acknowledged that “grades are a hugely important thing for students and for faculty,” there were simply “so many logistical questions that came first.” He said it also felt like a much less urgent issue than in the spring because “once it became clear that a large number of students would be back on campus and that we would be able to solve the equity question that way, I think that pressing reason dropped back in faculty’s minds.”

Associate Professor of English Pierre Hecker agreed that “the burst of very hardcore conversation that preceded the decision in Spring Term died down a lot… I kind of felt an assumption that we had done things this way Spring Term, but ultimately the college’s goal is to return to as normal a situation as possible.” While he did remember the “grading question” coming up among the faculty, it “felt like a much lower-level question over the summer than how you keep two thousand people safe.”

A similar trend occurred among students in CSA, where Dominguez said that during their emergency summer meetings, “there wasn’t a lot of discussion about fall term grading options. I think the bigger thing we were talking about was the racial injustices that were happening… and also a lot of COVID-19 and safety relations and really trying to make sure that students were going to be safe… so we didn’t get to talking about the grading system over the summer.”

Finally, members of the administration on the ECC were not enthusiastic about mandatory scrunch in the first place and seem to have been content to let the Spring Term’s grading policy quietly lapse, according to student ECC members. 

Phelps recalled that in the Spring term ECC discussions, essentially “all the students on the committee were for mandatory scrunch and the majority of the professors were for mandatory scrunch, but it seemed like the majority of administrators were for optional scrunch,” which was a much less controversial policy option that would appear to alleviate concerns about grading equity without making nearly as substantial a change. 

While the ECC does not have final say over grading options, its purpose as an advisory committee is “to discuss academic issues that administrators have decided they want to hear the ECC’s input on,” Phelps explained. 

Phelps continued, “I imagine since it was the administrators who were generally not in favor of mandatory scrunch before, that it was likely the administrators who didn’t want to have a second term with just scrunch grades.” Accordingly, Estill noted that the debate over fall grading “got stalled before it ever got put to the faculty.”

The college administration might have had a number of reasons for this preference, but one of the most influential was likely the financial factor. An anonymous faculty member believed that the administration “thought that if they decided to go with scrunch that students would not come back… We have students on campus,” they continued, not because it is safe but “because we need room and board money.” 

Estill concurred: “Nothing’s different from the spring. There are no conditions in terms of the virus, in terms of the economic stress, that position us in a different kind of world than we were in April of 2020. In fact, arguably, by any of those factors, it is worse right now.” 

But when students were sent home in the spring, Estill continued, “we heard a lot of ‘Why am I going to be in college if I’m not there and I’m not getting graded?’ That’s got a long history, this idea that you’re giving money not for this learning that you’re doing in the classroom, not for the vital connections that you’re making with fellow students about the classes you’re taking, but that it’s an exchange for a grade, for a sign that you finished the learning. And that’s a hard symbol to let go of: the grade as this exchange. It’s a commodity.”

Cota thought along similar lines, suspecting that the Fall Term grading policy is “definitely a money thing, because a lot of students were threatening to not attend Spring Term if we have no grades, so that’s definitely a pretty big motivator for Carleton to maintain grades.”

“There are still students at home”:  contention over issues of equity

The debate over what grading system is appropriate during the COVID-19 pandemic has been contentious since the beginning, and many people who were in support of mandatory scrunch in the spring, especially faculty and administration, have changed their tune with regards to the Fall Term. 

According to the March 30, 2020 ECC minutes, the committee saw the main benefits of the mandatory scrunch option as being “centered largely around the equity issues students and faculty jointly identified” in their respective Moodle forum debates, “particularly with respect to unequal home circumstances (technology, caretaking, socioeconomic concerns).” 

Likewise, Shuffelton told The Carletonian that “the single strongest reason that faculty identified for wanting to go mandatory scrunch in the spring was this real concern about equity of access.” As for the student perspective, Dominguez stated that “we really thought it was important to be on a pass/fail grading system just because of the inequities that would happen for our lowest income students, and our BIPOC students as well, in terms of having to go home [to] different living situations.”

In addition, faculty members especially were highly concerned about the lack of time to prepare for online classes in the spring, and did not want their own learning curves with online teaching to negatively affect their students’ records.

This latter point has been cited by a number of faculty and administrators as the primary reason that they did not think the Fall Term required an adjusted grading system. “Part of that thinking,” Shuffelton stated, “was that even as this term continues to be really difficult, we now at least have one term’s worth of experience of online teaching, so there was the sense that both for our students and for us we would be a little bit better at this and we could reintroduce grades without having to worry about the consequences in the same way.” 

Dean of the College Bev Nagel reported that “most of the comments I heard [in the spring] suggested that faculty saw the scrunch as providing more space for some of the experimentation that needed to happen in a way that was lower stakes [for] students.” Gross felt that “the biggest thing is lead up and preparation” that has allowed faculty to feel better equipped for the new instruction format, and Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies Stacy Beckwith agreed that “it was felt that faculty would have more practice from the spring teaching online and all of the summer and all of the workshops and all the training.”

Many students feel quite differently, however. Cota countered: “The idea that we’re more comfortable with Zoom [classes] when Zoom fatigue is still a thing… is just kind of ignoring the fact that we still have to worry about COVID-19.” They also pointed out that even for students on campus, many classes are still virtual and “they can go to these spaces to study, but at the same time [they] risk COVID.” 

Majumdar, who is studying off-campus this term “due to concern for my own safety and general moral qualms about colleges across the nation bringing back millions of students when cases are only going up,” agreed that “being completely remote remains difficult when I don’t have access to on-campus resources like computer labs and printers.”

Cota is studying remotely this term, as they were in the spring. They told The Carletonian, “I don’t feel any more adept at Zoom than I did in spring. I don’t know where that’s coming from.” 

As for the issues of equity that the faculty and administrators cited as a main reason for the mandatory scrunch system in the spring, many students are quick to point out that in many ways these issues are no better—likely even worse—than they were earlier in the pandemic. “There are still students at home,” Dominguez said, and “a lot of students at home… are trying to save money, because it’s an aspect of being a low-income student.” 

Estill agreed that “it’s definitely an issue of equity,” saying she has students in her classes who have told her that  they are working 30-40 hours in addition to their studies. “How is that going to lead to equitable outcomes?” she asked. 

In the spring, Cota said, “it was very difficult because I was living at home with my parents and being at home is very hard for me both because of my gender and sexuality and also being the oldest child. I had to basically help my siblings with their homework and do all the duties that a parent does in the house because both my parents work full time, and so I was just having to be in charge of almost every single duty in the house and still go to Zoom and still do all these assignments that I normally would struggle to do if we were on campus.” 

Regarding the political and social upheaval that has distracted many students from academics since the end of Spring Term, Majumdar stated, “I’m doing my best to ground my activism in my academics, but there’s so much work to be done outside the classroom at this time, it honestly feels weird to have to worry about my grades on top of it.”

Nonetheless, some faculty and administrators justify the return to letter grading because while some inequities remain, others have been at least partially remedied. Referring to the computers and other technology support that ITS shipped out to students for the Spring and Fall Terms, Shuffelton stated, “The Spring gave us the chance to try to address some of those issues [of equity].” 

He made it clear that he understood that Carleton did not solve all these problems, but “if the single biggest reason that faculty were supporting the idea of mandatory scrunch didn’t seem like such a concern,” it felt fitting to him to return to standard grading. “And again,” he reiterated, “I’m not claiming, and no one’s claiming, that we’ve solved the problems of equity of access and equity of education, but they look a little different in the fall than they did [in the spring].” 

Nagel viewed the reopening of campus as a sufficient remedy to the varied issues of inequity that students faced in the spring, explaining, “We hope that for some of those students, they’ve been able to return to campus… That doesn’t mean that all the issues have gone away, certainly concerns about family, financial concerns, those sorts of things aren’t going to go away simply because somebody is here on campus rather than at home.” 

One argument against a mandatory scrunch policy in both the spring and the fall was that the inequities spotlighted by the global pandemic were in fact already existent and therefore did not require any special measures. In the March 30 ECC discussion of grading options for Spring Term, “Conversation turned briefly to note that students have these equity challenges during regular-term courses as well, with some expressing that we should allow the standard mechanisms we have in place, such as leaves of absence and extensions, continue to serve their purpose instead of mandatory S/Cr/NC,” as recorded in the minutes. 

Nagel told The Carletonian that “the pandemic may have exacerbated some of those issues [of equity], but things like financial stress… are always sources of inequity and always concerns.”

“There are certainly equity issues, and some of those exist always and are exacerbated now,” Nagel said. 

Additionally, while some professors are practicing “compassionate grading” or adopting alternative grading systems, others have reportedly made no changes to their pre-pandemic standards. Cota, for instance, had a professor in the spring who required A-minus work to pass the course, and has professors now who feel they have “already made the course easier, so if you’re struggling now, maybe you should have taken a term off, which is not an option when you’re first generation low-income.” 

According to the June 3, 2020 ECC minutes, one student ECC member reported that she “has heard from peers that faculty are not responding according to their needs, and that it seems faculty have total freedom to do so. She was concerned about students needing accommodations from their faculty and not receiving that support.” The student felt that it was not enough for professors to tell their students that they care about them and their wellbeing, but that “there was a need to hear steps that are more actionable,” the minutes read.

Majumdar added, “We’re continuing to trudge on through a dreadful time. It’s difficult to be a college student and it’s difficult to be a person right now. I don’t think the prospect of getting a couple P’s on a transcript during a public health crisis and a time of political upheaval should be more controversial than the fact that we’re trying to pretend that things are heading back to normal.”

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