A for All (Yes, All!): Transforming Grading during COVID-19

  • by Jesse Goldberg, Jane Guskin, Vani Kannan, Marianne Madoré, Conor Tomás Reed, and Dhipinder Walia
Pete Railand, Justseeds.org

In this incomparably difficult time of a global health crisis, we strongly urge all faculty to adopt a universal “A for All” policy on every campus, in every class. Students and educators alike are coping with COVID-19, family responsibilities, food insecurity, housing insecurity, income insecurity, and lack of access to childcare, not to mention ICE deportations and racial profiling. Many students are essential workers. The additional stress of grades threatens not only students’ GPAs but their immune systems, too.

An “A for All” policy has the potential to reshape our classroom dynamics, opening up space to explore what an education means in a public health crisis. Students did not prepare to distance-learn during a pandemic, nor did many of us sign up to teach online under these conditions. Emergency online instruction compounds already-existing inequalities. Without campus resources readily available, students and educators alike have differential access to computers, WiFi, physical course materials such as books, and even time in the day.

For this reason, for both faculty and students’ benefit, we hold that a universal “A for All” policy should be combined with a reduced workload. Some faculty have misrecognized their students’ schedules as more flexible, and have increased assignments, readings, and group projects. This piles unreasonable hardship onto already burdened students. We urge faculty to aim for essential rather than comprehensive materials. Reducing students’ workloads means reducing our own workloads too, since many of us are also facing new realities: illness, family obligations, mental health sensitivities, mutual aid work in our communities, and more.

While we may be reticent to tell our classes that everyone will get an “A” and that the syllabus work is optional, this gesture encourages us to cultivate intrinsic motivation to engage with the course materials. We have a historic opportunity to grow beyond familiar canons to focus on how this social pandemic offers a pedagogical moment with an explosion of new primary sources to reflect upon. Countless emerging scientific studies, sociological surveys, poetry, and personal testimonies can become our collective COVID-19 curricula.

In one Brooklyn College American Studies survey class, an original theme on Japanese American internment during World War II became converted into a dialogue on the racialization of contagion (political, health, and otherwise). In a Lehman College English class, student zine projects about higher education became fundamentally reimagined to address survival. In a Global Studies class elsewhere at the City University of New York (CUNY), a section on the NYC-based campaign against Amazon HQ2 now focuses on the “Amazonification” of the COVID-19 crisis — how online orders have surged, delivery workers are not protected, and resistance is rising in Chicago and Staten Island.

Even just talking with students about an A for All policy can shift power dynamics in the virtual classroom and lead to deeper learning. Some educators may find it unfair to students who work hard if everyone gets an A, or may see their subject areas as less well suited to an abandonment of traditional assessment tools. A Pass/Fail provision has been adopted at several Ivy League schools, while CUNY has expanded students’ ability to file for credit/no-credit options and course withdrawals after seeing their final grades, and transcripts will include a note indicating that these courses were taken during the COVID-19 crisis. While these moves provide students with positive options for protecting their GPAs, they follow a similar punitive logic as the A-F grading system and still carry a potential threat that can provoke anxiety and hinder students’ intellectual focus.

Indeed, the crises of social inequities revealed by mandatory distance-learning has been cast into further and further stark relief with each new school week. Mid-March calls for a Pass/Fail policy have morphed to re-assess online learning practices, then to “add compassion to our online curriculum,” and now in mid-April to demand free college altogether in a “radical reorganization” of higher education as we know it. We welcome these calls for fundamental changes. We can take ourselves up on a lesson we teach all of our students, across disciplinary divides: see this as an opportunity to revise, rather than merely do patchwork editing, and imagine anew the ways that we value not just certifications and assess accreditation, but the role of education as a healing public good.

An “A for All” policy is not charity, but a step towards relinquishing institutional impulses to impose order and control in the face of crisis. Our orientations towards education, and our students’ futures, must transform in relation to the world we now inhabit. With unemployment predicted to soon exceed 20%, what does it mean to reproduce the meritocratic logic of college-as-job-preparation? At a time when hospital workers are walking out to protest a lack of personal protective equipment, what kinds of communicative skills are most urgently needed?

In the long run, an “A for All” policy encourages us to shift towards narrative evaluations, labor-based grading contracts, and other approaches that offer a holistic assessment of students’ growth across a semester. Indeed, the differential access to resources is not new under COVID-19. In what sense then have our “fair” grading practices always upheld systems of oppression? “A for All” offers an organizing threshold from which to demand larger redistributive gains in universities — for example, that our educational institutions fund students’ housing, healthcare, food, childcare, and learning resources and provide a living wage for adjunct instructors and all campus workers. This is a time to nurture and fight for transformative visions for our educational institutions — from solidarity with essential workers to justice for undocumented students and workers — when we re-converge on our physical campuses.

While the federal government and stock market implore us to imitate life as usual, three-fourths of all people in the United States are now quarantined at home. While college administrators hastily roll out “educational equity” initiatives, we educators see that in the throes of a global pandemic, grades will worsen existing educational inequities. An “A for All” policy recognizes that life is not usual, the stakes are different this time around, and so we’re grading accordingly. We have the power to re-shape our institutions. In this otherwise harrowing moment, “A for All” can inspire a wave of educational reinvention and hope.

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