Opinion: The case for pass/fail, and everything else the university should do

Caleb Owens lays out four steps the university can take amid the pandemic.

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Jessica Leibman/THE REVIEW

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I can hardly imagine that I’m the only person who feels insulted at the every mention of “e-learning.”

This cannot work, and is not only practically burdensome, but also conceptually incoherent. Whatever will be taking place over “Zoom” cannot and will not be “learning.”

And as the world remains in endless, increasing flux, as students are confined to their homes, as resources — books, printers, etc. — remain inaccessible to many, there is no sense whatsoever in even attempting to resume classes at the end of next week under the usual rules.

Of course, the semester cannot simply end, and we must make do as well as we can. Here’s what Caleb prescribes for the pandemic:

1. Restore the Drop/Add Period for a Week

There are many — seniors, especially —currently enrolled in courses that do not count toward degrees, there simply to learn, and these most certainly are not courses that were enrolled in under the presumption of a pandemic. Whatever benefits might have been gleaned from these classes will not be retained in the digital transition, and the extra work required to maintain good standing in the course simply won’t make sense.

Others have more pressing worries, enrolled in courses — lab requirements, seminars for degrees and so on — that they should retain the opportunity to complete but should not be forced to, at least under these conditions. They ought to be able to postpone these vital components of their education and degrees until a later date, when everything vital about them might be restored.

Of course, students might still do all of this, but it will require one of those forbidden “W’s,” and also a decade spent explaining transcripts to graduate schools and prospective employers.

The policy here is clear: Restore the drop/add.

2. Make Everything Pass/Fail

Many are returning home to places that are not conducive to learning. This may range from loud siblings, to abusive or otherwise unhelpful parents to, for our many New Yorkers especially, the coronavirus itself.

Even in situations less severe, the resources and conditions presupposed in every syllabus requirement and every grading scale — places to study and eat, an overall climate that seeks to catalyze learning and alleviate pressures already inherent to college life — will be absent, and the quality of everyone’s education will inevitably plummet.

No doubt, there is still something to be learned in every course, even if digitized. We still must be students, and faculty must still teach. And there are, of course, alternatives, although they come at the risk of complete arbitrariness. Professors may, for instance, be instructed to be “lenient” with standards, an instruction left to their trademark radical subjectivity in understanding and interpreting everything. This might mean nothing — students, under these suboptimal conditions, might still be held to the same standards as before, which will in this context be unreasonable.

Alternatively, A’s in some courses might be distributed too easily, resulting in rampant grade inflation.

This might be avoided with a pass/fail policy. It will allow seniors to graduate unscathed, and standardize everything in a manner that is fair and practicable.

3. Make Winter Session Free

There are, of course, students — underclassmen, chiefly — who might have been counting on this semester to boost their GPAs, or getting certain experiences out of certain classes, and needed this semester badly.

For them, and for others, the university should make next year’s Winter Session free.

That this even needs to be proposed — i.e., that Winter Session wasn’t always “free,” or built into the base tuition rate — reveals yet another absurdity about this institution illuminated by the crisis. But this aside, students should be able to take classes for credit next winter at no additional charge, should they so choose.

This will, of course, offer an opportunity to do the above-noted GPA-redeeming, if desired, but will also allow students seeking the classroom experience they signed up for to receive it, just at a later date.

I’ll make no mention of refunds here, but those deserve serious, if less immediate, attention, too.

4. Raise Hell

We students have much, much more power to pressure this administration than most of us realize. As paying customers, far outnumbering the offices in Hullihen and indeed funding them, student demands ought to be taken seriously, and so serious pressure ought to be applied to Hullihen to implement reasonable policies that can only work to the student benefit, at no detriment whatsoever to the university.

But an op-ed alone won’t do it. Make this crabby columnist’s dreams come true and make these policies happen with a show of collective, ground-up force.

Make this administration concede to the student-led, democratic decision-making it has so long sought to suppress.

Caleb Owens is the current Development Officer and former Editor in Chief of The Review. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Review’s staff. Caleb can be reached at calowens@udel.edu.

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