To professors and students alike: please lower your standards
Last week, we urged the administration to grant students academic accommodations in light of the unprecedented era we are existing in. That happened the next day, when the Faculty Senate voted unanimously in favor of a series of motions intended to alleviate the weight of academics on undergraduates this semester, including one that allows students to designate all courses this semester pass/fail. We applaud the administration for taking such an important step in doing right by students as we try to navigate the rest of our semester remotely.
This week, we’re back with another ask: please go easier on us — pass/fail alone is not enough. As shown by Interim Provost Seiichi Matsuda’s earlier mandate that assignment due dates be delayed while students figured out how to transition to remote instruction, the administration has the ability to require — not ask or encourage, but require — that professors lighten their course loads.
To the professors who have already lightened students’ course loads by offering extensions on assignments, making exams open-book and telling students to put in only as much time as they can — we appreciate your efforts, and urge all professors to follow suit. While we appreciate the new optional pass/fail policy, we urge professors to be understanding, because for many students, it isn’t an option to pass/fail any classes regardless of the new policy. Many undergraduates are applying to medical schools that might still require certain courses to be taken without a pass/fail, while others might be applying to competitive graduate school programs. The pressure to perform is still on, with the added and uneven stressors of online education and worries about physical and mental health.
The reality is, with an opt-in pass-fail system, the students with the most privilege — a safe home and stability — will perform better, and the students with the least will be more likely to struggle to pass. And all students are under the duress of a pandemic threat.
Taking college-level classes remotely while a global pandemic unfolds around us is not the same thing as taking classes at Rice — and we shouldn’t treat it as such. Professors need to understand that students are not going to be able to have the same productivity or academic performance as before. An era of social isolation presents an array of obstacles students might not face on campus, from less than ideal time zones to difficult or emotionally abusive relationships at home. The presence of a worldwide crisis surfaces or exacerbates mental health issues for many of us. Even for students who have a healthy life at home and adapt well to online classes, the disruption of the college lifestyle we’re used to will undoubtedly make it more difficult to meet the standards we are typically held to.
If professors do choose to maintain the same level of difficulty in their classes as before students were sent home, we ask them to be upfront about their expectations. Rather than vaguely saying once that they are “here for students” and asking students to reach out with requests, professors should be clear and transparent about what kinds of support or accommodations they are willing to offer so that students have a full understanding of what is expected. Professors should also keep in mind the power dynamic inherent in all student-professor relationships and cannot expect students to respond fully candidly about how they’re doing or what accommodations they might desperately need.
Beyond the virtual classroom, we hope students remember that daily life during a global pandemic is unlike life as we have ever known it. It is not only okay to be overwhelmingly anxious and afraid, it is normal — insofar as anything is normal in this abnormal moment in history. If coping with at-home workout routines and new hobbies helps you, that’s great. But if you don’t feel like all of this supposed newfound “free” time is actually free at all, you should not feel guilty for needing extra time and energy just to get through the day. Right now, everybody has to put in extra effort to take care of themselves and their health, but not everybody’s effort will or should look the same. It’s okay to just do what you need to do to get by. Your productivity, creativity and general ability to function aren’t necessarily going to look the same as they did before, and that is more than okay.
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How should we discuss food, then? I don’t want to be misunderstood as advising against all food-related conversations. I feel quite the opposite: eating is one of humanity’s oldest social rituals. It’s meant to bring us together. We’re at our best when we engage in conversations that center the enjoyment of food rather than its nutritional content.
The first wave of COVID-19 erupted in the U.S. in early 2020. Rice responded quickly: During March 9-15, classes for the week preceding Spring Break were canceled, students were instructed not to return to campus after Spring Break, and instruction after Spring Break was made fully remote. This quick reaction to the pandemic was typical of many organizations and localities all around the country, as it became clear that social distancing was then the only effective way to slow down the spread of the disease. This seems to have worked and, by early May, the first wave was somewhat subsiding. The Rice administration then tasked the Academic Restart Committee with the mission of “Return to Rice.”
To be sure, a poetic analogy between music and our differences will not resolve any issues directly. It can, however, remind us of our shared humanity. It can get us back in touch with our nature as social animals. It is a nature that is often oppressed by the individualism in our capitalistic society that encourages competition, putting too much focus on the dissonances for our own good.