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Friday, May 27, 2022

We endorse the mandatory credit/no credit grading system

<span class="photocreditinline"><a href="">SARAH FAGAN</a></span>

The Campus does not usually publish its editorials on Tuesdays. Today, however, faculty will meet to discuss the motion to enact a mandatory credit/no credit grading system. We wanted to contribute to that discussion, so we are publishing this piece in advance of that meeting.

As a board, we ask that the faculty endorse a mandatory credit/no credit grading policy at their meeting this Friday. For lack of any real finality on the issue up to this point, we feel it is essential to take an unwavering stance on how students will be graded this spring.

More than two-thirds of the way into this semester, students are still unsure how their work will be evaluated. This uncertainty is not only unacceptable — it was also avoidable. We understand that the academic continuity group wanted to make a quick decision about grading in the week following students’ departure from campus, resulting in the initial creation of the opt-in Pass/D/Fail grading policy. Following that announcement, however, student activists created well-researched and widely-circulated platforms, both in favor of and against the opt-in policy (raising, in particular, questions it posed about equitability). 

Those activists brought their platforms to the Student Government Association (SGA), after which the SGA polled the student body on three grading options: a dual A/A- system, universal pass/fail and the existing opt-in policy. These results, which favored the dual A/A- system, ostensibly never made their way to the administration and were never released to the student body (The Campus received a link to a Google Drive folder with the results upon request).

We later learned that, even if the survey had been shared, it would not have added relevance to the debate, as a dual A/A- system does not comply with the terms of Middlebury’s accreditation as a college. In any event, the SGA did not immediately endorse a policy based on those results, though the Senate has since endorsed the mandatory credit/no credit system.

After weeks of debate, the college announced on April 3 that it intended to maintain the original policy, extending the deadline by which students need to declare Pass/D/Fail. The email was clear: discussion appeared closed. And yet, as The Campus reported this past Friday, it is anything but.

We recognize that this debate has been a contentious one, with arguments on both sides meriting careful consideration. That said, we find the sheer amount of waffling — on the part of both administration and faculty — unsettling. We are also disappointed that the SGA survey results further obfuscated the situation by it presenting students an option that was not viable. Because of this confusion, many faculty have voiced feeling that they remain unsure what students really want. 

As students, we are therefore declaring our firm support for the proposal put forth at last Friday’s faculty meeting in favor of a mandatory credit/no credit system.

No matter which option faculty vote for on Friday, some students will be upset. We took a poll within our own editorial board: about 83% of the 29 editors who voted were in favor of a mandatory credit/no credit system, while 17% supported the standing opt-in policy. Although we could not come to a complete consensus as a board, we believe that the credit/no credit system, like the universal pass/fail system proposed by #FairGradesMidd, is a more effective proposal in addressing the systemic inequities associated with remote learning. In the end, our board decided that individual desires to raise GPAs were outweighed by bigger-picture considerations of equitability.

Inequality has always existed at Middlebury, and many low-income and first-generation students are accustomed to working under disproportionally challenging circumstances and expectations. Still, the college provides us all a bed to sleep in, dining halls to eat in, a quiet library to work in. We all operate in the same time zone. Now, even these measures of equity have disappeared so that for many students, the choice between letter grades and pass/fail hinges on systemically-induced circumstances beyond their control. As we pointed out in our last editorial, “optional” doesn’t always mean optional for everyone.

Faculty also brought up at Friday’s meeting that some junior faculty — including those who are maybe pursuing tenure — are also deeply affected by this debate. Pressures from students and peer faculty to dole out good or accurate grades may unnecessarily add to feelings of stress.

We ask members of the faculty to attend the meeting on Tuesday and discuss the proposed credit/no credit system with their colleagues. We also request that you consider providing traditional letter grades for senior work where appropriate. Since these grades determine departmental honors and often play a more crucial role in admission to graduate programs, we think they merit a separate discussion.

But above all, we plead that you make a final decision. The stress and confusion generated by this uncertainty has already impacted students’ mental health and ability to perform in their classes. As Covid-19 evolves, questions will continue to arise that we aren’t able to answer. This should not be one of those questions. 

Editor’s note: Film and Media Cultures Professor Jason Mittell is The Campus’s faculty adviser and was a co-writer on the motion. He was not involved in any way in this editorial discussion.

This editorial represents the opinions of the Middlebury Campus’s editorial board.