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Op-eds, Opinions

Javaheri ’20: Against mandatory S/NC — why choice matters

By
Op-ed contributor
Tuesday, March 24, 2020

In recent days, there has been a call for all courses to switch to mandatory S/NC grading as a measure to “achieve real equality,” claiming that the loss of our on-campus community and access to resources necessitates the implementation of a forced pass/fail semester. As a student who is on full financial aid, comes from an abusive home and requires an income from the University for my continued well-being, I identify with the label of “less privileged.” Nevertheless, I would like to plead to the administration: Please do not force students to take all their classes S/NC this semester. Mandatory S/NC will not “level the playing field,” and it will not uniformly benefit disadvantaged students, as some in favor of the policy assert. 

While Brown should take action to ensure that students have access to the resources they need to succeed and urge professors to be more understanding with their accommodations and grading policies, instituting mandatory S/NC would overstep personal boundaries and hurt many of the students who proponents claim it would help. Extending the grade option deadline would be a more equitable way to ensure that all students can choose to complete this semester in the manner that best suits their individual needs.

Despite its intention to “help” students, a mandatory S/NC policy would be detrimental for a variety of reasons. First, such a policy could place many students at a considerable disadvantage after leaving Brown. Some postgraduate opportunities place strict requirements on graded coursework. For example, the patent bar exam, which enables lawyers to represent clients before the U.S. Patent Office, explicitly requires applicants to have taken a minimum number of STEM courses for letter-grades. Any graduating seniors currently working toward such requirements would be compromised by a mandatory S/NC policy and would be forced to take additional courses post-graduation to remain eligible, disproportionately hurting low-income students. Similarly, although professional programs will likely employ flexibility in evaluating applicants in the coming years, there is no guarantee that they will all accept decisions to institute a mandatory pass/fail policy. Any students taking required courses may be forced to take additional coursework to obtain letter-grades in the future, which may pose a significant unanticipated financial burden that could be avoided with optional S/NC. 

Second, students who have previously experienced extenuating circumstances that adversely impacted their ability to succeed academically would be disproportionately harmed by a mandatory policy for this semester — among these are many “less privileged” students whom this measure would purportedly protect. Students have endured other semesters in which they were ill; food or housing insecure; struggling with family emergencies or loss or needing to work extensive hours to support themselves or others. In fact, for many students, this may be the first semester in which they are receiving grades that are truly representative of their abilities — or receiving letter-grades at all. It is simply not true that all students would be “equally affected” by a mandatory S/NC policy. Some may lose out on grades that they need and will instead be judged by employers or programs — many of which have certain letter-based GPA requirements — solely on prior semesters in which they encountered other difficulties that adversely impacted their academic performance at the time or that forced them to select the S/NC option when their peers didn’t have to. 

To put it more directly: This pandemic is not the first extenuating circumstance that has impacted the ability of many students to demonstrate their academic potential. In the same vein, a mandatory S/NC policy would not necessarily mitigate “academic disruption and assessment-related anxiety;” it could just as easily create new worries for students who would no longer be able to use this semester to balance out the negative impact of significant life challenges in prior semesters. 

Another prominent argument in favor of mandatory S/NC is that other colleges have instituted a mandatory pass/fail policy. But Brown’s regular grading schemes are unique, and policies deemed appropriate for other schools may not necessarily be well-suited to our system. Even if Brown were to take direction from others, it can be seen that optional pass/fail policies significantly outnumber mandatory pass/fail policies. Regardless, Brown’s decision on grading policies for this semester should not be based on the actions of other colleges.

Additionally, a mandatory S/NC policy is not needed to overcome some of the concerns my peers raise regarding the transition to virtual learning and support. 

Many have argued that mandatory S/NC will address the concern that some courses will not transition well to online learning. Though courses will obviously have to change to accommodate a virtual setting, Brown has successfully offered many classes online in previous semesters. Professors are also actively receiving training to employ Canvas, Piazza, Zoom, Panopto, etc. to best facilitate their individual teaching styles, and many have expressed willingness to accommodate students who may live in different time zones or have decreased access to online resources at home. 

Faculty who sincerely believe that they will not be able to fairly evaluate students as a result of their course transitioning online should be given the option to institute mandatory S/NC for their course(s) only. Otherwise, the University should mandate that classes be recorded and evaluated in alternative ways for students facing time zone differences and other barriers to attending class. Similarly, students whose ability to complete coursework is adversely impacted should be given the option to change individual classes to S/NC if they wish, and be able to arrange accommodations with their professors and the College to enable them to still receive a letter-grade if they choose. If a student must work, serve as a caretaker or cannot access the internet at home, they would be better served by receiving accommodations which could include extension of deadlines and flexible evaluation procedures, rather than by being forced to take all of their classes S/NC regardless of their preferences. Encouraging faculty to accommodate student needs would be the most equitable solution and give students the autonomy to chart their own paths for success. 

Those in favor of mandatory S/NC have also asserted that the “loss” of critical services necessitates the adoption of a forced pass/fail policy. However, Brown has made significant efforts to ensure these support systems remain operational and accessible as we transition online. Students will still have access to almost all resources that could have been compromised when campus shut down, including CAPS, deans, tutoring programs, TA hours, the UFLi Center and the Writing Center, among others

Lastly: “Less privileged students” are not a monolith, nor are they to be considered only when it is convenient for others. It is unlikely that any one grading option will satisfy all students, but to say that Brown should institute a mandatory S/NC policy because it will “help” all the “less privileged students” is disingenuous and invalidates the voices of those who are staunchly opposed to a forced pass/fail policy because they cannot afford to take a full semester with only “pass” grades. Not having to worry about securing letter-grades is a privilege in itself. I empathize with all my fellow students; these are uncertain and frightening times to which we are still struggling to readjust. But any opinions on either side should be formulated from one’s own experience, and no one should speak on behalf of a different community or group of students. To put it simply: Some “less privileged students” are for a mandatory S/NC policy and some are not, for any number of reasons.

This pandemic has already compromised the financial, physical, emotional, mental, social and familial well-being of so many individuals, and the appropriate course of action that will most likely benefit the greatest number of students is to allow students to make decisions tailored to their individual needs. Education at Brown has always focused on individual choice and collaboration between students and professors. To best facilitate learning under these unique circumstances, we should ensure that resources remain accessible to all students, encourage empathy from (and for!) professors and allow students to continue to choose the path of their own education by extending the S/NC deadline. Please show your support by signing this petition to the University as they move toward a decision in the coming days.

Aryana Javaheri ’20 can be reached at aryana_javaheri@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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One Comment

  1. Couching this selfish, asinine position in the rhetoric of the reproductive rights debate is disingenuous and wrong. Do better.

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