Academic Jubilee: The Case for Clemency in a Time of Crisis

This is the first of a planned series by UWM AAUP members and allies about how universities and instructors might respond to the pandemic crisis in our teaching and, in particular, grading.

The practice of jubilee suggests a once-in-a-lifetime clemency for all things: slaves are freed, debts are forgiven, sentences are commuted.  A biblical tradition that has been practiced over time in many different contexts, jubilee may suggest a useful alternative for higher education during our current, extraordinary times.  Specifically, we might pursue a jubilee in terms of grading, and take that pressure off of ourselves and our students.  On my campus, we are beyond the point in the semester where individual students can change their grading options. Therefore, we need broad action on the part of campus administration.

At universities across the country, campuses have been shuttered. Employees are encouraged to work remotely; most if not all courses have been put online.  Feeling pressure to provide the full course experience, instructors not previously inclined to teach full online courses hasten to figure out the intricacies of remote delivery, parsing questions of technology, synchronous or asynchronous delivery, access to internet service for all students.

At the same time, many students must evacuate their living quarters in dorms and apartments, confronting financial, logistical and emotional challenges in doing so. Carefully constructed plans of study seem to evaporate into thin air at the same time that many of our students function as caregivers for relatives.  In light of campus closures, many students lack internet access and will be relegated to figuring out what they can do on their phones.

All of this takes place at a time of unprecedented pressure.  The advent of global pandemic conveys anxiety even for those fortunate enough to be healthy.  Many students and faculty are parents, with kids marooned at home by school closures and social distancing protocols.  And we don’t yet know what the full impact of the pandemic will be on ourselves, our friends, colleagues, students, and academic units.

Academic labor selects for those who tend towards studiousness. Many of us may well find comfort in reading and writing and planning classes. Others find concentration elusive at this time of crisis.  We may urge ourselves and our students to buckle down, thinking we owe it to them and to ourselves to do the best jobs possible with the remainder of the semester, whatever our circumstances or modes of delivery.

It’s worth being mindful that this crisis is just beginning, that we don’t know how we or our students will experience it, and that a little bit of grace goes a long way under fire. Alternate approaches to our teaching may provide some relief for ourselves and our students.  The unprecedentedness of this time, while catastrophic on many levels, also suggests that we reconsider questions of rigor, particular in terms of grading and evaluation.

As Rebecca Barrett-Fox suggests in a widely circulated blog piece: “Don’t do too much. Right now, your students don’t need it. They need time to do the other things they need to do.”

As faculty overhaul courses to put them online, it might be prudent to consider a grading jubilee. One possibility is that students could be offered a pass-fail option. Those who are on track to getting grades they are satisfied with could pursue them; others would be apprised of the minimum standards necessary to complete the class for credit.

Alternately, instructors could implement a “universal pass” option, as Yale University publications have recently endorsed. Students would receive a “P” on their transcripts with an explanation of the context.

The semester we invested in and planned for is effectively over.  While our courses continue during this extraordinary Spring, let’s think about our collective survival.

Rachel Ida Buff, UWM AAUP