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Back-to-School Dilemmas for Educators

Personal Perspective: How to maintain rigor at Pandemic U.

Key points

  • The pandemic has created new challenges for educators.
  • Maintaining rigor, even during the pandemic, is essential for the integrity of the academic enterprise.
  • There is a connection between upholding standards for students and the self-care of educators.

If you’ve followed discussions on social media about pandemic pedagogy this past year, you’ve seen conversations about how much to uphold pre-COVID standards of rigor and how much to cut students some slack.

Source: Michal Parzuchowski/Unsplash
Source: Michal Parzuchowski/Unsplash

The fact is students may fail—yes, even in a pandemic—and that doesn’t make someone a bad educator. But the current absolutist narrative all over teaching pages is that a person is a complete monster if their students have failed this year. This intersects with a sentiment that has endured nationwide among many parents: that educators have somehow not really been teaching. Of course, ask this of almost any teacher, and they will tell you this continues to be more work than ever.

The shame/blame game toward instructors is real. It turns out that the same shame, blame, and hostility that are imposed on faculty from the outside also persist among other faculty, who deny support to their colleagues for not agreeing with their views about assessing student performance. This can wreak havoc on instructors, piling on more negativity and guilt trips and making people never feel good enough.

Back in March 2020, I was trying to wrap my head around how I would proceed with my classes suddenly shifting to online. I was on the phone one evening with my mother, a former educator who was deeply beloved and respected by students and colleagues. Over my own 26 years of teaching, I have relied on her for feedback and reality checks. This phone call would turn out to be our last one in which she gave me teaching advice, as she died six months later.

I remember saying, “Mom, I just want to say screw it, it’s a pandemic; grades are stupid anyway. Maybe I should just give ’em all A’s. That’s what these students seem to want—it will likely make for better evaluations, and the administration will be happy with this as a move toward retention.”

Even on little sleep, weighing just 85 pounds, at once alternating between too much psychotropic medication and not enough, and with her voice raspy and frail, my mother insisted with great certainty, conviction, and clarity, “Debbie, no, you can’t do that. What about the students who work very hard and do a beautiful job? That’s not fair to them.” I quipped back about how life isn’t fair, and pandemics aren’t fair. As mothers often do, she reeled me back in and prevailed upon me to rethink this.

I’ve come around to her way of thinking, and I’m glad I did.

Assigning A’s to everyone might initially seem like the correct gesture of goodwill at a time of crisis, and it seems woke to all the undercurrents of what people are enduring these days. And at a time when it is on-trend to talk about un-grading, specs grading, labor-based grading, and default grading of B and B-plus, it’s hard to be the one person who’s articulating that the full range of A through F grades may exist for a reason.

I hear about colleagues who refuse to assign grades of D and F and sometimes even the C range, who have no penalties for late work, who allow endless revisions, who will meet their students virtually in the evenings and on weekends, and who readily offer incompletes as a solution—even when a student has done virtually nothing all semester. I hear these colleagues simultaneously complain about how overworked and exhausted they are.

The message is clear: Such educators lack boundaries. The ideology of self-sacrificial parenting has fully infiltrated educational settings and become self-sacrificial teaching. We know no one comes out the winner there, neither children nor parents, and the parents’ intimate relationship or marriage usually is the main casualty.

The same is true for students and educators: no one wins. Like children who can see how to manipulate self-sacrificial parents, so, too, do students learn how to maneuver among educators who are unable to be both gentle and firm. Meanwhile, students also see through the compensatory charades of instructors who do people-pleasing cartwheels, and ultimately, their respect for education—and often the educator—diminishes.

I’ve noticed a significant increase in the number of students who email me, vaguely claiming “confusion” and “stress” about anything and everything. Confusion is frequently code for “I haven’t read the syllabus or the assignment.” When I’ve asked students to explain what they are confused about, they generally respond in a dug-in way: “I don’t know. I’m just confused.” Later, I typically receive an email that shows they finally read the document more carefully and found the answers. I wonder how many professors appropriately dare to put the monkey on the student’s back, encouraging the student to learn how to find it?

Some colleagues believe grading papers for anything but content is racist and classist. They tell me I’m using privilege if I don’t allow for every excuse or if I assign grades that run the gamut of A to F. I teach about issues of oppression and privilege in every course, and it’s the main subject of much of my writing. Yet these days, it seems “privilege” is invoked as a way to dismiss someone we don’t agree with.

Instructors are afraid to stand their ground or say no to students for a variety of reasons. But “no” remains reasonable. It’s not a no of cruelty or preventing someone from achieving their dreams. You can deliver a no gently and firmly and in ways that compassionately confront students, demonstrating for them the integrity of the educational process.

It’s possible to maintain the three-ring circus: 1) to employ pedagogy based on principles of social justice and nurturing a multiplicity of voices; 2) to uphold standards of rigor with a determination of top-notch performance versus what isn’t; and 3) to engage in self-care as educators. That means an ethic of care is directed outwardly toward students and to the enterprise of teaching and learning as well as inwardly toward ourselves as educators.

What my mom was trying to tell me was a reminder to not participate in trends that render teaching an empty charade, reduce its integrity, or devalue it as others outside higher education have done. Hers was a clarion call about remembering education as something sacred.

When I was a little girl running errands with my mother, we routinely ran into former students of hers, even from decades earlier. And they always commented on how hard she was, how far she pushed them, and how much they adored her. Challenging and hard, fair and kind: That, too, is how I’d want my teaching tombstone to read.

Note: A different version of this article was published in Inside Higher Ed on August 25, 2021.