To whom it may concern: our concern
Letter to the Editor | Friday, October 30, 2020
I am writing to make an appeal on behalf of the student body for our well-being in great concern for our health.
I believe I need not mention the uncertainty of this semester and how the pandemic has affected all of our lives in ways we previously could not possibly fathom. We are reminded of the pandemic’s insurmountable effects through the record-breaking statistics on contamination and deaths; the sobering reminder that the coming months will not return us to what we called “normal” but further from it, lingers. Even more, we are reminded in our daily lives that the normal college experience has ceased to exist.
As the Notre Dame community, we have made valiant sacrifices and adapted to stay HERE. As much as we are grateful for the opportunity to come together, the necessary changes to the semester, campus and life have come at the expense of our well-being. Administrative efforts should thus adapt with the student body to meet our new needs. This involves creating a structured plan to reduce current burnout prior to the finals week, as well as creating an option for pass-fail grading for the semester.
A recent email from Provost Miranda to faculty addressed what the students have been feeling since August 10th — “In a recent survey by the McDonald Center for Student Well-Being, over 50% of Notre Dame students fall into the category of serious distress.”
Firstly, it is disappointing that we, those surveyed, did not receive direct communication about these results nor were we consulted about possible changes to help address this mental health epidemic on our campus.
While the informal requests made to professors to lighten the coursework are commendable, they are insufficient to address the extent of this grave issue. Furthermore, many professors have not made any changes to the class structure or expectations.
Relatedly, the initiative of Restoration Week did not decrease student distress. From my own experience and that of my peers, with no changes in academic requirements during that time, many could not attend the “relaxation activities” and it did not feel like a week different from that of midterms. In fact, many of my peers were not even aware that it was Restoration Week.
Furthermore, many of the students are concerned about the impact of the pandemic in their personal or familial lives, which in turn, impacts their well-being and academic performance. This includes travel bans, worry over importing the virus home and fear over family members in at-risk groups. I speak from experience when I speak of significantly heightened anxiety over a family member being hospitalized in a foreign country with COVID-19.
We fully understand that having a traditional fall break would introduce significant risk to our community. As noted, things have indeed significantly changed this semester.
A solution that could have been discussed — and can still be discussed — is having a period of three or four weekdays in which students are still expected to attend classes, but are not assigned homework or examinations. This would allow for those who have fallen behind due to the pandemic’s mental health implications to catch up on their work and rest prior to the last round of midterms and finals. It would also impede travel.
In a letter from the Office of the Provost in the spring semester of 2020, Jolene Bilinski said that “due to significant alterations to the manner in which classes were taught and course content delivered in this distance learning environment, the University understood that the grading mechanisms utilized by faculty would, for many students, no longer measure or reflect their knowledge of or familiarity with the course content as much as the level of disruption they experienced.”
While we have had access to in-person classes this semester, their structure has been significantly different from that of previous years, where the traditional model of grading was a good reflection of a student’s mastery of the content delivered.
There is, furthermore, a disproportionate ratio of in-person versus remote classes between different grade levels, colleges and majors, in which certain groups of students receive more face-to-face instruction. This discrepancy impedes equitable teaching and grading conditions which would otherwise make the established grading policy a fair assessment for all undergraduates.
Furthermore, some students did not knowingly sign up to take certain classes online, but upon arrival on campus discovered that all in-person sections for the same course were full. This is especially complicated — during the online spring semester, students were able to discover what format bests suited their learning for each subject. However, despite section-by-section differences in course delivery within the same course, testing expectations have remained the same. If equality in a class’ instruction cannot be guaranteed even within individual sections, how can grading possibly be just across all credits under the existing grading policy?
Divergences in instruction throughout the University, coupled with the new course delivery methods, reflect, as stated in the quote above, how traditional grading cannot accurately assess a student’s knowledge of the given material.
In regard to the grading policy, it should also be noted that the interruption to teaching, which occurred at the beginning of the semester, along with the quarantine of 10.42% of the undergraduate population, as one in 10 students have tested positive for coronavirus. (This is based only on positive undergraduate cases as of October 26, and does not include students quarantined as a precautionary measure). These numbers have caused great disruptions in learning, consequently affecting student academic outcomes.
As petitioned by the student body, the desire is not to make pass-fail compulsory to all students. Rather, the goal is to make it an option for those who have been significantly impacted by the pandemic knowing that the traditional grading policies, as established in the handbook, no longer serve as a true reflection of their mastery of course content. On the transcript, the University would note that each student was given the option to declare pass-fail, leaving it up to each student to justify their individual needs and reasons for choosing that system.
Given the current pandemic, graduate schools and employers will also need to adapt as many other top tier schools have declared pass-fail options for students. Thus, the pass-fail system will not put Notre Dame students at a disadvantage. They expect changes in grading systems and teaching mediums. This is especially true given there is no single instruction or grading model at the moment in the United States to set a standard for candidate comparison. There are only different adaptations of the teaching and grading systems.
Let us not forget the meaning behind our education in this institution as provided by Blessed Basil Moreau: “We shall always place education side by side with instruction; the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart.”
During these extremely challenging times, to educate the heart and spirit, adaptations to the traditional instruction model and grading policy must be made. We cannot catalyze change through instruction alone.
Mind, body, zeal, family and hope. The pillars of Christian education have never been more relevant to the Notre Dame family than during this crisis.
Notre Dame is truly making history this semester, but let us go further.
Let us not only write the greatest comeback in our University’s history, but a story of compassion, unity and understanding. Let us serve as global leaders in demonstrating that by choosing to care for our community and its well-being rather than upholding unattainable grading goals, we are stronger and can inspire greater change.
Gabriela Queiroz Miranda
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.