February 7, 2021

BERNSTEIN | A Plea to Professors: Give an A for Participation

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This piece is a plea to professors: Keep the participation grade on your syllabus if you otherwise would, but don’t bother grading it. Give an A. Some of your students need it, all of them deserve it, and it really is your duty to do so.

Entering our third semester of the COVID-19 era and the second of the school year, the most obvious academic takeaway for students and teachers alike is clear: Online school sucks. I know that’s a cold take, but it’s painfully true. Although it has great benefits of spreading information and making an education more accessible, virtual school just can’t compare to the real thing.

You, the Professors, don’t need to hear about the flow of suffering that runs through hours of Zoom class, into Zoom club meetings, into online homeworks or how students barely leave our self-containment-cell rooms except for sustenance and exercise. You’ve heard all about it before.

And you know how draining class can be, regardless of modality. You know that bad grades hang over our heads like guillotines, even now, when surviving a pandemic should wipe away all other concerns.

So I ask you, Professor, with this in mind, to give us a break in the upcoming semester. Do not expect your students to be loud and proud in discussions and come to class ready with extra questions. By showing up to class (even with the camera off!) and by completing assignments, we show our willingness to participate and learn in your class. 

That’s really all it should take. If we’re coming to class and doing work during a pandemic, that is full-on participation. Now, many professors understand that participation really should be a pretty easy A to begin with. This is a place where you can help your students and, after all, what good professor doesn’t want to do that? But it must be said that during a pandemic, no opportunity to help students can be taken lightly. If you can, make it easier for us: Resiliency shouldn’t be a necessity of getting an education. 

Of course, having school during a pandemic is hard for the professors as well. I don’t envy having to teach to a sometimes silent group of sometimes blank squares. I really do believe that all who are able to should keep their cameras on, and I think it’s good when professors encourage students to do so. But I don’t think a student’s grade should suffer at the hand of their camera.

People have bad days and don’t feel active for class. That’s true of any semester but it is especially true now, when we still feel isolated and stressed because of, you know, the global pandemic and societal anxiety. It’s also more true for some than others. There’s not an equal playing field in this game. While all might struggle, some are dealing with more than just Zoom fatigue — illness for themselves or for friends/family, living spaces that are non-conducive to learning, and serious mental health issues.

Professors, just as you should encourage your students to speak up and turn their cameras on if they can, you should also encourage them to avoid doing so if they need to or if it will make their time in your class easier.

The best way to really encourage this is to promise that it simply won’t affect their grade. Our participation as shown by attendance and completed assignments (or even proper communication in lieu of the two) should be good enough.

This really does open up the broader question of academia, which is why do we grade? What is it that grades grade? I feel that the right answer is that a grade is a reflection of how much a student learns. That’s why we’re here, to learn, right? According to its mission statement, Cornell aims to “disseminate knowledge” and “to educate the next generation of global citizens.” 

Maybe grades are arbitrary anyway and everyone should get A’s. I mean who are you (yes, you, Professor) or anyone else to judge how much I or one of my peers have learned? During a pandemic, any amount of learning deserves to be fully rewarded. But the conversation for a Big Red Pass ended last spring, and now students are back once more, as if everything’s normal, starting a semester where grades will drive them insane and the outside world will continue to knock them down.

This semester, don’t brag that it’s impossible to get an A or an A+ in your class. You’re not cooler or smarter for that. You’re really just a prick. Don’t hurt students for being quiet, sleepy, or inactive. Instead, take pride in helping your students more easily get through what is bound to be a difficult semester. Help where it counts: the gradebook.

Daniel Bernstein is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at dgb222@cornell.edu. Feel the Bern runs every other Monday this semester.