• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Grading in a Dangerous Time

Decency and daylight.

April 9, 2020
 
 

 

We all have lyrics that stick with us, for whatever reason.  One of my perennials is from an old Bruce Cockburn song, though I prefer the Barenaked Ladies cover.  The song is “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” but the line that gets me applies to all sorts of situations: 

 

“Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight/

got to kick at the darkness ‘til it bleeds daylight.”

 

There’s a defiance to it.  “Fragile bodies of touch and taste” are stronger than they look.  And they’re strongest together.

 

Our students are fragile, especially now.  Everybody is. It would be easy to try to hide from that, which works until it doesn’t.  Some of us are isolated and lonely. Some are sick. Some are caring for the sick. Some are suddenly trying to teach their children while doing their jobs.  Some lost their jobs. Some are stuck in abusive situations and can’t get out. Some are in mourning already, even as they’re sick themselves.

 

It’s always a good time to recognize our common humanity, but this time is better than most.

 

We can each do that from our own angles, in our own ways.

 

The tools at my disposal -- and only in collaboration with other people -- are pretty specific and limited.  But so are everybody’s.  

 

At my college, we’ve put through a series of changes to our grading policy for the spring.  We’ve moved the ‘withdraw’ date later, so students who are trying to hang in there have more time to see if they can.  We’ve extended the deadline to finish ‘incompletes,’ so students who just have to step away for a while to deal with life, can.  We’ve made a pass/no credit option much more broadly available, so students at their wits’ end don’t have to sweat the difference between a B and a B-minus.  (We’ve collaborated with the other community colleges in the state to push the four-year schools to accept ‘pass’ in transfer, with some apparent success.) We’ve even come up with an “in progress” grade for courses that were paused because students couldn’t finish without coming to campus, and they’ve been prohibited from coming to campus.  We’re turning some of our internal systems upside-down to make this work; I wouldn’t blame the registrar if she holds up a cross and garlic the next time she sees me. But we’re all doing what we can.

 

We’ve loaned the ventilators from our Respiratory Therapy program to a local hospital.  We’ve loaned sewing machines to students in the Fashion program. The college bought 400 laptops, cobbling together money from multiple sources, to lend them out to students who needed them, and have already distributed a bunch of them.  We’ve even loaned laptops to faculty and staff who discovered that the tech they had at home wasn’t capable of doing what needed to be done (or, in some cases, who didn’t have tech at home at all). We’ve helped folks find free wi-fi where they can. 

 

We’ve had some restorative moments of community, too.  Last week we had a retirement celebration for a beloved 29-year employee over Zoom; just seeing all the faces, and hearing everybody laugh, was heartening.  It was a reminder of everyone’s humanity.

 

And yes, we’re distancing.  We don’t have any in-person classes scheduled until July.  I’m hoping that July doesn’t turn out to be too optimistic; we’ll make that call later.

 

Every message to faculty and staff has had the same subtext: we’re all just people, and this is a dark time for all of us.  With every gesture of decency, every recognition of humanity, we kick at the darkness. Sooner or later, it will bleed daylight.  It always does.

 

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