Faculty votes to maintain current grading system

Alissa Antilla, Editor-in-Chief

After much discussion and debate surrounding the fate of Whitman College’s grading system during the COVID-19 pandemic and online distance-learning, the faculty has come to a decision.

In short, the grading system will remain in its traditional A, B, C, D, F form.

According to Faculty Chair and Professor of Mathematics Barry Balof, the faculty originally discussed a motion for a universal Pass/Fail system for the spring of 2020, meaning that letter grades would be replaced by a P or an F on a transcript.

With further discussion, the motion was amended to a universal A/B/F motion, meaning that students would either receive an A, B or F in their courses for the semester. 

“Strong arguments were made both for and against the motion on both the Faculty list-serve and the special Canvas site set up for the meeting,” Balof said in an email to The Wire. “Ultimately, the motion did not pass.” 

“It was not an easy decision for the faculty to make,” Associate Professor of History Lynn Sharp, who is also a member of the Board of Review, said. 

“One of the things that we talked about during our discussion – which was quite extensive – was, you know, basically trying to figure out what is best for the students,” she added. “That was what was at the base of everything.”

Many students had hoped that faculty would adopt a A, A-, F grading system. The Associated Students of Whitman College (ASWC) circulated a petition calling for an A, A-, F system as the most equitable approach. The petition ultimately garnered 944 signatures, 923 of which were student signatures and 21 of which were faculty.

Arthur G. Rempel Professor of Biology and Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology (BBMB) Program Director Dan Vernon was not in favor of the proposed A, A-, F grading system. In an email to The Wire, Vernon explained why he held this perspective. 

“Several things: 1) It would hurt both teaching and learnage: some faculty wouldn’t take their grading seriously, and some students would drop the academic ball. 2) Potentially it could have had the unintended consequence of driving up the number of F grades this semester (if faculty were not comfortable giving A’s to students who otherwise would have C or D grades). 3) I really didn’t like the idea of others dictating to me how to assess academic performance in my classes. 4) This wasn’t a deciding factor for me, but at some level it must have influenced my decision: the A/A-/F proposal struck me as a really entitled request,” Vernon said in his email. 

In faculty discussion, Sharp noticed that many professors wanted to maintain their own autonomy when it came to grading, showing resistance towards a mandatory grading system as a result. 

“Grading is a faculty’s prerogative and a lot of people feel very protective of their classes and of their autonomy in their classroom, and that of course includes grading,” Sharp said. 

Sharp also got the impression that professors did not want to devalue the weight of an A by adopting this new grading system. 

“You know what, we’re professors and we value that A, and we know that students value that A, or some students really value that A,” she said. 

Vernon, on the other hand, was concerned that changing the grading system would elevate the idea of grades in the eyes of students. 

“Changing the grading system would send the message that grades are more meaningful and important than they are,” Vernon said. “Grades are not some sort of permanent, scarring ordeal: each grade in each class is just a reflection of how a student did on a few assessments over the course of a semester, in that class. That’s it. A grade isn’t a judgement on intelligence or a final statement on ability or potential.”

Many different grading systems were taken into account in faculty discussion. Vernon supported the P/D/F system while Sharp favored the A/B/F system. 

“I thought that the A/B/F allowed the most space for equality, taking into account, you know, [the fact that] I have students who have gone back to work full-time because their families have lost jobs,” Sharp said. “Obviously, they’re not doing as well as the students who are sitting in their own houses in Walla Walla with all their friends and just doing schoolwork.” 

“And I wanted it to be required because I think that we all like to think we know what’s best for our students and we are all able to be empathetic and see, but studies show that that’s not always the case,” she added. “We all have blindspots, or our students don’t tell us, because they’re too private, or proud, or ashamed, or whatever, to share with us their individual situations. And I don’t think that they should have to.”

On the other hand, Vernon argued that the P/D/F system would be a better way of getting at the issue of equality that professors had mentioned. 

Additionally, Vernon asserted that a shift in the grading system is not particularly necessary during online distance-learning. 

“I think there were good reasons to shift the system and good reasons not too,” Vernon said. ”For students, criticism and grading is (or can be) an important aspect of learning: it can serve as an external indication of how thoroughly one understands material and/or how effectively one is communicating that understanding. For many students grading provides another incentive to take their academic efforts up a notch or two.”

When it came down to the final vote, Vernon opted for the grading system as is. 

For one, Vernon stated that academics occur within the context of life. He believes that every semester brings challenges – pandemic or not – and faculty should always be mindful of individual difficulties that occur. 

This virus has changed the landscape of difficulty for individuals, but in the end, [the fact that challenges always occur] is still true,” Vernon said. 

Vernon also mentioned that the fact that Whitman allowed students to stay on campus influenced his decision, stating that remaining on campus gave them access to Whitman internet and allowed them to maintain contact with peers. 

Despite the grading system remaining as is for the semester, Balof said that the Board of Review and faculty “have made other strides to recognize that this semester is unique.” 

For one, the P/D/F – Pass, D or Fail – policy has become more lax for the semester. 

Typically, students have to opt for the P/D/F option by mid-April. According to an email sent by Registrar Stacey Giusti to Whitman students, for this semester, students can still elect the P/D/F option after they have seen their grades – up until the second week of fall semester classes for first-years, sophomores and juniors, and until June 3 for seniors. 

Additionally, the P/D/F option usually does not count towards the General Studies Program – which includes distribution, Encounters and RWPD 170 – or major or minor credit. However, according to the email, the P/D/F option will now count towards the General Studies Program and most courses in the major or minor, unless the student receives an F in the course. 

Balof said that the Board of Review and faculty members are encouraging students to communicate with their own professors about what grading will look like in each particular course. Each individual professor still has control over how they will assign grades for the semester, so some may opt for their own grading system during this time. 

“It’s not like me to say anything positive, ever, about anything … but I like the route Whitman ended up taking: students were permitted to stay on campus,” Vernon said. “The option to choose PDF was extended substantially: students can choose the P/F (or W?) option even after they hear about their grades. If I knew what kudos were, I’d offer them to whoever ended up making those decisions.”

The full list of temporary grading procedures for the spring of 2020 is located on the Registrar’s Office page within the Whitman College website.