Alannah Maynez ’20 wakes up at 8:30 a.m. in Portland, Oregon and makes herself a cup of coffee before she Zooms into her English seminar. The seminar has felt off ever since the pandemic started—–her professor has stopped implementing class plans, and students have started planning the lessons, instead. Alannah is three hours behind her professors in New Haven, so her daily schedule has shifted significantly earlier. She Zooms into a psychology seminar at 10:30 a.m., then “Drugs and Brain Behavior” at 1:00 p.m.. When her classes are over around 2:30, she laces up her sneakers and goes for a run. In the afternoon, she hangs out with her brother, cooks dinner, and FaceTimes with friends on the other coast. Around 9:00 p.m., her mom comes home from her shift as a nurse practitioner, where she has spent the day treating immunocompromised and elderly patients, many of whom are sick with COVID-19. Ten people have died of the virus in one of the facilities she serves. Alannah stays up to chat with her mom about her day before going to bed. She says, “When I was at school all I would do is study. Now I don’t study that much. There’s just a lot of stuff going on at home.”
A few hours after Alannah, in a different time zone, Abey Philip wakes up in Louisville, Kentucky. His mother, also a nurse, returns home at 8:30 a.m. from her night shift at Baptist Health, the same night shift she’s been working for sixteen years. She works on an all-COVID floor now. The hospital only allows her to check out two face masks for each twelve-hour shift, a rule that leaves her without necessary protection for much of her time at the hospital. In the morning, Abey does some homework, says hi to his mom, and then Zooms into L3 Spanish at 10:30 a.m.. Afterwards, he cooks himself some lunch, and spends the afternoon doing schoolwork. Then, he laces up his shoes and heads for the park he’s been visiting since childhood. His mom leaves for the hospital again around 6:10 p.m., and Abey settles down for the night to finish his homework. The night before we talked, he’d stayed up until midnight to turn in a paper due the next day. “But if push comes to shove, and I sat down and talked to my mom and grandparents and we were about to watch a Bollywood movie, I would skip a seminar. In a heartbeat,” he says. “At this point, when everyone is so stressed, the times we can spend together as a community and as a family are really important.”
Alannah and Abey are worrying about the same things: their mothers, who are both working as nurses, and their grandparents and siblings, who they take care of at home. Both of them told me they’re most worried about those who are more vulnerable right now. Alannah worries about the workers who are on temporary contracts and don’t have paid time off, like some dining hall workers and facilities staff. Abey worries about students, specifically those from rural areas and first generation or low-income backgrounds, who are navigating financial uncertainty and other barriers to online classes, like issues with internet access.
They’re both coping with life during a global pandemic. And yet, they’ve found themselves on opposite sides of a divisive issue—how they should be graded on schoolwork during this crisis. Lurking within this question, another, quieter debate has emerged around grades themselves: what do grades measure? And do they reflect our achievements equally, even when we’re on campus?
On April 7, Dean Marvin Chun announced that all Yale College classes would be graded on a Pass/Fail basis for the spring semester of 2020. His announcement arrived after three weeks of contentious debate, throughout which students’ concerns unfolded into a full-fledged movement called No Fail Yale. Abey was one of the organizers of this movement, which advocated for a Universal Pass grading policy. Under Universal Pass, all Yale students would earn a grade of “P” on their Spring 2020 transcripts.
Alannah doesn’t agree. She’s concerned that the movement misrepresented the interests of marginalized communities and feels disappointed that students are spending so much time talking about grades. “This is literally a debate over, like, marks on a transcript,” she said. Instead of the debate around Universal Pass, she wishes students were spending more time pushing Yale to support the other members of our community—casual workers especially—who have been impacted by the pandemic.
The No Fail Yale movement emerged from inequities within the student body that arose in the wake of COVID-19. Organizers acknowledged that students have different kinds of access to resources like Wi-Fi, free time, and quiet study spaces wherever they’re sheltering-in-place, and that these differences impact students’ focus on schoolwork––and, ultimately, their grades. Their goal was to ensure that no Yalies are penalized academically for circumstances beyond their control when they’re home. But students’ removal from Yale calls into question the differences in resources that have existed on campus all along. No Fail Yale encourages us to ask: have grades ever evaluated us equitably?
Central to that question is another one of equal importance: what is a grade, really? The first recorded grades in the United States were given out at Yale, in the form of a diary entry by Ezra Stiles, the seventh president of Yale College. He evaluated the fifty-eight seniors graduating in the class of 1785, recording “Twenty Optimi, sixteen second Optimi, twelve Inferiores (Boni), ten Perjores,” based on public and private displays of knowledge. For Stiles, grading was a personal practice—a record of his interpretation of how well students were displaying what they learned on campus. This impulse to rank students against one another based on their demonstration of knowledge remained salient, though grading systems varied widely among universities for the next two centuries. Yale changed grading systems four times between 1967 and 1981, cycling through a numerical system, an Honors/High Pass system, and an A-F system before settling on the A-F system with pluses and minuses in use today.
This pandemic is not unique in having the power to shift systems of grading. In the late nineteen-sixties, when students removed from Yale due to academic failure became eligible for drafting into the Vietnam War, one Yale professor simply gave all of his students A’s. In the spring of 1970, during the New Haven Black Panther trials, students decided to strike, and held late-night meetings in their residential colleges to ask faculty and administration to do the same. Nine of twelve residential colleges decided to shut down academically and voted to open their doors to those who arrived from out of town to attend the trials. After the vote, a large majority of Yale students stopped going to class and instead trained as marshals, attended teach-ins, and directed their energy towards the trials. In a meeting convened by Yale’s president Kingman Brewster, faculty voted that normal academic expectations, including classes, would be suspended for the duration of the trials.
In the spring of 1970, students convened across New Haven to organize a halting of business-as-usual on campus. In the spring of 2020, students from all over the world convened on Twitter timelines, Instagram stories, and Facebook profile pictures to do the same thing. No Fail Yale drew wide support from students, cultural houses, professors, and the Yale College Council, or YCC. Due to students’ social distancing and migration off campus, the movement was held exclusively online, without any marches or sit-ins. The reliance on social media as a tool for organizing opened up conflict particular to the internet—conflicts that became biting, then personal. Isaiah Schrader, a junior, wrote a 179-word Facebook post about why he disagreed with the movement around Universal Pass. The post received 196 comments, many of which were from students who vehemently disagreed with him. “We are in the midst of a fucking catastrophe,” wrote one commenter to Isaiah.
Isaiah worried that law schools and medical schools would not approach the lack of grades with compassion. In his opinion, more choice, not less, would provide students in tough situations with better options. He also mentioned that a Universal Pass system would not represent the interests of all first generation, low-income, or FGLI students––even though some of these students have become the core of the No Fail Yale movement.
Alannah, who identifies as a low-income student, said, “I feel like the entire movement is trying to capitalize on the suffering of marginalized communities in order to derive some self-interested gain. And, like, this is a group of privileged Yalies.” Her concerns arose mainly from the way the movement has used the rhetoric of “marginalized students,” and the way that other vulnerable people—like workers at Yale who aren’t in unions—have been forgotten within that language. “This whole conversation is not about the most vulnerable in our community. We forgot about them a month ago. We erased them,” she said. “I don’t know how anyone would feel that the best way to help marginalized groups during this situation would be to, like, inundate our administration’s and faculty’s inboxes with emails about grades.”
Joe Peck ’21, a student from England, also did not support Universal Pass for reasons tied to his experience as a FGLI and international student. “FGLI students generally do better as they go through Yale,” Joe said. “I think a lot of students are very prepared when they come here, they come from nicer schools and they’re able to fit in very well. But it’s been true that my first semester here was my worst, and every single semester I’ve been here I’ve improved my GPA.” When Joe is at Yale, he works sixteen hours every week to fulfill his student income contribution. Now, for the first time ever, he doesn’t have to work those long shifts anymore, because Yale has committed to paying student workers their salaries even if they’re unable to work remotely. With this newfound time, he can focus on school without pulling all-nighters, as he often does on campus.
Some of Joe’s friends accused him of being selfish for his stance. “It’s very frustrating for me for a number of reasons. I never heard that throughout the year—no one ever said, ‘Oh, those kids who aren’t working sixteen hours a week, they’re being selfish.’ There was no solidarity there. Suddenly I’m doing well, despite everything I’ve had to go through. And now I’m the selfish one,” he said.
Joe’s concern—that life at Yale has always been inequitable—is one that the organizers of No Fail Yale anticipated. On their “Frequently Asked Questions” document, one of the questions is, “Yale was unfair anyways. Why should this change now?” The organizers respond, “We should strive to be the change we want to see. There is no reason to confine our expectations of the institutions we love to what the world has tried to force us to accept as reasonable and just.”
No Fail Yale focuses around the idea that we are on more equal footing on campus than off. But when I asked Abey about whether he thought of Yale’s campus as an egalitarian place, he said, “I think it’s an equalizer, but it doesn’t make things equal. So yes, Yale provides us with necessary resources like Wi-Fi, quiet study spaces, et cetera. But you can plainly see at Yale that things aren’t equal.”
Sarah Pitafi, another organizer of No Fail Yale, believes that this movement reveals the underlying inequalities that permeate the Yale experience. “We are finally able to make the administration collectively recognize the degree of inequity on campus,” Sarah said. “Students have been saying, ‘well, we’ve always been reliant on really badly paid jobs, we’ve always been struggling with accessibility issues, we’ve always been struggling with lack of access to technology.’ The list goes on. All of these issues have always existed. Now it’s a matter of them being exacerbated greatly by a global pandemic.” Sarah hopes that when students return to campus, they won’t forget. She hopes that the pandemic has presented a moment to discuss inequity in all its forms—on and off campus. “Now the University is forced to start addressing the reality of students’ daily lives,” she said.
Sarah notes the way that grades play into these realities. She questions whether grades are the best way to document students’ success. “You’re kind of held captive by this idea of your grades being almost like a function of who you are, of being a function of your success,” she said, “but realizing how quickly grades can be discarded whenever you need to focus on what matters most has also turned into a larger conversation about—are grades really necessary?” With Universal Pass comes the realization that has been happening across institutions throughout the United States during the coronavirus crisis: people created the systems we live our lives by, and people can dismantle them, too.
Each day, Alannah, Abey, Isaiah, Joe, and Sarah are faced with a new set of numbers. Millions of total cases, worldwide. Thousands of people dead. There are numbers that measure the success of their state’s responses to the pandemic; there are numbers that measure the likelihood that someone they love will die. A 20% increase in New York City hospitalizations with each new day; 4,600 patients on ventilators in New York. Two to six weeks for patients to recover. There are numbers to guide them when they go outside. Six feet of separation. Three hours of virus viability in the air. There are numbers that become routines. Five hours of Zoom class on Wednesday. Two masks for each twelve-hour shift. With Universal Pass, their contributions to classes won’t become numbers too.
— Mara Hoplamazian is a senior in Grace Hopper College.