When the ‘S’ in S/NC stands for stress

Opinion by Sarah Myers
May 13, 2020, 12:18 p.m.

When the Faculty Senate voted to approve Satisfactory/No Credit (S/NC) grading for spring quarter, students were told that this grading scheme would allow us to continue studying during the COVID-19 crisis without experiencing undue stress. S/NC was meant to help smooth over the inequities between students that have widened as a result of the pandemic. Although S/NC was the least popular grading scheme among students, many of my friends and acquaintances expressed relief that the Senate at least made an effort to respond to the extraordinary circumstances in which we are collectively living. 

Unfortunately, the reality of an S/NC grading scheme has not lived up to that promise. One friend recently told me, “S/NC is a scam, it’s like requiring you to get an A or B if you don’t want to fail but if you pass you don’t get to flex that A.” My friend’s frustration, while perhaps not accurate for all classes, is by far not the biggest problem S/NC grading has created.

Allison Tielking ’20 and a group of her friends planned to take a computer science course taught by a professor they liked this quarter. During the first lecture, the professor warned that, under his S/NC grading scheme, up to one third of the class might not pass this quarter. Tielking noted that it was possible that the professor only wanted to scare people, but said it was “a very insensitive move given the circumstances.” While presenting the slides, she said, the professor told students, “I don’t want any sob stories about you needing this class to graduate.” A few minutes after that, Tielking and her friends all dropped the class. 

Professors are not alone in their ability to undermine the policy. A Stanford co-term student set to graduate with a master’s degree this spring was surprised when, on Monday of Week 4, her department, the Center for Russian, East European and East Asian Studies (CREEES), announced that it would not accept all S grades for the M.A. degree. Instead, the department would require that students receive a B or higher. The co-term student asked to remain anonymous because the program is small, and she fears retaliation.

In an email to CREEES students, the department asked students to get in touch with professors themselves to request written confirmation of a B or higher grade to be sent to the program administration (since CREEES has fewer than a dozen students, classes taken for the degree are not exclusively filled with CREEES students). This requirement also meant that professors would need to keep “shadow grades,” which the University administration recommended but did not require this quarter (that recommendation was only for letter grades without + or -, but the CREEES department specifically noted that a B- would not be accepted). 

The co-term student raised concerns about the unusual adverse circumstances many students are facing this quarter, as well as the department’s failure to notify students of this requirement until nearly halfway through the 10-week quarter. The department declined to change the policy, noting that, based on students’ performance in previous quarters, administrators believed that the B requirement would not pose a significant challenge. The student who spoke with me noted that “that high performance was achieved during non-pandemic quarters … the whole point of the S/NC policy was to account for the unique challenges of this quarter’s context.” Ultimately, she feels that the choice “really seems to show [that the department is] prioritizing the dept’s reputation over its students’ well-being … Especially since it seems like the vast majority of other depts aren’t so worried about the ‘integrity’ of their programs.”

I am finding myself in a similar, though much less severe, situation. One class I’m taking is the second part of a two-class series, with both classes taught by the same professor. I respect this professor a great deal, and still believe that he is one of the best teachers I’ve had at Stanford. However, his approach to S/NC grading has left me concerned. 

For the first week of this quarter, this professor assured us that he would do everything in his power to ensure that we still had a final in some form, despite the administration’s directive that classes should not have finals. The next week, he announced that we would be required to have made a good faith effort on every problem set. The problem is, he went on to define good faith effort as matching our performance on problem sets in the prior quarter.

I made it through last quarter with significant effort and a great deal of generous help from classmates and friends. Now that we are scattered throughout the world, it is much more difficult to collaborate on problem sets the way we normally would (and are encouraged to do by the department). It is also more difficult to get help. Although our professor and TAs are making great efforts to hold accessible office hours and answer Piazza questions quickly, time-zone issues and the difficulty of communicating while not face to face present serious challenges. To expect us to perform as well on problem sets as we did last quarter is unrealistic, potentially unfair — and exactly the concern that led the faculty senate to adopt the S/NC scheme.

Our professor has specifically said that he does not want us to stress about passing this class, but I cannot help being stressed under these circumstances. It did not entirely help that our professor said, as he was discussing the updated grading policy, that he believes that grades are one of the ways students are motivated to learn. This professor did not say that grades are students’ sole motivation, and he did note they are glad that grades are less of a focus this quarter. My professor is not alone in his concern about the lack of grades. The professor from Tielking’s class, in an email to The Daily clarifying details of his policy, wrote that grades “play an important role in motivating some students to stay on track or get help.” 

I do not think that any of the troubling grading schemes being proposed and enacted this quarter are motivated by malice. I do think that a lot of Stanford professors are revealing the extent to which they view grades as foundational to learning, and the seemingly punitive and overly harsh grading schemes we are seeing this quarter are a symptom of the difficulty professors are having in reconciling teaching a class with not giving letter grades. This is a sad situation because many students are finding themselves more stressed about grades than they were last quarter. But it is also sad to think that our professors feel their days are spent teaching students who are only there for the grades.

There are certainly students who prioritize grades over learning. There are also students who are taking a heavier course load than usual this quarter because they want to complete WAYS and major requirements without putting in the work. Their actions will likely hurt them in the long run. Right now, they are hurting professors and classmates who are finding themselves dealing with underqualified or checked-out students. But many students are not behaving this way. We should not allow a few people’s poor choices to convince us to treat everyone with suspicion. It is often better to treat everyone as if they are a good-faith actor and occasionally end up benefiting a few bad-faith actors than it is to treat everyone with suspicion. 

There are many professors who have made extraordinary and generous efforts to optimize their classes for online S/NC learning. My Mandarin Chinese class has managed to transition almost seamlessly. It is clear that the department and our professor have thought carefully about the limitations we face this quarter and have worked hard to optimize the class. I’m also taking a class in German, and our professor has continuously updated her syllabus and lesson plan to improve our experience. I have not heard of any professor not making a sincere effort to adapt and improve their teaching in this new environment. 

Stanford has the good fortune to face this challenge armed with a community of hard-working and sincere professors, TAs and students. This quarter has already surpassed expectations in many ways. But there is more work to do, and a key area for progress is the way in which all of us think about grades and learning. It is perhaps worth remembering that all students, to some extent, are doing this quarter for the love of knowledge. Many of us could have taken a leave of absence — although Stanford’s rules on leaves, financial difficulties and other factors meant that not all of us could. Even the students loading up on credits are here because they believe that the classes taught and taken this quarter have value even if they do not have letter grades.

Speaking as someone whose quarter abroad was canceled, I am here (or, at least, on Zoom) not because any of the classes I’m taking are vital to my academic success but because I could not imagine going until next fall without classes. In the midst of this terrible historic moment, it is incredibly comforting and meaningful to memorize vocabulary and struggle through a problem set. Even when I know that my answers are wrong. The Faculty Senate seems to have understood this when it chose S/NC, but the grading scheme may not be living up to those faculty’s own ideals. 

Contact Sarah Myers at smyers3 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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Sarah Myers '21 is pursuing a BA in International Relations while also studying Physics, Mandarin, and German. She enjoys writing about politics, ethics, and current events. She spends her free time reading and convincing herself that watching Chinese television counts as studying Mandarin.

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