I think it is safe to say we are all looking forward to more “precedented times”. Like many people, I would be okay not living through a future A.P. United States History essay question for a little bit. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught and shown us many things, some good, and unfortunately some bad. For example, curbside pick-up options, big thumbs up, but a more dangerous side effect of the pandemic I have noticed as a graduate student and teaching assistant is a baseline assumption people are not to be trusted. I mean, I get it, a good portion of the people in the United States refused to wear masks or get vaccinated when they became available (and still as of June 2022 only 67% of the eligible population in the United States is vaccinated)1. But I worry about how assuming the worst out of people will affect the relationship between students and instructors.
The ramifications of not trusting people can have serious consequences in education. This last semester I was in two graduate courses for graduate students who have aspirations to teach science courses at the undergraduate level. I loved these courses, I was challenged to understand the importance of various pedagogical techniques and how to best match my material and assessments. However, I was continually shocked at the knee jerk reaction that some of my classmates had when a proposal for any form of flexibility to future hypothetical students was made. For example, when discussing potential late work policies for our future classes it was pointed out that there are systems in place in which some students have the privilege to be able to consistently complete work on time. While understanding deadlines are inevitable, many late work policies penalize students twice (potential work pile-up and point deductions). Because of this equity issue, it was proposed that students should not incur a point deduction for late work. However, some graduate students were concerned that because of this, some students would “game the system” and turn in every assignment late, usually basing this on the observation of a handful of anecdotal personal experiences.
Another debate we would often have in these classes was around alternative grading structures and practices such as ungrading, standards based grading, specifications grading, etc. Alternative grading structures are typically aimed at making the grade earned in a class more closely reflect and communicate student learning while emphasizing what is actually important in the class (leaving with the relevant information and skills, not necessarily complying with the prescribed expected behaviors). Alternative grading is often met by the knee jerk reaction of “if we base our grades on students’ self evaluation and reflection then every student is just going to give themselves an ‘A’”. Of course granting a letter grade above one that represents the students’ learning would be a disservice to the student going forward. While I understand the knee jerk reaction, I feel like assuming the worst out of students would get exhausting.
So maybe that is where I am sitting, exhausted. I am exhausted with assuming the worst out of people around me. I am exhausted with systems that are systematically making it more difficult for some people to succeed. I am exhausted trying to convince other future educators to go into teaching with an open mind about creating equitable spaces. Yet, the work is important. I would even argue that now, more than ever, we have to face the fact that our education system has been carefully created to systematically gate keep certain groups of people from success. So, assuming the worst out of those students is a result of conditioning from what the system already looks like. I am so grateful the curtain is being pulled away so early in my graduate school career that I can be cognizant of how I want to form my teaching philosophy to emphasize more equitable practices. In the case of my future students, I want them to feel like I trust them and I will not assume they are there to take advantage of safeguards in place to make my classroom more equitable.
So I leave my first year of graduate school exhausted. And not exhausted from classes, reading many many (many) research papers as I form my ideas, or presenting at my first conference, but exhausted from continually feeling like I am fighting an uphill battle with a system that I have come to learn does not want everyone there or to succeed. I also leave my first year of graduate school optimistic and energized. Optimistic that future educators are willing to confront the systems currently in place and have conversations around how to meaningfully change them to allow more students to find success in higher education and energized to be someone willing to start that conversation.