Remote academic policies changed, students share equity concerns

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Stairs of the Arthur G Coons building. Alvin Edhitjia Siagian/The Occidental

Occidental College’s academic policies for the online fall semester include changes to credit/no credit (CR/NC) grading options, a new midterm progress report and encouraged faculty flexibility, according to a campus-wide email from Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Wendy Sternberg Aug. 13. These policies were developed and implemented by the Emergency Academic Planning Committee (EAPC) during the summer.

According to Sternberg’s email, CR/NC classes will count towards major, minor and core requirements this semester, but only grades of C or better will receive credit. Students can make this choice at any time throughout the semester but the deadline is Dec. 7. Last semester’s CR/NC grading policy allowed students to view their final letter grades before opting into CR/NC grading and to earn credit for grades of D or higher.

A new midterm progress report system will notify every student of their standing in each of their classes and give students more information to make a CR/NC decision before the deadline, according to Sternberg. This new policy will replace the midterm low grade warning system which previously only gave notification to certain students.

The final part of Sternberg’s email announcement was a continued emphasis on faculty flexibility on deadlines, attendance and other classroom policies that fall under faculty’s classroom authority.

According to Sternberg, a member of the EAPC, the committee is a voluntary council consisting of faculty and a non-voting student representative, Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) vice president of academic affairs Oli Vorster (junior). According to Vorster, the EAPC has 12 members, including administrators and professors. The EAPC convened over the summer to make policy decisions for the remote fall semester.

“‘What should we preserve? What should revert to normal? And where might we have not a reversion to normal but also not emergency policies?’ That’s part of the decision-making process,” Sternberg said. “We are weighing all of the input, deliberating over it and balancing the needs of faculty, the needs of students, the needs of the institution in terms of preserving the value and integrity of the Occidental degree.”

According to Sternberg, one of the reasons this semester’s policies are different from the previous semester is that professors and students have had the summer to plan for remote learning and are therefore more able to replicate in-person instruction.

“In the spring … we made a set of decisions last spring that really were kind of on the fly in response to rapidly changing circumstances,” Sternberg said. “[Now] we’ve kind of gotten the hang of this remote instruction and have tried to find technological solutions.”

According to Vorster, they worked with ASOC senator Collin Mazeika (senior) to create an Academic Policies Survey for the student body. The survey received 376 responses and asked students to rate the usefulness of policies on a scale of one to five.

According to the survey, 65.9 percent of students entirely support and 85.4 percent of students overall support the policy that they should be able to see their grades before making a CR/NC decision. Additionally, 65.7 percent of surveyed students entirely support and 82.3 percent of students overall support the policy to keep the threshold for CR/NC at a D.

According to Vorster, they sent the survey results and a letter advocating for equitable policies to members of EAPC before the final academic policy decisions were made. In their letter, Vorster said they felt the implementation of academic policies should be reflective of the needs of the student body and the challenges they may be facing.

“While I firmly believe that the college is better equipped than last semester to tackle the challenges posed by remote learning, I uphold that policies students need to succeed are not being met in the current dialogue amongst our committee,” Vorster said in their letter. “This committee must work towards more equitable and empathy driven institutional policies.”

According to Vorster, they are disappointed that students will not be able to see their grades before making a CR/NC grading decision, but glad that the decision deadline will be after finals.

“It’s all about compromise,” Vorster said. “I was able to get the credit/no credit grading deadline pushed to after the last day of finals, because I thought even if students weren’t able to see their grades, they would get a sense of how they did [on] their final and … be able to make an accurate choice in whether to opt for credit or no credit.”

According to Sternberg, the EAPC also considered results from a faculty survey with a response rate of approximately 50 percent. According to Sternberg, that survey showed that a number of faculty felt strongly that the college should revert to normal grading policies for the fall.

According to Mazeika, he has personally heard from many students who hoped the spring semester’s academic policies would be repeated in the fall semester.

“I think a lot of students struggle online,” Mazeika said. “Intersectional justice affects everything — whether it be class, race, gender, sexuality — all of this plays a factor in a student’s ability to perform online.”

According to Mazeika, part of the reason why the student body as a whole has had such strong reactions to online grading policies in the fall and spring semesters is because of their dedication to social justice and care for each others’ wellbeing.

“I think it’s beautiful to see the capability for empathy among students,” Mazeika said. “Knowing a student doesn’t have access to internet, a stable home life, if [a] student is food insecure or housing insecure — I think when we were at Oxy it’s very easy to be blind to it. But you know your peers and you know who’s struggling now.”

According to Sternberg in a July 22 interview, part of the college’s ongoing efforts to promote equity and faculty leniency have included educating faculty about academic equity throughout summer faculty trainings and meetings of the Summer Pedagogy Group.

“Academic equity has been a recurring theme throughout the summer training,” Sternberg said July 22. “So that faculty, as they are doing a sort of major overhaul of their courses, are mindful of how students are able to engage with their classes throughout the semester.”

Dafna Erana (senior) said the academic flexibility policy is a crucial part of the policies for the coming semester.

“In my classes, which are mainly Biology courses this semester, I’m seeing a lot more assignments like projects and leading discussions,” Erana said via email. “I’m grateful for my professors this semester and the empathy and sincere care they have shown towards their students. I don’t know how I’d be managing otherwise.”

Aanya Rampuria (sophomore) is currently living in Singapore, a 15 hour time difference from LA. Rampuria said most of her classes are discussion-based and synchronous, so some days she attends classes from 12 a.m. to 10 a.m. and tries not to fall asleep between classes.

“It’s quite hard because it gets so light outside after I finish with classes, so it’s quite hard to sleep. I know I’m definitely not getting enough sleep,” Rampuria said. “ I am a bit worried about my work. It’s taking me so much longer to get through work because I’m tired. I feel like I do work from the minute I get up until I go to bed but it’s like I’m not getting work done.”

Rampuria said she is thankful for the midterm progress report, but wishes she could see her grades before declaring CR/NC. She said she has been happy overall with her professors’ flexibility, but it can be confusing that some of her professors have different attendance and extension policies.

According to Mazeika, at the June 22 ASOC meeting, many students seemed personally invested, worried and frustrated when they asked Sternberg questions about academic policies for the fall semester during the meeting.

“I think, for the most part, students have felt unheard, and I think there’s been a lack of a history of communication between the administration and students,” Mazeika said.

According to ASOC president Kitty Lu, communication between students and administration in regards to decisions about grading policies is crucial to building trust and collaboration.

“We’re really trying to pull students and faculty and admin together to have conversations and reach an understanding,” Lu said. “I’m really hoping that these conversations will just help both sides reach a mutual understanding.”

Kayla Heinze contributed reporting for this article.

This article was revised Sept. 25 at 1:00 p.m. to correct the spelling of Collin Mazeika’s name.