Like the majority of my colleagues, I became a college professor because I wanted my work and value systems to be aligned. I want my classroom to be a venue where my students can hear from each other and, at the same time, advance their understanding of the complex issues facing our society. This is why my courses deconstruct race, discuss racism, explore issues of oppressive government regimes, and examine the power that grassroots movements have to enact positive change.
And that is also why I’m throwing out all of this week’s course material.
Right now, my students don’t need my class to learn about the world because the world’s problems have landed squarely on their doorstep, have become heavier weights on their shoulders, and have been amplified on their screens. Their minds are fully occupied with a pandemic, police brutality, and a government crackdown. Like others, I think that my course material is important. I still make it available to my students, but nothing from this week will be required for students who cannot find the time to complete it. And, I plan to extend this homework suspension if necessary.
Before I wrote this, many of my students were sending me photos of themselves peacefully protesting for racial justice, while another explained that two businesses on her block burned to the ground overnight. Some of my other students are currently at home recovering from COVID-19 while trying to navigate unemployment with rent hanging over their heads. Still, others are working overtime shifts to keep the grocery stores stocked or even boarding up the windows of their place of employment. There is no room right now for homework.
I implore you to let your students off the hook this week (and beyond, if necessary). When we ask our students to focus on homework right now, we are essentially silencing their voices. Tying them up at home — behind a computer — takes away their power to work for justice, to organize, as well as their ability to practice self-care. If you are an educator like me, you likely took on the role because you firmly believe that education is an empowering mechanism. Please make sure you stay on the side of student empowerment and don’t practice student pacification by making your students choose between a good grade and a better world.
As my colleague, Valerie Schweigert from the University of Washington explains, “valuing Black lives means recognizing the humanity of Black students and that they are all in deep pain. Letting them rest in whatever way makes sense for them should come before assessing their academic performance/outcomes.”
The following is a list of big steps that you can take to empower your students right now:
1. Let your students text you via Remind: Right now, we are separated from our communities as we observe stay-at-home recommendations, and, in the evenings, we are literally locked in our homes as curfews are imposed upon us. You can serve as a central point of information for your students if you let them text you throughout the day. Through text, you can correct misinformation campaigns and give safety advice in real-time. Our students need us to look out for them right now. (Or, if you cannot take this step, respond to student emails in real-time).
2. Let students redo their assignments: I know how unpleasant it is to re-grade assignments but giving students a second chance can lift their GPA which ultimately makes employment more accessible in the future. Re-grading is not only a sign of solidarity, but it allows for more equitable outcomes because both the student and instructor are given multiple opportunities to evaluate, hone, and reflect upon their own ideas. This practice contributes to students’ resiliency, helps them develop new areas of growth, and in the long-run will benefit their life chances by fostering more critical scholarship.
3. Give students multiple attempts and extended time on final exams and quizzes: Right now, students are interrupted by curfew alarms and sirens while their kids are stuck at home dependent on them. Their level of focus is not the same as it had been in the past and giving some wiggle room might make all the difference. As instructors and leaders in our classrooms, we should always prioritize student and family wellbeing. This is a confusing and distressing time, many students are already operating over their own capacity to ensure they and their loved ones remain safe.
4. Consider assigning participation points. By giving students universal full points for the week’s work, you’re not only relieving their stress but you are also lightening your own grading workload. If your students are showing up and submitting work right now, then they are showing true resilience. That alone should earn points.
5. Offer to hold a restorative space for students. This can look like setting up a Slack “workspace” for the class and allowing students to dialogue in the main channel or separate ones based on affinity. This can be a place for them to share experiences or affirmations, updates about their lives and wellbeing, or a place to organize around how to provide community care resources and aid. Also consider hosting a group or 1:1 zoom call with anyone that is experiencing grief, isolation, confusion, or distress at this time. Make clear you want to listen, but are not a therapist, just a friend showing support. Connect students with mental health resources as needed.
Here’s advice, directly from my students, about how we can all show up for them right now:
“Some professors are showing compassion and concern for their students. The emotional unrest going on all over the country should be a valid foundation to offer leniency.”
“Take late work, remind us about big assignments. Professors who are just generally concerned about our wellbeing are making everything so much easier to deal with.”
“I have professors who are extending deadlines which is helpful.”
“One of my professors is staying very present and accessible with Zoom calls.”
“I had a professor who let us take a survey about whether we’d rather get participation points or have our lowest scores dropped.”
“Some of my professors are being more flexible with assignments by giving extensions, offering extra credit, and rounding up grades.”
“One of my professors changed the final project to allow us to work with partners.”
“Two of my professors made the final exam non-cumulative and two other professors canceled the final exam entirely. Another professor is curving our grades.”
Throughout history, teachers have organized to advocate for the safety and prosperity of their students. If we look at systematic racism in this country, we know that change must happen holistically. The system of education, which includes teachers, administrators, facility workers, librarians, and more, can all be part of the solution by giving our students multiple opportunities to thrive.
Please encourage colleagues to take these actions and embolden your students to advocate for themselves. If you became an educator in order to create a better world, now it is time to make the big and necessary changes to empower our students who are transforming society for the better.
Note: Any income generated from this piece will be directly donated to Black Lives Matter LA.
A huge thanks to all of my students for the feedback that they have offered me throughout my career. And, thank you to the University of Washington’s Valerie Schweigert, Los Angeles Valley College’s Duke Feldmeier, and to my husband for their essential contributions to this piece.