On a request to cancel final exams in a time of pandemic, racist violence, & erosion of democratic norms

There’s a petition going round, asking instructors at my school to cancel finals for our courses, for Black and POC students in particular, or just for everyone, this quarter.

Here’s what I wrote back to the class as a whole.


My friends,

I’ve received a couple of e-mails asking that, in consideration of the pressures students across the country are under – in particular Black and other POC students – I cancel the final exam for this course.

Having seen the same petition on change.org a few days ago, I’ve had some time to think about the question.

I want to tell you, first, I don’t believe in grades. I hate what they do in us, and to us. Grading is a system we’re inducted in from early childhood, before we can say no to it, that tells us our worth can be measured on a scale.

It’s a terrible thing to tell a person. It serves power, not human beings. Your worth is real, beyond measure. You’re perfect, and there’s nothing wrong, nothing missing.

That’s the place I’m coming from. And so if I had my way, I wouldn’t grade you at all, and our time together would be given to free disinterested inquiry, in a space of mutual respect, compassion, and fiery dispute.

However, I don’t teach at Black Mountain College, or Evergreen State. The structure you and I are in, it calls itself Western Washington University, insists I grade you.

And so, I grade, so that I can teach at all. Hoping that as we go I can invite you to some detachment around grading. Hoping I can grade in a way that spurs learning – of the material, and of appreciation for yourself, your own powers, and your peers, their powers.

Any graded assignment in a course of mine is graded so as to aid learning. Actually, the grade is incidental. If the grade motivates you, do it for the grade. If you don’t care what grade you get – and I hope you don’t – do it for the intrinsic interest of the material, out of your own passion for learning, growing, testing yourself.

Coming back (were you worried I might not?) to the request.

The final exam is not for a grade; the grade is only to focus your mind, your effort. The real point of the final is to consolidate your learning. The studying you do for the exam, the work of writing the exam under some pressure, sinks your learning deeper into you. It helps your free, lively, creative engagement with the material stay with you. It helps the course, everything we took on together, last beyond the end of the quarter.

I’m not going to cancel the final. It’s the culmination of the course, where you draw together everything you’ve learned to a single focused light that illuminates – you, to yourself.

Please, please, do not write the final to please or impress me. Write it to show yourself what you got.

Western created the Pass/No Pass option to invite you to this mindset. That’s why I’ve encouraged students to take it. It acknowledges how extraordinary & difficult the moment we’re in is, and should relieve the pressure you may feel to perform.

If you take the P/NP option, all you have to do to pass the final is show up, and tell me your take on the plays. Don’t stress about it. Be easy on yourself, and when it’s time to do it, just do it.

All that said . . . if you truly feel unable to write the final, e-mail me. Use your own language – not a template, someone else’s eloquence. I’ll take you seriously if you do. I can’t just exempt you from the final (would you respect me, or yourself, if I did?) but I will work with you on alternatives. It would probably mean taking an Incomplete, and finishing the course when you feel able to.

Thanks for reading this far. I wanted to take this request seriously, as a measure of what students are going through right now. Ah, well, we all are.

Please do be well,
Chris

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headComposter

I write draw teach blog in and from the Pacific Northwest of America.

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