Letter to Chancellor Wilcox

The world is in a state of flux right now, and the Academy is facing a major crisis. In light of this crisis, many students are demanding that grades be eliminated, that finals be cancelled, and that the Academy otherwise shut down. While I am sympathetic to the voices which are calling for such action, I believe that relaxing our standards has the potential to have long-term negative consequences. It is, after all, doctors, nurses, anthropologists, virologists, sociologists, political scientists, epidemiologists, economists, and other experts trained by the Academy who are going to be best placed to steer us through the curren crises and help us to put the pieces back together again in the future. At the risk of Godwinning myself, where would we be now if not for the work of mathematicians and early computer scientists at Bletchley Park?

This afternoon, I communicated the following to the Chancellor’s Office at UCR, and to the chair of my department:

Chancellor Wilcox,

Yesterday, I received an email from UAW 2865, the union which represents my interests as a graduate student TA. In this email, I was asked to communicate my anger and frustration about the current state of the world to the your office, and to the administration and professors of my department. In this email, it was suggested that I should demand that all finals and teaching evaluations be made optional.

This letter is meant to express a dissenting point of view. While I am a member and firm supporter of my Union, I do not think that they are representing me or my voice in this moment.

It goes without saying that we are living in an incredibly challenging moment. We are largely confined to our homes because of a global pandemic, and long simmering tensions between the police and vulnerable populations which they are supposed to serve and protect are boiling over. These are unusual, anxious times. However, I do not believe that we do service to anyone by lowering our standards, which is what conceding to these demands entails.

  1. Canceling FinalsWhile I can see that the horse is already out of the barn on this issue, I think it does a tremendous disservice to our students to cancel their final examinations or to make them optional. I have many students who have worked incredibly hard this quarter, and deserve a chance to demonstrate their knowledge and skill. Removing the requirement that students take final examinations devalues the work that they have done.

    I believe that every future instructor or potential employer will understand that the transcripts from this quarter come with a COVID-shaped asterisk—this quarter will forever be “graded on a curve.” However, we serve our students better by maintaining our high standards in the face of catastrophe. By doing so, we demonstrate that we—including our students!—are strong, capable, resilient human beings who are ready to take on anything the world has to offer.

    Again, I note that the decision to make finals optional has already been taken, but I do feel it necessary to voice my dissatisfaction with that decision.

  2. Suspending EvaluationsEvaluations are fraught, both for TAs and junior faculty. There are clear issues of bias in the evaluation process, which induces additional stress for those instructors which depend upon positive evaluations for continued employment or advancement up the tenure ladder. Because we have been thrust into the never-desired role of online instructors, I understand the anxiety surrounding evaluations for this quarter.

    On the other hand, more data are always preferable to fewer. Teaching evaluations from this quarter are a valuable tool in understanding how the Academy has responded to this crisis in the moment, how our institution should manage itself as the pandemic continues, and in developing disaster-response for the future. It may be reasonable to give no weight to evaluations from this quater (with respect to employment or tenure decisions), or to make them confidential and only consider responses in aggregate, but it would be irresponsible to disregard these data entirely.

    Rather than demand action, I respectfully request that evaluations be collected as usual.

Alexander M. Henderson
Graduate Student Teaching Assistant
UCR Department of Mathematics

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