Paul L. Caron

Monday, March 23, 2020

Blackman: Law Schools Should Not Abandon Standard Grading Policies For All Students Due To The Coronavirus

Josh Blackman (South Texas), Law Schools Should Not Abandon Standard Grading Policies For All Students:

CoronavirusCOVID-19 has presented academia with novel challenges. Virtually every institution of higher education has transitioned to online instruction, almost overnight. This rapid change occurred with little planning or preparation. Students who were accustomed to learning in one fashion are now being asked to learn in a completely different fashion. This new normal will likely last the rest of the semester, and could recur again in the future.

That much is largely beyond our control. But some issues are within our control. Specifically, universities are debating what to do with the Spring 2020 semester. Should schools maintain the regular grading curve? Should some students, with demonstrated hardships, be able to request a pass/fail grading option? Should all students be given the option to request a pass/fail grading option? Should all students be graded on a pass/fail basis? Should some exams be graded pass/fail (upper-level electives) but other exams be graded with the regular curve (1L mandatory courses)? My co-blogger Jon Adler offers several recommendations.

Here, I will make three broad points. First, there has been a long-simmering movement to abolish grades altogether. This approach may work at elite institutions where most students cluster together near the top. But at other law schools, grades perform an important signaling function: students at the bottom of the curve need intervention. Eliminating grades will deny those students the help they need. Second, we should not abolish normal law school policies simply because of our current circumstances. Attorneys have a duty to their clients during crises of all manners; law students should learn that lesson personally. Third, COVID-19 will not affect all students in the same fashion. Some students will be personally affected. Others will merely be inconvenienced. Any sort of grading relief should be tailored to address individual circumstances; law schools should not adopt a blanket policy. ...

Many of our law students were toddlers during September 11, 2001. They may have no personal memories of that day. I do. On 9/11, I was a high school senior in Staten Island, New York. Every year, I blog my remembrance from that day. At that time, the world had been turned upside down. Several of my classmates lost their parents. (Many firefighters and police officers lived in Staten Island.) I could still smell the pungent odor in the air from the wreckage. Ground Zero smoldered for weeks. For months, I would panic whenever I saw an airplane overhead. For years, I carried a gas mask in my trunk. In New York City, schools were closed on September 12, 2001. But the next day, on September 13, schools reopened. And we found a way to learn and study, and complete the year. We can do so here.

C.S. Lewis gave a sermon about learning during World War II. He stated the issue far better than I can.

I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective, The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with "normal life". Life has never been normal.

We should have empathy for those who suffered hardships because of COVID-19. But law schools should not abandon the normal rules for those merely inconvenienced by the current situation.

  • For complete TaxProf Blog coverage of the coronavirus, see here.

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Yeah! Who do those law students think they are, law students at Yale who haven't had grades in decades because their social and cultural capital was sufficient to just do away with them? Bow your heads before your USNWR betters!

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Mar 23, 2020 6:36:34 PM

I think Josh makes some good points. But they are heavily biased by what might be called "foresight bias." That is, he is assuming he understands what life will be like in a few weeks time. But if we land somewhere in the middle of the tails on the estimates of possible dead we are looking at a number that is equivalent to lives lost during the Civil War - and not in four years but in four months. Under those circumstances what seems an over-accomodation may look absurdly inadequate. (It's likely a similar problem that is causing some fools to ignore social distancing and stay at home directives.) In any case, I personally am leaning towards a relaxation of the deadline to opt for P/NP at our institution so that those who are facing significant stress can take that road while others can continue to opt for a grade.

Posted by: Steve Diamond | Mar 23, 2020 12:12:21 PM