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Why I give DKU’s COVID-19 grading policy an 'Unsatisfactory' grade

The Kunshan Report

Undergraduate students at Duke Kunshan University (DKU) in China will be contributing written and multimedia content to The Chronicle to be published every other Friday. 

When I read the news that Duke was switching to a default satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading policy—with an option for students to opt-in to receive grades before a certain date—I was relieved for my peers in Durham, many of whom were asked to leave campus with little notice, fleeing without the opportunity to say goodbye. The feeling was all-too-familiar, as I was on holiday in Hong Kong when Duke Kunshan University (DKU) announced it was locking down and barring anyone off-campus from returning.

In what seemed like a series of dominoes falling, universities around the world—America's included—shut their doors. Students were sent packing—if they were lucky enough to be on campus by the move-out date. From the friends who had watched this play out for me a month earlier on social media,  I was flooded with questions about how online classes work. I took it almost as a point of pride to be able to answer. DKU had become the model for a transition to an online university, if only by necessity.

But something was amiss—while universities across the country, and the globe, began to recognize the unfairness of mandating graded coursework in the middle of the first pandemic of this magnitude in over a century, DKU stood staunchly in defiance. The only concessions made to our grading policy was expanding the Credit Received/No Credit option to eight credits in the spring semester for both freshmen and sophomores. Many of my classmates were bewildered, noting that our peer institutions, including Duke itself, the one whose name our degrees will bear, have bent over backward to accommodate students during this crisis. Some have gone as far as to institute a Universal Pass/Fail—with Duke’s current policy providing an equitable medium, rather than the often stigmatized “Pass/Fail” system.

Such disparities bring up a significant question—how dissimilar can the policies and terminologies of a university’s grading system get before the value of a “Duke Education in China” begins to depreciate? Other similar joint ventures like NYU Shanghai have already made the commonsense decision to allow students to Pass/Fail classes.

We were lucky. Though our belongings were left behind in China, the overwhelming majority of my international student peers were safe in their home countries within days of the announcement. February was a month of serious angst for many of us, awkwardly explaining to our friends and families that we, and we alone, were transitioning to online schooling—while trying to process the intense feelings of confusion and grief for our school and the country that had adopted us. The majority of my classmates— 2/3 of them living in China—instantly became part of the largest government lockdown in human history. Our online classes began February 24, picking up about halfway through DKU’s unique 7-week course schedule. 

Like the diligent students we are, we trudged through our courses via Zoom, pausing to wave hello to friends not seen in weeks or to allow a professor’s video to unfreeze. Since we are a China-based program, our time zones are aligned with Beijing, meaning that attending synchronous classes for students based in California required a 4:00 a.m. wakeup, and some students in New York attended discussion sections well past midnight. For those first few weeks, many of us tried to keep motivated by traveling with friends, picking up old summer jobs, anything to alleviate the boredom. By mid-March, however, everything had changed again. 

I concede that DKU students have the option to convert from a grade to a Credit Received/No Credit for up to eight credits well after a course has concluded, unlike students at Duke, but getting a “break” on only eight credits seems insignificant amidst a crisis of unimaginable proportion. Whereas the majority of elite institutions have told their students not to worry about grades, I’m stressing over choosing the most beneficial eight credits (out of the 22 credits I am taking this semester) to write off. Other institutions recognize that their students come from diverse backgrounds and family situations—and that removing students from the more level playing field of campus only magnifies the disparities between their home lives.

Does expecting a pass/fail option make me lazy? Does it mean that I’ve stopped trying in or attending classes? Absolutely not. I still wake up before the sun rises, take classes on weekends and manage a seemingly never-ending array of assignments on a multitude of electronic platforms, while my fantastic professors teach at odd hours and prepare for classes within the tight confines of a 7-week schedule. Our professors are also now put in the difficult position of trying to grade students “fairly” knowing students would bear the brunt of poor grades stemming from factors entirely out of their control. To refuse to acknowledge the absurdity of receiving a grade for the majority of these classes, is in my view, damaging to the student-administrator relationship we at DKU hold in such high regard, as it represents a token gesture in the guise of a true acknowledgment of our hardships during this crisis, which, for us, started in January. 

I recognize the immense privilege of my own position—to have returned to a financially-stable household amidst a period of such extreme uncertainty is a blessing. But if those of us in the most ideal settings are still undergoing intense stress as a result of a graded semester during a pandemic, I shudder to think of my classmates in positions more dire than my own. China has only just begun to lift its lockdowns, and it will likely be months before the rest of the world has experienced the worst of the pandemic. Though the administration has dug in its heels, DKU students lack the strong advocacy network of an established institution to make their voices heard. I’m grateful for the ability to do so here, regardless of the outcome.

Charlie Colasurdo is a first-year in the second-ever graduating class of the Duke Kunshan campus’s undergraduate program, located outside Shanghai, China.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Yale had instituted a Universal Pass policy. Their Policy is a Universal Pass/Fail. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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