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Calling all undergraduates: Help advocate for two pandemic-appropriate academic policies

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If you’re in a rush, we’ll get right to it: Duke administrators have recently informed our DSG Academic Affairs Committee that they will not be able to make changes to the fall calendar (currently zero days off) and grading policy (S/U is returning to its all-but-useless status); therefore, our DSG Committee urges as many students as possible directly reach out to department chairs and DUSes to change these policies at a departmental level. This document contains information on how to help in two quick steps. The process shouldn’t take more than five to ten minutes, as all you have to do is click, sign, and send each email. If you put on Kanye’s Runaway and start blazing through the list, odds are you’ll be done before the song even ends.

Our primary hope is to get this week started with a flood of emails to department chair and DUS inboxes, but if you feel that you need background information before you join in, the following information should bring you up to speed on why we’re pushing for the particular policies we’re pushing for.

With respect to the fall calendar: there are understandable safety concerns motivating the decision to have the coming semester be a continuous cycle of five days on, two days off with no breaks. Today, close-quartered gatherings of students are nothing less than a public health nightmare, and yet, there is no way for any university to completely prevent the occurrence of such gatherings. Would days off not encourage Duke students to gather in large groups or take off-campus, long-weekend trips?

These are serious concerns. But, because the mental health implications of a grueling, sub-four-month academic sprint are very concerning as well, our committee is asking for your help to propose the following compromise to department chairs and DUSes: have professors build in one to two days off during the semester. We are defining a day off as a weekday with no assignments due and no courses held, regardless of method of instruction. With individual professors free to choose the days their classes do not occur, the time off would come to students in a safer, staggered manner.

Furthermore, we are encouraging all Duke professors to impose a Major Assignments Black Out Period from November 3, 2020 to November 4, 2020 in recognition of Election Day. During this two-day window, professors are strongly encouraged to refrain from administering exams, papers, and projects along with any assignment that is individually worth more than 10% of a student’s cumulative grade. This period is not a long-weekend creator that encourages students to party or take trips; it is rather a midweek opportunity for students to relax and recharge in a particularly stressful time (before final exams hit), and—as safely as they are able—exercise their right to vote.

Above, we briefly touched on the mental health challenges presented by the coming semester, but did not go into much detail. These challenges, and the broader concern of environmental stressors and barriers they fit into, are the primary motivation for both our fall calendar and grading policy proposals. COVID-19, without a doubt, lays bare and exacerbates this country’s many existing injustices and inequities.

This is, no doubt, old news to the millions affected. Through a roundtable for Duke’s affinity groups and a student survey, our DSG Academic Affairs committee connected with students who spoke plainly of family pressures to work a full-time job while enrolled in a tolling course load, existing mental health struggles pushed further by isolation, or learning disabilities made worse by the inherent differences in online instruction. This is where, in our thinking, grading policy becomes so important.

Even from a purely academic perspective, students are facing a semester full of experiential fragmentation, especially with the recent decision to remove most juniors and seniors from campus. Just last week, a DSG Academic Affairs Senator spoke to a CompSci sophomore who took a course in Summer Session 1 and had an absolutely dreadful experience; in short, the students were given unclear instructions, penalized for internet connectivity issues, and overall not offered any compassion for the challenges of an online format. That student, while shaken, was also insistent that the professor was given a bad hand to begin with. This is fair; both professors and students are human beings that struggle. And isn’t that exactly the point? In pandemic times, S/U is a vitally important vessel that can provide students with sorely needed academic flexibility.

This is why we are also asking for your help to propose the following policy to Duke’s department chairs and DUSes, alongside the policies already enacted within the Mathematics and Economics departments (S/U), as well as the Sanford School (elimination of downward curves): an opt-in S/U policy for all 100 and 200-level courses, in which those courses are allowed to count for Major, Minor, and/or Certificate requirements, without counting towards the existing 4.0 S/U credits applicable towards graduation. Courses can still be qualified as S/U until one week after the end of drop-add, but we recommend that the date for switching S/U courses back to a graded basis be changed to LDOC. Keeping the thousands of off-campus juniors and seniors in mind, we are further recommending that this policy be expanded to non-intro courses, and that the practice of any “downward curving”—in which students’ final grades can be lower than their raw-score performance—be eliminated.

A note: policies such as Universal S/U or Universal S no doubt help remedy some of the issues we are most concerned about, and the ability to switch an S/U course back to graded after receiving a numerical course grade would undoubtedly be helpful to many; but, the policy we’ve settled on is intended to provide the highest amount of flexibility possible (as many we’ve spoken to have cited letter grades as a necessity for grad or med school applications), and also has the highest possible chance of being adopted by individual departments.

Once again, our time is very limited. Please click this link to send some emails. Your help is greatly appreciated; the more emails we send, the better chance we have of convincing our undergraduate departments to put us on a healthier, more equitable path.

From the DSG Academic Affairs Committee,

Signed in support:

Duke Student Government Executive Board

The 2021 Student Advisory Board

Adopt-a-Grandparent

Best Buddies

Black Womxn’s Union

Blue Devils United

DESTA

Duke A Cappella Council

Duke American Sign Language

Duke Dhamaka

Duke Diya

Duke Honor Council

Duke Latin American Student Organization

Duke LIFE

Duke Native American Students Association (NASA)

Duke Partnership for Service

Duke Rhydhun

Duke Symphony Orchestra

Duke Votes 

Engineering Student Government

HackDuke

International Association

Me Too Monologues

Mi Gente

National Alliance for Mental Illness

Neurocare

Pakistani Students Association

Peer For You

Small Town Records

Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers

SWIRL

The Girls Club

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