This letter was sent to Professor Robert Reich and the team of Wealth and Poverty Graduate Student Instructors to explain why I decided to give all my students an A grade for the Spring 2020 semester at the University of California, Berkeley as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent move to all online classes.

My Wealth and Poverty Family:

Although our team has gone to tremendous lengths to accommodate our Wealth and Poverty students, as I began assigning the arbitrary letters to my students’ numerical scores, I had a pit in my stomach I could not shake. Splitting hairs to differentiate from an A to an A- and so on feels utterly inequitable to me. Thus, I have decided to give all my students an A grade for this Spring 2020 semester, and this letter is to explain why.

The University’s “solution” of switching grades to pass / no pass simply did not do enough to account for the myriad of variables that have undoubtedly affected our student’s ability to learn and perform academically. This inadequate “solution,” and refusal to listen to the student body’s proposals such as refunding tuition is only exacerbated by the unrelenting rhetoric of “students are getting the same world-class education they were before we transitioned online.” Having taught three semesters as well as being a recipient of both a bachelor’s and master’s from Cal, I vehemently disagree with that assertion. Definitively, and without doubt, the education my sections got is not comparable to what they would have had if we were in-person the entire semester.

Learning is not just about content delivery, if it were, there would be no use for Universities, and we could all just read the books on our own and become scholars. But that is not the case. Being in person means that we can hear what our peers have to say with crystal clarity and no unstable internet connections. It means we all get to suffer in a crowed hot classroom together with no AC, cementing our solidarity as dedicated change-makers. It means we can share food and music and talk freely and openly about the most pressing issues facing our society. It is not to say that learning cannot happen virtually. Having taught seven weeks online, I have done my best to recreate some of those moments. But it is not the same. Just as our leaders keep reminding us that this pandemic has created a “new normal” for us, we need to think of what that new normal looks like in our education system. I think the first step is being honest with ourselves and admitting that things just are not the same, and the way we used to do things will not work now. 

I write with the utmost sincerity that this was not an easy decision for me to make. In part, because I know the implications my choice has on my fellow GSIs, and I don’t want to make anyone feel like their hard work at maintaining normalcy and rigor and integrity during these times is diminished by my actions. I am merely doing what I believe to be the ethically defensible thing given the extreme circumstances we are in.

Ultimately, the decision to give my students A’s has less to do with our course and is more a gesture to the University that the way they have handled this unprecedented pandemic is wrong. Maybe it is not right to use my professional position to make this larger statement about University-wide practices. However, if being a former student and then a GSI for Robert Reich has taught me anything it’s that we can’t always change the entire system, but we can change the parts of the system that we have control over. The fact is no matter how much it pains me to hear my student cry over the way UC Berkeley has treated them, I cannot change the deep systemic inequities that exist that caused those tears. I can do my best to try and lessen their suffering though.

On the last day of class my students and I write a pledge on how we plan to reduce inequality post-Wealth and Poverty. Giving my students A’s is my pledge to fight inequality. If I truly want to teach my students about how to address inequities in our society, I must put into practice the things that I preach.

Frankly, if an A is the marker of excellence, then it is too low of a grade to convey the work my students have done this semester. But it is what I have the power to do, and I know it will still mean something.

With love,

Ellie Householder