How should faculty conduct themselves if the administration cannot or will not reach an agreement with the Graduate Fellows Teaching Federation? The impasse between them, as we all know, has put faculty who depend on GTFs between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand, they cannot function normally without GTFs, while on the other hand several of the alternatives to normality entail at best a disservice to our students, at worst educational malpractice. Confronted with the ethical and professional challenges posed by the administration’s latest “continuity plan,” many, perhaps most faculty embrace our recommendation to “Keep Calm and Carry On.” But it is not the place of United Academics to say what faculty should or should not do. Some colleagues may have no alternatives at all—if, for example, a dean decides to “modify final exams for some or all courses” in a particular unit, as the most recent continuity plan allows. For the rest of us, this is a decision each colleague will have to make for her/himself, within the parameters of law, contract, ethics, and professional integrity. As we see it, the range of responses can be clumped into three broad categories:
Truncate: Faculty may decide to “forgo the final and take the existing grade” and/or exclude term papers from the calculation of a student’s grade for the entire course.
Among all the alternatives recommend by the administration, is the least acceptable, ethically and pedagogically, as well as the option that exposes us to the charge of educational malpractice. It is fatalistic in its assumption that the strike will not be averted; once announced to students, it cannot be undone—even if an agreement is reached; faculty who choose this path without informing their students defraud them by requiring work that will not be included in the calculation of a grade. It is also grossly unfair to student who, for whatever reason, began the term poorly and hoped to improve their scores in end-of-term written assignments and final exams. The administration’s “solution” to this problem—to make final examinations available to those who want to take them—compounds malpractice with inequity. On the other hand, this option carries no negative consequences for individual faculty in their dealings with administration.
Modify: Faculty may decide to modify final exams into machine-readable formats, thereby obviating the need for human involvement in the grading process.
Here the ethics are more nuanced. There is nothing inherently wrong with ScanTron exams—in many disciplines, after all, machine-readable exams are preferable and for entirely legitimate, pedagogical reasons. In other disciplines, however, modification cannot occur without a degradation of standards or, worse, serious distortions in the evaluation of student performance. For those who regard machine-readable exams as an inappropriate evaluation method, this option offers no comfort. For those who have little or no expertise in crafting ScanTron examinations, there is the added risk that students will suffer the effects of tests designed poorly and hastily. In disciplines to which machine-readable exams are not well adapted, this option, like the first, threatens to dilute and degrade academic standards. Needless to say, this option does nothing to address the problem of grading end-of-term written assignments. But like the first option, it carries no negative consequences for individual faculty in their dealings with administration.
Keep Calm and Carry On: Faculty may decide simply to carry on as normal, leaving end-of-term writing deadlines and final examinations in place, in hopes that the administration will reach a settlement with the GTFF.
Paradoxically, the most coherent option ethically is also the one that carries with it the greatest potential risk for faculty. If the impasse cannot be overcome, this option would render many faculty unable to deliver any grades by the administration’s deadline, which in turn would automatically result in a grade of “X” (“missing grade”) for their students. The administration has announced that “X” grades are “not an option,” however, although it is not clear what exactly that means. Because it is not reasonable to expect faculty to take on all the grading work of their teaching fellows, this option may mean that grading might be performed by unqualified “assistants,” using all or only part of the student work. But in the likely event that “assistants” are unable to finish grading before the administration’s deadline, a grade of “X” will result—the very thing that hiring “assistants” is meant, ostensibly, to avoid. In order to mitigate the damage caused by entrusting the evaluation of final exams or end-of-term written work to unqualified “assistants,” moreover, deans and/or department heads may calculate grades on the basis of partial work, in which case the outcome of this option would be no different from the highly problematic option 1. But at least faculty would emerge from the transaction with their professional integrity intact. Does this option imperil the relations of individual faculty with the administration? It is difficult to say. The Collective Bargaining Agreement stipulates that in the event of a strike, faculty “will not unreasonably refuse to perform” work “which was previously performed by a striking employee.” In other words, our obligations hinge on what constitutes a “reasonable” volume of additional, compensated work at the end of term to meet the administration’s grading deadline.
Perhaps to assuage our concerns on this score, representatives of the administration have stated, repeatedly and in public, that there will no reprisals against faculty who cannot submit grades on time, resulting in a grade of “X” for the affected students. If the administration did retaliate, their actions would be subject to grievance under the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Ethically and pedagogically, however, there is little doubt that this is the best option. It does not compromise academic standards; it treats students equally and fairly; it does not introduce new and potentially flawed measures of students’ work; it does not rule out the possibility of a settlement between administration and the GTFF.
The GTFF has communicated to its members that they can expect to return to work once terms of settlement are reached, at which point all unfinished grading can be completed—unless, of course, the administration has by then already intervened on our classrooms and teaching to assign grades on the basis of partial work or with the help of unqualified “assistants.” We hope that they do not do that, but reach agreement instead.