By SHANNON O. WELLS
In response to a recent memo from Provost Ann Cudd’s office related to student well-being and trauma, the Senate Educational Policies committee plans to form a subcommittee to consider the memo’s language and clarify how to best accommodate students’ needs.
The meaning and practical application of the provost’s Aug. 31 memo titled “Religious Observances and Student Well-Being during the Academic Year” was discussed during the committee’s first fall semester meeting on Sept. 19.
Sybil Streeter, psychology professor and director of undergraduate advising, noted that the thrust of a 2020 provost memo responding to national incidents of racial- and election-related violence as well as the COVID-19 pandemic to essentially “be kind” to students has now broadened considerably.
“For trauma resulting from literally anything, we’re being asked to make accommodations,” she said. “We’re not to penalize them for missing work or for missing class.”
Acknowledging that students “should not be penalized for absences, and faculty meetings should not be scheduled” related to religious observance days and events, the memo goes on to address the “physical and mental well-being” of all (Pitt) students: “… To the extent students experience non-disability-related illness, physical impairment, mental health concern, distress, or trauma, including distress or trauma related to current events, they should not be penalized for related absences, and modifications should be made for their continued academic progress. In turn, students should make faculty aware of their need for such modifications as soon as practical.”
Sharing concerns with her psychology department colleagues, Streeter said that “generally speaking, we believe (the new memo is) very broad and really vague.”
In response to Streeter’s and others’ concerns, the committee agreed to form a joint subcommittee comprising members of the Educational Policies and the Student Aid, Admissions and Affairs committees.
“They will look at the language of the memo and work with the Office of the Provost to adjust as needed,” John Stoner, committee co-chair, said after the meeting. “That effort may also involve looking at whether the language in the faculty handbook may need to be updated as well.”
The memo came from “a well-intentioned place” in an effort to support students who lack accommodations “or are struggling with the DRS (Disability Resources and Services) system that can be really clunky,” Streeter said. “But we’re not sure exactly how to address these challenges. We would like some clarification on: What is the penalty? What is an accommodation? What is continued academic progress? And we’d also like some guidance on how we, as a faculty, can manage this.”
Katherine Wolfe, Department of Economics professor, brought up expectations of how and when students should use their two grade “drop” privileges to excuse missed, or low-scoring, quizzes or tests. The dean’s office in Wolfe’s department approached her, as director of undergraduate studies, to ask that faculty members not require a student to use a “drop” because of a COVID-related absence.
“A lot of us do the best 10 out of fall quiz grades or whatever,” she explained. "And this was even a milder version of that, that the student should not be required to use one of their two available drops If they say they can’t come to class for some reason.
"We’re really trying to ratchet down the intense pressure our students are putting on themselves,” she added, explaining that one missed quiz should not ruin a student’s semester. “Practically speaking, if you have weekly assignments or weekly quizzes, you can’t do makeups for 600 people. … So this is policy that seems to have been made without really informing the faculty, or perhaps it was the faculty’s role to determine their own absence policies and their own grading.
Wolfe told the University Times she felt the provost's office memo is "unclear." "I think how we treat absences is a grading and attendance policy that should be under the purview of the faculty," she said, "and not a policy that the provost’s office sets."
Joe McCarthy, vice provost for undergraduate studies, pointed out how recent events, such as the hurricane that ravaged Puerto Rico, could affect a particular student’s stress level. While he said he “can see where the dean’s office is coming from and (Wolfe’s) point … this is an issue that, I think, a number of faculty and I will have to agree to disagree.”
He said if a student approached him either before or after missing a quiz to explain that they had COVID, he’d be inclined to drop the (low) grade rather than scheduling an impractical make-up test.
“But I don’t like to force a student to use that sort of (free) drop because, again, that takes away the pedagogical reason (Wolfe) pointed out, where we’re trying to lower the stress for students,” he said. “So if they had some reason above and beyond just getting the opportunity to falter, now it’s essentially an inequitable policy, where we’re giving most, but not all, of the students the advantage of being able to stumble.”
Because he interprets the provost’s memo to not go beyond saying “students shouldn’t be penalized for (trauma)-related absences,” McCarthy said he’s “sure the provost office would be happy to have the Faculty Senate help us wordsmith this so that’s it’s a bit more clear and accomplishes the goals that we’re trying to accommodate here.”
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com.
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