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Changing educational values

Brandeis University, as we, the students, all know, prides itself on its strong academics. It rightly should, as it is ranked #44 by U.S. News and World Report for American universities (that said, the methodology used is now in question, and the actual value of such statistics at all is another debate entirely). 

 

Regardless, Brandeis and its community should be proud, given this statistic. For the most part, the educational prowess of the professors and classes offered here are up to a universal standard: students are compelled to understand and answer the questions “why” and “how” in addition to the question “what.” Additionally, Brandeis has what many other universities in the top 50 of these rankings struggle with: The support system for students historically has been, on average, not terrible. At least in my experience, my professors have all been very understanding when I’ve needed to skip class for personal or medical reasons, and have also been very willing to engage me in deeper conversations on the subject matter when I have questions beyond the scope of the class. The culture of academic curiosity is, at least from my perspective, as strong as it’s ever been. 

 

I was one of the many students who caught COVID-19 following orientation, which the university should have seen coming. I did everything I was supposed to—I contacted my professors and kept them updated as to my status, I watched lecture recordings and kept up on classwork, I was proactive in rescheduling a laboratory section to minimize the time missed out of other classes and cooperated fully with the health center—all from the solitary isolation of my dorm. Isolation hit me hard—I’m someone who doesn’t do super well when I’m not allowed out of my dorm for five days straight—but, in addition to the wonderful support I got from friends and family, what carried me through was the understanding that my professors and the university were working with me to make sure I lost as little of my education as possible when in isolation.

 

This history of phenomenal academics combined with a flexible and accommodating approach is what makes my more recent experience so dizzying. A couple of my classes have Echo360 quizzes as participation—they open and close while in class. Despite my close coordination with professors, I recently found out that I had lost points while under a university mandated quarantine. Now, I was able to follow up with those professors, who were luckily willing and able to retroactively grant me exemptions from those assessments such that I didn’t lose points. Despite the professionalism and kindness shown to me by my professors, this points to a larger, systemic issue within the university’s current COVID-19 policy: the fact that I had to follow up at all on those attendance assignments, especially when I was already in contact with my professors, is inappropriate. I am very happy that my professors sorted my situation out quickly and kindly, as it speaks to their willingness to work with and advocate for students in the face of an incomplete and ignorant university policy.

 

What’s far worse, though, is that I have been told there are even classes that are not allowing students sick with COVID-19 to make up an exam they miss: they have to take an exam on that material at the end of the class. While this is not a zero in the gradebook for these students, it is certainly not doing them any favors: it substantially increases the stress involved of being isolated, to say nothing of the impact that taking an assessment potentially months after the material was covered in class has on performance. Where my very minor point deductions were inconvenient, but ultimately reversible, this policy smacks of a more personal disdain for students who catch COVID-19 and are not allowed to go to class. Last year, the university had guidelines in place: I was able to make up an exam within a week when I missed it because I overslept, and friends of mine were able to take exams from COVID-19 isolation. The method and style varied from professor to professor, but the overall directive from the university seemed to be clear: students should not have to worry about missing an exam and not being able to make it up until the final. This seems to have been scrapped at the start of this year—and while some professors are continuing with policies that they developed last year, some are clearly not. It seems to me that some community members are forgetting a simple fact: When a student, or any community member for that matter, catches COVID-19, it is not their fault: we are still living with the pandemic. I wore a mask and didn’t go to parties, and I still got it. COVID-19 demands flexibility, from students and for professors. To do anything less is at best unfair and inconvenient to the individuals involved, and at worst borderline academic malpractice motivated by ideals differing from educational impartiality and characterized as poorly defined ignorance, sloth or flagrant disinterest. 

 

This is not the first opinion piece I have authored criticizing the university’s COVID-19 policies; it is because I believe them to be inadequate. I’m not arguing for decreased freedom or mobility of Brandeis community members. What I am advocating for is maintaining the flexibility that allowed us to carry through the earlier parts of the pandemic without failing in some drastic fashion. What I am truly advocating for is the preservation of and strengthening of the academic quality that makes this institution a phenomenal place to learn, regardless of COVID-19: I am arguing for the preservation of flexibility for all community members—it is integral to the very culture of this university.

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