What We’re Taking With Us Part III: Concession and Absorbing Crisis (#ACsurvivalguide)

Dear Kim,

In your last post you wrote about resource sharing as one of the things you wanted to take with you into the post-COVID world.

That world that seems ominously far away as we dive into the third wave in Canada, but I am, nevertheless, picking up on the “carrying with us” thread. This is because I am both optimistic that the pandemic still has a horizon and also because the topic I want to explore here has been on my mind all week: concession.

In academia, “concession” is one of the many formal words (like “accommodation”) used to describe policies and practices that allow students to postpone and/or make-up, redo, or otherwise account for missed classes, assignments, or exams. While concession can apply to predictable absences or missed work (as a result of ordinary things like religious observances or work obligations), it often comes up in relation to crisis.

Thanks to the pandemic, the last year has been an extended exercise in crisis.

In my teaching, I’ve noticed two important things about our year in crisis:

1. All students (and teachers and administrators), even those who are excelling, are living in the middle of widespread societal crisis, whether we realize this moment-to-moment or not; and

2. As a result of #1, I’ve had ample opportunity to engage with concession policies at my university.

This engagement has helped me reframe my conceptualization of concession.

A new approach to an old problem.

In the spring 2020, the spread of COVID-19 resulted in the shutdown of in-person learning at many colleges and universities. A few students had the capacity and means to adjust to the changes: low care responsibilities, stable income and shelter, access to private work space, up-to-date technology, a sturdy WiFi connection. Most students did not, and barriers ranged from childcare and interpersonal responsibilities to technological issues to health and wellness challenges.

As a result of the sudden change, most institutions agreed that online learning in Spring 2021 was a crisis and enacted institution-wide policies such as pass fail options.

Then, in fall 2020, the state of crisis got a bit fuzzy. Colleges and universities acknowledged that virtual and hybrid learning models were not “business as usual” but most reverted to “normal” or near normal evaluation policies. Pass fail options were limited or restricted.

The institutional buffer was gone, but the barriers and challenges remained. By October, 2020 my inbox was filled with concession requests. There were so many, in fact, that they were hard to organize.

I didn’t feel good about only granting concession to the students asking. Certainly, students rarely turn down deadline extensions. But, when over half the class is sending panicked emails requesting them, that signals a larger problem.

So, I took a more global approach: I extended deadlines, shortened assignments, and created alternate options for all the students in a class. I won’t lie, however. I hesitated before each change, because every single adjustment involved additional labour for me. I forged forward anyway, however, because while my fall semester was busy, I was low on care responsibilities and feeling healthy and well. I knew I could take on the work.

This was not true for all of my colleagues and friends. They had to make different decisions.

This helped me identify one of the core facets of concession: the capacity to absorb labour.

Like a sponge, concession is all about absorbing the effects of a mess.

Beyond questions of definition (what constitutes a crisis), concession creates work for people. Sometimes, it creates work for a lot of people: the student who has to send emails and arrange meetings; the instructor who has to decide next steps; the administrator who has to communicate with both the student and the professor.

Who is willing and able to absorb the work of crisis?

Asking this question encouraged me to create concession policies that were both fair and low-labour for everyone. One of my proudest moments of the fall was going to the chair of my department to discuss a course-wide concession, wherein students could opt out of the final assignment and still do well in the course (within limits).

My idea was approved. And you know what? No one “worked the system.” Everyone who used the “off-ramp” needed it, and it was significantly less work for both me and the students as compared to my usual concession processes.

I wouldn’t necessarily use this precise concession again, but I will absolutely carry the principle with me. Concession is not only a question of fairness and evaluation; it is also a question of absorbing the work that crisis creates.

What about you, Kim? Has the pandemic helped you reframe any parts of your thinking?

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