“Students care about their grades”

This memo from October 2020 was written to debrief an unsuccessful campaign that YDSA at University of Virginia began in March 2020.

Last spring, at the start of the pandemic, we voted to begin an “End Classes Now” campaign. This was a bad decision despite it being my own idea and the reasons it was a bad decision are helpful for thinking about how we pick our battles, especially compared to the successful credit/no-credit campaign (see here and here). I am not trying to scold us about our past decisions but rather evaluate what works and what does not. These are only my opinions and I can’t speak for anyone else.

We voted on the campaign in late March before we knew anything besides “classes are online now.” The basic idea was, there is an emergency — a pandemic — going on right now and it will start to affect many of our loved ones personally, we need to stop school and give people a chance to focus on that. We set up an online petition that received 248 signatures, made a FAQ document, and held a call open to all students with a professor and Charlottesville city councillor-slash-DSA member Michael Payne. These seem to have gone well compared to our regular tabling for freezing tuition. But after a while, unconsciously, we stopped focusing on End Classes Now.

The internal vote was relatively divided, something around 10-7. A close vote doesn’t always mean you should not do something, in some cases it’s important. This was not one of those cases. If active and new members were not on board with this demand after talking about it for an hour, then maybe we would have a hard time finding an audience for it in the student body.

That’s the background. The resistance and confusion in that Zoom meeting likely reflected the response our slogan would get from other students. Now, the analysis. 

There are two basic reasons I think End Classes Now did not work. 1) we misjudged the objective conditions, and 2) we misjudged the subjective conditions. If you are reading this and thinking, “well then you appear to have misjudged everything!” you are correct and also that’s a funny first thought.

Objective conditions are the things that are external to us that we cannot change, at least in the short term. It was early in the pandemic and other countries were instituting drastic lockdowns. China’s was the most severe but also seemed to work. It seemed as if there might be an increase in stay-at-home life. Lots of other areas were no longer working as though it was business as usual, so why not education too? Imagine: YDSA could have been the champions of public health and a caring response during a scary time. The idea of a  “national shutdown” was not fringe. But this did not end up happening, mostly because the U.S. cannot coordinate things at the federal level and the people in charge who could coordinate were ideologically opposed to it, science, and generally helping people. From the University’s perspective, if they (university administrators / state governments) cancelled classes, they would probably face complaints from professors who want to be paid and parents who want some money back.

Subjective conditions are the things we can change or interact with right now (in order to try to change more things in the future!). In this case the opinions of students in the student body. I assumed people were as stressed as I was, as not interested in classes as I was, and as unconcerned with grades as I was. As I write, all my classes are pretty bleak, but last semester people were not as sad — just stressed. And in reality, people also liked the normalcy and contact that classes provided. Additionally, if you say “End Classes Now” to a student who has plans after graduation that depend on their grades, they might — rightly — say “But what about my grades?” or “I disagree.” In our chapter, members raised this important concern. My conclusion after thinking about it for the past few months is that even though college is becoming more expensive, even though people face worse job prospects, the consciousness of students is still overwhelmingly meritocratic, focused on rankings and grades and getting ahead relative to peers. This is understandable and I’m not saying it’s good or bad; maybe it’s true of the University of Virginia more than other schools. Either way, we need to know what the average student thinks if we want to get them involved in socialist organizing.

There is another reason for this failure: demands should be easily explainable and ideally obvious to anyone who sees it. “End Classes Now” was striking and clear, but the devil was in the details. What about grades? My thinking was, well, if we eventually have the power to actually end classes, we would also be able to make sure everyone gets the grades they needed by passing everyone or otherwise noting that all grades were during a pandemic. But this was insufficient: students were actually much more worried about their grades than how personally comfortable they were.

A month after we launched the End Classes Now campaign, the Student Council released the results of a survey of the student body. Assuming it was representative, only 17% of students wanted a universal pass (i.e., every student passes all their classes, which was our YDSA chapter’s position). Most students wanted some form of credit/no-credit with the option to receive letter grades. Students overwhelmingly (90%!) wanted to see their grades before choosing credit or a letter. Just to hammer it home, students care about their grades! As Pablo Iglesias put it, we have to try to (paraphrasing) “establish a unity between our analysis and people’s experiences.” We have to match the objective and subjective conditions.

At the time, it felt like there was a wave of new student activism at colleges all across the country, it was really exciting, and we were thinking about our demand in relation to what those groups were demanding. It is probably better to choose a straightforward and achievable demand even if other groups are demanding it too (that might be a sign it’s a good idea). Sometimes we might pick something to do even if it’s not winnable in the foreseeable future, to give ourselves a way to train and practice organizing. Other times the goal may be to unify all the left-wing students who could be socialists. Ideally, we aim for something that has the potential to win over a majority of students regardless of their political views by speaking to their self-interest. But at a richer school like UVA, that might not always be possible. The more important question, then, is how do we forge a solidarity between a plurality of students and the people who can really make change at the university: the staff, professors, grad students, and other workers.

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