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OPINION: The limits of intellectual fearlessness

September 25, 2020

This piece represents the opinion of the author .

Imagine, for fun, that a meteor is hurtling towards Earth at 25,000 miles per hour. As it inches closer and closer to our stratosphere, the human race mere hours from obliteration, you prepare for an afternoon Zoom class. At what point does the professor make the readings optional?

OK, so the meteor analogy may be a little far-fetched, but in any case, the current state of the world is completely unrecognizable from the Bowdoin falls we once knew. And the more that the administration insists that this semester is capable of mimicking an on-campus one, the clearer it becomes that the quality seen as most distinctly “Bowdoin” is the overworking of its students.

President Rose prefaced his email outlining the fall grading policy with a note on terminating the Credit/No Credit policy: “This temporary, one-semester policy expired at the end of the spring semester.” This sentiment seems to be widely held among Bowdoin administrators and professors alike—that lenience in the apocalyptic age has an expiration date, that it really shouldn’t take more than a couple of months to acclimate to life during a pandemic. Bowdoin students are expected to be fully morphed into a new type of student by this point, and professors are expected to have adapted to working with an infuriating method of teaching, both of which are insurmountable asks of people who are busy navigating life during a pandemic.

I am somewhat dreading re-enrolling at Bowdoin after my leave of absence, mostly because I was barely able to stay afloat this spring. While the pandemic raged on and I came to terms with my college experience as I knew it coming to an abrupt halt, I was also dealing with another disaster, this one intensely personal: I had suddenly assumed the position of being the main caretaker for my sister, who was battling leukemia. Attempting to balance school with something that was occupying my entire mind was, in a word, impossible. When she hit what can only be described as a colossal rough patch, I decided to ask for help for the very first time at Bowdoin. I’m not exaggerating—before last spring, I had never so much as asked for an extension on a paper. Like most Bowdoin students, I joked about drowning in work only insofar as to make it clear that I can technically handle myself. So it was kind of a big deal for me to swallow my pride and send my dean the following email on May 8:

“Hi Dean *redacted*, I was wondering if you could be the liaison between me and my professors again. My sister is currently in a medically-induced coma and is fighting for her life. I am living with her in the hospital and aside from constantly being busy talking to her doctors about her condition, I don’t really have the bandwidth to work on my final papers and assignments right now. Could you please let my professors know? You can disclose whatever you see fit. Thanks, K”

He called me a couple days later to deliver the news—three of my four professors had agreed to excuse me from my finals and pass me. The fourth had refused.

This incident, however isolated it may be, exemplifies a major issue with the way Bowdoin determines what constitutes a worthy hardship; we are expected to bear all traumas in return for small acts of mercy, and are so often refused accommodation even so. In turn, the resilience we are forced to find within ourselves during these times becomes the hallmark of our Bowdoin experiences, when we could just as easily remember the moments of rest we were given when we needed them most. I took my leave of absence for many reasons, but a pretty notable one was that I still haven’t been able to get it out of my head that I spent the last couple weeks of my spring semester by my sister’s comatose side, trying to fight the exhaustion and write a six-page final paper on a theorist/photographer from the eighties.

I don’t mean to imply that students need to be coddled through this period in history, nor am I suggesting we lose ourselves in general tragedies rather than try to salvage what we can of our college experiences. I just think it needs to be recognized that Bowdoin students are exhibiting fearlessness in so many facets of our lives right now, and sometimes it feels as if intellectual fearlessness should come second to all of that.

K Irving is a member of the Class of 2021. 


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  1. Alumna says:

    K, prayers for you and your family. You are very strong for staying enrolled during such a difficult period in your life.

    Were you able to get an incomplete for the course or did the professor fail you?

  2. Disappointed Recent Grad says:

    K, thank you for sharing this piece of your life. Hoping for healing for you and your sister.

    There’s much more to this piece, but what struck me is how little has changed in the five years since I graduated in the way Bowdoin accommodates students, both in periods of personal crisis, national crisis, or generally. That it was up to your *professor* to decide if your request merited approval is wrong and unique to Bowdoin. The path to requesting accommodations is unclear and far less transparent at Bowdoin than at peer institutions. At Bowdoin, deans and/or the Accessibility Office—which was run solely by the Director for Gender Violence Prevention while I was there—do not advocate for students. The professor’s decision is the end of the conversation. Their “academic freedom” should not infringe upon your fair and equal treatment, but it does when professors dictate whether your hardship is worthy or not. There’s no person on Earth who can decide that, and although the circumstances under which worthy struggles necessitate accommodations is far more complicated, someone with training and experience in accessibility and accommodations might have been able to get a bit closer.

    Bowdoin students deserve better access to accommodations.

  3. Bill Gibson says:

    First of all, my very best wishes to you and your family. You are enduring something far more significant than it appears one of your professors (I use the term loosely as it pertains to him/her) can comprehend. I graduated a long time ago (‘69) and know that not one professor I had would have responded in this ignorant and likely pretentious manner. To be blunt,
    he/she is a pompous twit and should no longer have the privilege of teaching at Bowdoin!

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