Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
August 14, 2020

What challenges have Peabody students faced amid COVID-19?

By RYAN AGHAMOHAMMADI | April 8, 2020

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COURTESY OF ELI WASSERMAN

Peabody will implement an opt-out S/U grading system for the spring semester.

Students at the Peabody Institute were informed on March 27 that Peabody would be implementing an opt-out satisfactory/unsatisfactory (S/U) grading policy for the spring semester. By contrast, the deans of the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences (KSAS) and the Whiting School of Engineering adopted a universal S/U grading system for Homewood Campus the same day. 

In the student-wide email, Dean of the Peabody Institute Fred Bronstein and Senior Associate Dean of Institute Studies Abra Bush explained that the new policy aims to accommodate the various circumstances students may be experiencing amid the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. 

In accordance with social distancing guidelines, all performances, recitals, juries and ensembles were canceled in the same announcement. 

Junior Caroline Lacy, a dual-degree Vocal Performance and Writing Seminars major, noted the uncertainty that the pandemic has brought to her education in an interview with The News-Letter. 

“In-person experience is so necessary for music making. How do you perform anything if it’s just you in your room?” she said. “That side of my life feels like it’s been entirely disrupted.”

Other students further reacted to changes caused by the closing of campus. In an email to The News-Letter, Bronstein explained the reasoning behind these changes and how Peabody aims to support its students during this time. 

Grading Policy

All Peabody students have been automatically enrolled in S/U grading. They can also choose to receive letter grades by filling out an online form by May 1. 

According to Bronstein, administrators implemented this policy in order to provide students with what they believed would best serve the unique circumstances of the conservatory. 

“We were focused on Peabody’s student body and making the decision that was most appropriate here,” he wrote. “Our approach is to give Peabody students the most flexibility we can, in order to minimize the stress that our students are feeling.”

Freshman Merrick Ohata questioned the flexibility to which Bronstein referred. Ohata, a dual-degree Composition and Applied Mathematics and Statistics major, considered how graduate schools may perceive students who do not opt-out of S/U grading.

“I don’t like the impression that the administration is giving students a choice to take the letter if they feel like they can. A lot of it is an illusion, and there’s not really a choice,” he said. “Since it’s not universal, not taking the letter will impact how that looks.”

He argued that not taking a letter grade could make students seem less desirable than similarly qualified job candidates, as certain applications require transcripts and grade point averages.

Similarly, some students expressed their belief that the new policy fails to take the best interests of the students into account.

Sophomore Rush Johnston, a Dance major, voiced her concern in an email to The News-Letter that the ability to opt-in to letter grades favors certain students

“We are no longer on the level playing field of being on campus and in a healthy and supportive learning environment,” she wrote. “Giving any option to choose a letter grade is prioritizing privileged students alone.”

Sophomore Julia Asher, a dual-degree Dance and Natural Sciences major, agreed with Johnston.

“When you give the option to opt-in to grades, there’s then a lot of pressure,” she said. “People need to realize that it’s a privilege to care about grades right now. If you can care about grades right now, you are very lucky.”

On the other hand, sophomore Philip Barsky, a Vocal Performance major, approved of the policy, while acknowledging that it falls short in some areas.

“I have an unpopular opinion; it’s nice that I have the opportunity to take the letter grade if I wanted,” he said. “But I can also see the flip side that it’s unfair... It’s only reflecting the resources you have at home, and it’s not reflecting how hard you’re going to work.”

Freshman Eli Wasserman, a Music Composition and Music Education double major, pointed to what he believes are benefits of the policy. 

“I was happy with it because I know that a lot of the kids don’t spend a lot of time on their work at Peabody because they’re really focused on practicing or writing music or creating something,” he said. “A lot of times the core classes restrict them from being able to do that, so this lets people have a lot more time to practice and less stress on the academic side if they have to prepare a solo or a senior recital.”

However, dual-degree students, enrolled at both Homewood and Peabody, expressed concerns about how they were informed about their two campuses’ differing policies. On April 2, Assistant Dean Jessie Martin of the Office of Academic Advising at KSAS emailed students with updated information.

This clarified that dual-degree students will be subject to Homewood’s universal S/U policy because they are classified as Homewood students,.

For sophomore Marina Bien-Aimé, a dual-degree Vocal Performance and Art History major, the difference in the Homewood and Peabody policies put her in an odd position.   

“When I found out that Peabody was instating a different policy, it was kind of shocking to me considering both Krieger and Whiting wanted a universal option,” she said. “It was a very weird disconnect for me.” 

Lacy echoed Bien-Aimé’s sentiments.

“Why does Peabody have to have the option of having grades in the first place? What purpose does that serve?” she said. “Peabody always feels like it’s two steps removed from the University and this is just another part of that.”

Asher argued against choosing to receive letter grades, hoping that Peabody students take into consideration the diverse conditions that their peers are in.

“It’s not just some far-off thing that people are being affected. We know people getting affected. These are our friends. These are our peers. These are the people that we study with,” she said. “We need to realize that we need to support them, even if that means sacrificing our hard work and what we did at the beginning of the semester. We, as a community, can sacrifice that to help those in need at this time.”

Student Input

Many students questioned why the decision to implement opt-out S/U grading failed to incorporate student voices.

Sophomore Lara Villanueva, a Bassoon Performance and Recording Arts and Sciences double major, believes that the administration was not receptive to student concerns. 

“I’d like to see them honestly talk to the students more and actually take us into consideration,” she said. “I feel like they’ll hear us and then shut us down immediately.”

Peabody General Assembly (PGA) President, C.J. Hartung, a senior Vocal Performance major, explained that administrators did not consult PGA in the changing of the grading policy. 

According to Hartung, because the decision was made so quickly, it would have been difficult to get students involved.

“Of course, it would have been great to be involved in that, but how much of that, though, is institutionally, academically appropriate for students to be in that conversation?” he said. “I don’t know.”

Barsky, who is running for Hartung’s position, agreed with Villanueva. 

“Peabody needs to be more willing to communicate with the student body,” he said. 

On April 2, students voiced their concerns about the grading policy to the deans at a town hall. While Johnston saw this as a step forward, she was frustrated by how they responded to students. 

“It felt like they were speaking out of both sides of their mouths and not actually listening to the concerns at hand,” she said. “It’s disheartening because it feels like they aren’t considering those most affected during this time. either by sickness or by lack of resource and support.” 

Online Classes

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, all in-person undergraduate courses were suspended through the end of the semester on March 18. Since March 23, classes have been held on Zoom, an online conference call platform, which has posed unique problems for Peabody students.

Bronstein praised how the Peabody community has adapted to these challenges.

“Our faculty and students are finding new ways to utilize a host of tools and technologies to make the most of these unusual times — not only delivering classes and lessons online, but also coming together to create and perform in innovative and inspiring ways,” he wrote.

While many students praised their professors’ revised approaches, Johnston stated that her academic responsibilities have increased. Her professors have given her more work, she wrote, which has increased her level of stress. 

“There’s pressure now more than ever to do everything on time, totally correct and in full completion,” she wrote. “I have had a teacher tell me that we should be doing even more online work because ‘What else are we doing anyways?’”

Other students noted that their courses are now significantly lesser in quality. 

Villaneuva explained that many professors are pre-recording lessons because the compression rate over Zoom does not allow for the best sound quality. Another significant obstacle on Zoom, she said, is the inability to play music together on the online platform.

Lacy added that lessons have been negatively affected by the transition to remote instruction.

“There’s such a difference in being in a room with a piano and your teacher and singing over a webcam that doesn’t have very good audio and trying to make that connection,” she said. “It’s basically a semester of lessons wasted. Lessons, I think, are just impossible.”

Ohata also reflected on the lack of in-person guidance, though he explained that the quality of his education has remained the same by nature of his program of study.

“A lot of it has turned into self-study. I have one class that meets at a live time. Everything else is mostly self-study. Which is fine. I don’t really know how else they would do it. Especially for Keyboard, I get a lot less coaching and corrections or tips on what I’m supposed to be doing,” he said. “They can’t because I’m not there.”

Wasserman believes that some students are taking advantage of online learning in order to not do their work.

“A lot of kids have been using this as an easy way out of classes they don’t want to participate in. They claim that their internet connection is too bad for them to be able to sight sing over Zoom,” he said. “A lot of times kids are just not paying attention and then when they’re called on, they just blame the Internet.”

Johnston, however, explained that the technical difficulties she has faced are genuine. 

“During the transition online… I was worried about getting an internet connection installed in my home; how I was going to find enough space in my house to safely take a dance class; and how I was mentally going to handle being away from such a community-based art form,” she wrote. 

Lack of Resources/Uncertainty

Bronstein reaffirmed the Institute’s commitment to supporting students through this transition to online learning.

“The core educational experience for students continues to include the same access to the time, resources, and expertise of Peabody’s outstanding faculty and curriculum, as well as so many of the surrounding supports normally provided for students,” he wrote. “In addition, to ensure that our students can continue with as little disruption as possible we currently have 164 instruments checked out on loan to students who need them, including eight pianos and 14 keyboards that have been delivered to students.”

Nevertheless, some students reported a lack of resources. Without a studio, Asher now must practice dancing in her bedroom, which has impacted her physical health.  

“I push all my furniture to the walls,” she said. “In ballet, you’re supposed to have a bar. All the students are using chairs as bars. Students who do pointe can no longer practice because the floors cannot support that. Usually, dance floors are sprung, so dancing on hardwood or carpet... is rough on the body.”

Bien-Aimé argued that being away from campus has impaired her ability to learn new music. 

“I’m getting a new repertoire, and we don’t have access to our music library,” she said. “I don’t have any resources to get the new repertoire.” 

Bien-Aimé stated that she had to buy a new microphone in order to improve the sound quality of her lessons. She fears that other students wouldn’t be able to do so. 

Students taking Keyboard Studies who don’t have pianos in their homes, she said, were told to print out PDFs of keyboards on paper and follow along over Zoom. 

Similarly, Villanueva no longer has access to the materials imported from France that Peabody provided her. 

“As a double reed, we make our own reeds. I don’t have the resources to make reeds for my instrument,” she said. “And that directly affects my growth in performance because I can’t play my instrument as much as I want to.”

For Lacy, the effects of the pandemic have made it difficult to practice and create music. Without the structure of being present on campus, she said, it has been difficult to adjust. 

“I’ve been suddenly forced to confront, without any sort of external motivation, making music without any opera performances coming up, no juries where I have to learn the music to get a grade,” she said. “I haven’t been practicing as much. Of course, that means the quality of my voice is going to deteriorate.”

Hartung echoed Lacy’s sentiments, detailing the impact of self-isolation on his work.

“It’s hard to create art,” he said. “Knowing the state of the world right now, it’s just so hard to get up and be inspired to do anything. When you do get those moments of inspiration, in a room by yourself, you’re making that art, knowing that nobody else is getting to experience that and the healing and positive benefits it might have.”

By contrast, Bronstein underscored the role that artists have during periods of uncertainty.

“I believe it is the job of artists to respond to times like these with creativity, passion and clarity,” he wrote. “I am inspired by the resilience I have already witnessed in the Peabody community, by the remarkable commitment of our faculty to deliver a special experience for our students, and by the artistic energy that is arising from this extraordinary situation.”

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