Dear Dean Kagan:
Professor Charles Nesson and the students enrolled in his "CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion" course request your permission to offer to all course members the option to take the class on a pass/fail basis. CyberOne is a novel learning experience focusing on persuasive, empathic argument in the Internet space. Its goal is to critically evaluate many different media technologies to understand how inherent characteristics and modes of distribution affect the arguments that are made using them. By its very nature, participation in CyberOne requires an open mind, a high degree of creativity, and a willingness to experiment without fear of failure. Mandating students to be graded according to a curved letter-grading system would significantly impede the purposes and pedagogy of the course.
A pass/fail option is not unprecedented at the Law School. The Negotiations Workshop is offered with a pass/fail option in such a way that the curve is not disturbed. A professor simply grades each student as he or she otherwise would, and when the grades are transferred to the registrar, the grades are changed to a P/F for those students who have selected the pass/fail option. Variations on the pass/fail theme have long been available at Yale Law School, Brown University, and Yale University, among other academic institutions.
Strong arguments can be made in favor of a pass/fail option in addition to precedent. Professor Nesson taught an Evidence course during the winter semester of 2006 in which he encouraged the students to take a more creative approach than they might in their other classes. Overall, feedback on the course was quite positive; however, feedback about the exam--and the required grading curve--was extremely (and powerfully) negative. We have chosen to take CyberOne with Professor Nesson because we are excited about its emphasis on intellectual curiosity and innovation. However, the idea of grading non-traditional forms of self-expression is unappealing to many of us.
Concern over grades threatens to stifle the imaginative, risky, personal work that this course seeks to encourage. Morever, it undermines the class goal of creating an open, collaborative learning environment. As students, we are put in a vulnerable and unpredictable position. We are striving to broaden our horizons by trying something new, yet our grades are important. We recognize that the process of assigning a grade to an original, highly creative, individual work is unavoidably subjective and arbitrary. The prospect of being subject to this process threatens to cause tremendous anxiety that will impede the very creativity needed for this course to thrive. Furthermore, as Professor Nesson's winter Evidence course demonstrates, worries about grades often creates an atmosphere of fear, hostility, suspicion, and bitterness among students. Such an atmosphere would be toxic to the community-oriented, collaborative pedagogy of CyberOne.
There are no negative aspects to the CyberOne pass/fail option. It does not disturb the classroom experience or the transcripts of students uninterested in the pass/fail option. Professor Nesson fully supports this proposal. We are highly-motivated students who are dedicated to learning and fully participating in our cyber adventure. Many of us simply would like to do so without the fear of failure.
One potential concern that we wish to address is the timing of this petition. It comes after the Add/Drop deadline has passed, and for that reason may appear untimely. However, the semester has just begun, and we had little prior knowledge about the course content. The pass/fail option was initially raised during the first class meeting of the year. Since then, it has gained traction among a significant number of students in the class. In our view, the populist nature of this proposal powerfully demonstrates the very collaborative and spontaneous nature of the course and the social experiment that it explores. This nature is what makes the class so exciting and inspiring, and is what would be most hindered by the imposition of a grade requirement.
Therefore, we, the undersigned, respectfully request your approval of a Pass/fail option for the new, innovative "CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion" course.