As Election Day sprawled into a nearly weeklong wait for the president-elect to be announced, a professor and multiple teaching fellows faced backlash for their response to students’ requests to change the testing schedule of a core molecular, cellular and developmental biology class, “Biochemistry,” in the days following Nov. 3.
In anonymous posts on Piazza — a question-and-answer forum used in many classes — several students asked the MCDB 300 professor, Ronald Breaker, to reschedule their Nov. 6 exam to a later date in light of the election. The conversation spiraled into a heated discussion as Breaker maintained that the exam would go ahead as planned while several students detailed their personal stakes in the presidential contest.
In a review session following the initial online discussion, a TF in the class called the student posters “animals [that have been] let loose” in a video obtained by the News. Student reactions populated Piazza after the video was posted to the course Canvas page.
“I am considering dropping this class not because [I’m] doing bad, but because I can no longer trust the very people that grade my exam,” one student wrote in an anonymous post dated Nov. 5.
The controversy started with an anonymous Nov. 4 post regarding the upcoming exam, titled “I can’t focus on anything but the election.”
The post described the student’s inability to study for the Friday exam knowing that the result of “the most important (and inconclusive) election of our lifetime” was pending. Still, the responses they received from the course’s TFs and Breaker, a Sterling Professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, were not what some had hoped.
In a message entitled “Hang in there!” Breaker wrote to the anonymous student that the “world needs well-trained life sciences professionals in good times and bad.”
Breaker’s response elicited a public Piazza post — students on the site can choose to either remain anonymous or be named — from Yousra Omer ’22, who described her personal stakes in the election and called Breaker’s previous message “disrespectful and offensive.”
“This election is a deciding factor in who is allowed to be in this country, which dictates who is allowed to be in your class,” wrote Omer. “It is not a tall ask for an exam to be postponed when our security is in jeopardy and our lives are actively at risk.”
Breaker and Douglas Kankel, director of undergraduate studies for MCDB, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Some students who responded to Omer’s post shared how the election is similarly affecting their ability to focus and study for the exam. Others explained that taking the exam in the subsequent week would be difficult due to other pushed deadlines, and they proposed solutions like offering the exam on both the normal Friday time and holding an alternate one the following Monday. Other students disagreed entirely; one student noted that the exam date has been in the syllabus since the start of the semester.
Later that night, at a TF-led review session, three of the class’ TFs discussed the series of posts at the Zoom session before any students arrived, according to a video obtained by the News.
It was then that Tianjiao Su GRD ’22, one of the TFs, commented to the other TFs assembled that the students making the posts were like “animals [that have been] let loose” and added: “You can’t talk to us the day before the exam. If this was going to distress you should’ve mentioned it awhile ago so we could prepare for it.”
Another TF, Eduardo Encina SPH ’21, was recorded saying, “Like honestly, I get it, but I feel like you probably should have said something last week.”
According to a Piazza post obtained by the News, as well as subsequent interviews, multiple students said that while the full recording of the session was originally posted to Canvas, the controversial section of the video was later edited out.
None of the TFs for the class responded to multiple requests for comment.
Multiple students reacted with criticism and action after watching the video. Some said they were going to send the video to Kankel while others lambasted the remarks as unacceptable. In a separate interview with the News, Omer added that “as a Black woman, while I don’t think the [TF] was intentionally meaning to be racist, hearing those comments targeted at me was hurtful.”
On Nov. 5, after students discovered the TF remarks, Breaker sent an email to the class, obtained by the News, saying that he talked to students, TFs and other professors about the events that transpired.
Breaker added that he hopes to achieve the objectives set out for the semester: helping undergraduates understand biochemistry, introducing TFs to the teaching experience in the MCDB Department and forming a community of “students and scholars.”
“Please know that this entire class is an educational experience – for the undergraduate enrollees as well as for the TAs,” Breaker wrote. “TAs are more than support staff to course instructors – this is an apprenticeship where they get their initial hands-on experience in teaching. So, your feedback is actually part of the mechanism by which course instructors help guide and shape the TA learning experience.”
According to Yale College Dean Marvin Chun, exam dates and coursework deadlines are at instructors’ sole discretion and can be changed only by them.
“It would be unusual to reschedule an exam stated in the syllabus without significant advance notice,” he added.
Should students find instructors’ or TFs’ comments to be generally insensitive, Chun recommended that they speak directly with an instructor, Dean of Student Engagement Burgwell Howard or Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd to receive guidance or facilitate an informal resolution.
In an email to the News, Tamar Gendler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote that faculty, especially those in large courses, need to take into account the needs of “hundreds of students.” She added that instructors worked last week to try to be fair, humane and respectful while maintaining predictability, consistency and rigor.
Ultimately, Breaker did not accept the requests for various class-wide testing accommodations — students took the exam during its originally scheduled slot on Friday morning. In an email to students enrolled in the class, he wrote that “there are many ramifications to changing the original exam schedule, and therefore we will keep the exam date for tomorrow.” Breaker also added that he scheduled an additional review session and was willing to meet individually with students to discuss the issues further.
According to a roster of the class obtained by the News, 139 students are enrolled in “Biochemistry” this semester.
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