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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Grades and academic fufillment: What you don’t know can’t hurt you

<u’re working at your leisure to learn the things you’ll need.”
-Roddy Radiation   

I’m thinking about writing a Carletonian column this week about a bad grade I got last term. It’s the worst grade I’ve gotten so far at Carleton, and – knock on wood – will be the absolute nadir of my academic performance for the rest of my life.

The only problem is that I’m not sure if I can talk directly about the grade. I tried with my parents, but I couldn’t do it. I might be too ashamed to commit it to ink for the whole campus to see. It’s very tempting to leave it as a private mark of failure between me and my advisor in the anaerobic blue of the Hub. But if I’m just going to talk around it, to define it by its accretion disk but not by its substance,  it might not even merit the discussion. It’s difficult to express how I feel about it without defining it first, though, and how do you define a black hole?

It’s not a particularly bad grade, I mean. I shouldn’t be ashamed of it – but now, it occurs to me, that kind of thinking is just an excuse, just a way of letting myself off the hook. The productive way of recovering from My Bad Grade is to embrace Catholic guilt, to make sure that in the future I stay virtuous, that I avoid the sins that led me to this dark place. I should be ashamed of my grade. For the sake of my GPA I need to be ashamed of it.

I got the grade in Dan Hernandez’s Global Change Biology course, which is probably the last science course I’ll take at Carleton. From now on I can play to my strengths, I can take humanities courses that stress conceptual thinking rather than quantitative reasoning – but there, see: I’m excusing myself again, letting myself off the hook, telling myself that it’s okay to get a bad grade in a science course when you can make up for it in a humanities course.

I can’t make up for it, though, and it’s not okay. It’s there, in my records, raw and exposed to the cold eyes of internships, graduate school admissions boards and ultimately, I suppose, Saint Peter.

“Well, kid,” he’ll grunt, his wings fluttering wearily, “It looks like you’re mostly above water, setting aside that time you kicked a hairbrush into your friend’s face when you were twelve – that was an accident, right? Just one more read-through, just protocol, and you’re good to go.”

And then he’ll look blearily down, his golden eyes shining onto the long transcript of my earthly life, and he’ll freeze.
“What the hell is this?” he’ll ask. “Is this a – “

And here I have to cut the hallucination short. I’m sorry. It’s not because I don’t like to think about going to Hell. I just can’t bring myself write down the grade.

Global Change was a great course. I never thought a science course could be so conceptually interesting. I understand what stochasticity is now, which is an idea that I never quite arrived at when I thought about extinctions before I took the course. One of the books I read has changed the way I look at prose writing on a fairly deep level. But since I checked my grades for the term it’s been hard to think about what I learned without the sense that my bad grade somehow disqualifies me from thinking about them, like no matter how much I felt I’d learned, my grade meant that I’m not actually qualified to know it.

I start to think though, why should I trust the grade that I got over my intuitive sense of what I learned? What does it matter what grade I got if I feel wiser? What kind of tunnel-vision careerism is that? What kind of appalling value set leads to a situation where you’re so ashamed of a performance evaluation that you can’t even talk about it with your parents?

But that, of course, is just another excuse, just a set of thin-skinned hippy platitudes. I have to prioritize achievement over personal growth. I’ll have time to grow as a person when my metabolism has slowed and my back has started to give out. If I start to feel fulfilled now, how can I ever feel fulfilled in the future? It’s better to give in to grading for the time being. Sure, the system sucks you into a death spiral of guilt, paranoia, exhaustion and masochism, but at least you’ll get into grad school at the end of it all.

Besides, it could be worse. I’ve heard about schools on the east coast where the only thing anyone ever talks about is their grades. The admissions brochures were right – here at Carleton nobody ever says a word.

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