This post has been rattling around in my brain for the better part of the last year (if not the last two years, maybe even three) between mental breakdowns and 100 percents on assignments.
The thing that was holding me back most recently was my comps grade. Up until my fall semester senior year I had maintained a 4.0 GPA, and I was afraid a four-week Winter Term would bring it all crashing down. And it would also determine how I went about writing this post. So I was waiting to see if I would finish the worst, most stressful, Winter Term of my Eckerd career with a 4.0.
And I did. I still have a 4.0.
And yet that was in January, and now it's April, in a few days it'll be May, and I'm just now putting words on the page.
I want to write this post about grades as someone who is both very successful at navigating our system of education, and as someone who is so fed up with school that she's deferring her Northeastern graduate school acceptance a year because she literally does not have the brain capacity to participate in this system for another second.
And I think this requires a bit of context about me (bear with me).
I'm not entirely sure why I've developed such a hyper-fixation with getting As. When I was in middle and high school my grandpa used to dish out 50 dollar bills for all As on a report card, which for sure was motivating, but I don't think it's the source of my infatuation with maintaining a 4.0.
I honestly think it has somewhat developed out of spite.
In high school I was fourth in my class and I graduated with a 3.83 GPA. And I was so distraught. Because the only reason I wasn't third was an A- in gym class freshman year that I received after my teacher had us self-assess our volleyball skills. I gave myself a 70. I was being honest, I am not good at volleyball; she put it in the grade book. My easy A+ disappeared. Whenever I am given the chance to self-assess now I do so with great caution. And I always give myself an A. And that is usually me being honest, but it's also me being terrified of what happens when I lowball myself.
And then there were college applications. Northeastern University was my top choice; they rejected me. I opted for Eckerd instead. But because I didn't know until relatively last minute that I'd be going to Eckerd, I didn't apply to the honors program on time. I missed the email. Kindly, whoever was in charge allowed me to apply late. And then they kindly rejected me. Again: pissed.
And while things worked out just fine, and my Autumn Term/Human Experience professor was the best person I could've asked for, I started my Eckerd career angry that an imagined committee of faculty (I’m not actually sure how honors students are selected) did not deem me to be worthy of being in our honors program. And since the first day of Autumn Term a part of me has been dead set on proving whoever those anonymous people are wrong.
I even, perhaps, wanted to prove Northeastern wrong. And I think I kind of did; now they want me for graduate school and I don't want them. At least not right now. Hopefully by next fall, I’ll be feeling brave(? well-rested? healthy?) enough to act on my deposit and actually attend school there.
Maybe, unfortunately, I've done a bit of an oopsie with this somewhat spiteful 4.0 hyper-fixation. a) It stresses me the fuck out, constantly. And b) it has informed the direction my life has gone in, both in terms of the development of my identity and the types of opportunities I've pursued.
The second semester of my senior year of high school I took Ceramics. It was one of my favorite classes, I really love wheel throwing. But I wasn't great at it (apparently; my mom disagrees). I got a B. The literal only B I've ever gotten in my entire life. You might recall the poem I included in my post "College is Making Me Hate Reading and I Hate That." In it I said:
"and i’m confident in my ability to create complex sentences that explain how dominant epistemologies reify racial hierarchies in order to obscure subaltern processes of knowledge production but i’ve never taken an art class because all i know is empirical evaluation what happens when i draw a shitty picture? write a shitty poem?"
Ceramics was the last art class I took. I didn't really even intend to take an art class at Eckerd until I happened upon graphic design. But I realized recently (or remembered might be a better word), that when I was in middle school, before this grade stuff really consumed me, I was fully coding and designing my own websites on Tumblr. And I was using design software to plan out how my next room rearrangement would look. I was being digitally creative and I don't think I even realized it, and it was one of my favorite ways to spend my time. I wish I could remember how to code. But instead I got a B in ceramics and decided to avoid art as hard as possible. I do draw shitty pictures, but maybe I wonder if getting an A in ceramics would've changed how I felt about art classes in college. Though in all honestly it likely wouldn't have.
I think that I am a person who needs verbal affirmation to feel like I've done something well. Grades, in a way, are a verbal affirmation. So I learned how to get good ones. Which I think has actually restricted my capacity to learn. In college especially, the way I do homework is entirely based on maximizing my class grade rather than comprehending the material (bell hooks calls this the banking system of education). I have hundreds of pages of notes on google docs on books that I've read and literally could not tell you anything about any of them without referencing a doc. I memorize, test, get an A, forget, and repeat. And it's literally all I do. I don't do sports anymore, I don't really have hobbies, and throughout my life I've given up on violin, piano, saxophone, flute, and guitar because I literally couldn't make myself practice any of them when I had other assignments that I needed to do that would be graded.
And it's so fucking arbitrary. I have friends with GPAs that would be considered terrible by an employer or a graduate school who are so profoundly better versed than me on the course material from the classes we've shared. I think this is perhaps a little bit of imposter syndrome, but I don't feel like I know anything about politics and International Relations is one of my majors.
Yet I have a 4.0 and being a good student has become such a large part of my identity that I'm having a really hard time figuring out what to do with myself over the next year of my life (after I graduate). Obviously I have to work, but I don't feel like I know how to do anything besides be a student. I've always been a (good) student. I've always been working toward getting good grades in college. Now college is almost over and being a student is still an option but I'm so fed up with it that I don't want to do it anymore.
All of this is to say that if you're trapped in the higher education grade cycle like me and you're letting your grades determine both your identity and the types of classes you pursue, stop it. No A is worth your mental health. I went home for Spring Break, and upon returning I was reminded that I only really ever experience anxiety when I'm on this campus. The first time I ever had an anxiety attack was in the Kappa Scott communal bathrooms in the midst of my comprehensive exam. I constantly feel like I'm going to throw up in class, even the ones I enjoy. And I don't think that's something any of my classmates or professors are ever actually aware of. Because I'm raising my hand and contributing to the conversation through the nausea and heart palpitations. I think that I'm usually perceived as a relatively confident and well-informed student but I feel like in some ways that's a fallacy. But maybe not really. But it is a reality that when I'm playing with a fidget toy in class it's because the room feels a little unstable and I'm trying not to pass out. And I digress.
Recently for our Eastman Seminar we read a portion of Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks. And there are so many good quotes from that book that I could pull to talk about, but here specifically I want to talk about the fact that our education system is not structured to produce radical/critical thinkers, it's structured to produce obedient citizens.
"During college, the primary lesson was reinforced: we were to learn obedience to authority... I was tormented by the classroom reality I had known both as an under graduate and a graduate student. The vast majority of our professors lacked basic communication skills, they were not self-actualized, and they often used the classroom to enact rituals of control that were about domination and the unjust exercise of power... In graduate school I found that I was often bored in classes. The banking system of education (based on the assumption that memorizing information and regurgitating it represented gaining knowledge that could be deposited, stored and used at a later date) did not interest me. I wanted to become a critical thinker. Yet that longing was often seen as a threat to authority" (4-5)
The realization that I've been participating in this grading system that is meant to foster obedience was strange for me. Because despite my 4.0, I don't think it really worked. I have a really difficult time respecting anyone who does not respect me; professors, police officers, peers. And I'm not really very good at hiding it either, my mom always says you can tell exactly what I'm thinking by the look on my face. I honestly think masks have been a good thing this past year as I've taken courses that I was constantly frustrated in, with professors who couldn’t empathize with students despite the fact that we are all living through a pandemic. Perhaps I don't want to read or think about 100+ pages of writing from a dead guy who didn't think women had any inherent value while I'm waiting for COVID tests to come back and trying to navigate the cafeteria without passing out. But I did read every word and diligently took notes and contributed in class lest the professor noticed that I was uninterested and docked my grade. At my own expense.
If I wrote this three months ago it would have been a lot angrier. And I'm still angry that nobody thought I was a good enough student to write a thesis (not that I really want to at this point anyway). Now though I'm feeling kind of apathetic (about grades, not the college experience as a whole, currently I'm infuriated with the dining situation on campus but that is for another post another time). But maybe it's probably a good thing because I think this post would be a lot more offensive if I was writing the thoughts I was having two months ago.
I guess that I'll leave you with this. I'm not really sure it's the best advice ever, but I don't really think I'm good at advice.
If you think that your refusal to be adaptive to student needs in the classroom is teaching students how to overcome difficult circumstances and prepare for graduate school or real life, it's not. It is merely a little ableist and it produces hateful students who resent you and swear off ever doing anything in the area that you teach. And it also creates students who do what they know you'll grade well, rather than something they would enjoy for your assignments. It stifles our creativity and excitement for learning. It's suffocating. Forcing your students to be obedient to you is a recipe for fostering their disrespect and disdain of you. Flexibility in and outside of the classroom with grades, assignment descriptions, and deadlines won’t make students stop doing their work altogether or lose respect for you. My favorite professors here have let me come into their office hours so they could read drafts of my papers on their time, let me do assignments how I want to do them (and they don’t penalize me for straying from the rubric), they even let me grade myself. They let us out of class early when it’s clear that everyone is exhausted, and they throw assignments out if they realize they aren’t practical. They have a google form on Moodle that allows students to give anonymous course feedback throughout the semester, rather than just at the end of class. And they implement that feedback.
If you expect students to empathize with you, you have to empathize with them. We are all people who have lives outside of your classroom. Your idea of realistic expectations is not realistic unless it's informed by student input. I would like to think we know ourselves better than is sometimes imagined by our system of education.
Grades are arbitrary, random, and ultimately meaningless. An A in one class is a B in another is an A with honors in the next. They don't determine your worth or value as a student. And I know understanding this and applying it to real life is a lot easier said than done. I'll be honest: I will not stop trying to maintain a 4.0 this semester, and I'll probably pull it off. But rest assured that this "teacher's pet" (I can't speak for all of us but I can speak for me) is incredibly frustrated and enraged by the way our grading system forces us to conform to a very specific, manufactured standard of intelligence. And she's also paid for her GPA in the form of mental instability.
It's definitely okay to be spiteful when you don't get the recognition you deserve. It can be a powerful motivator, but I would caution against it motivating you to further conform and adapt to a system that does not serve you. Take a humanities class, a feminist class, one with a professor that tries to work outside of the grading system and puts you in control of your learning (and your grade). And honestly, get a B, or a C. I'll probably always wonder what that would've felt like.
Also read Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) by Susan Blum. At least the introduction.