Write a seminar paper on “The Scarlett Letter.” This was the assignment. I knew that it had to be one full page. I knew it had to be single-spaced with one-inch margins in a 12-point font. I had no idea what to put onto that page of seminar paper, but I held fast to the fact that I knew I was a Good Writer — otherwise I wouldn’t have been in that high school honors English classroom in the first place. So, I met with my teacher to discuss potential topics and I wrote and edited and wrote and edited and turned in my paper. I didn’t feel especially good about the product, but I didn’t feel as though I’d done spectacularly poorly, either. Until I got it back.
C-. Not a “you should work harder, but here’s some optimism” C+; not a solidly disappointing but reassuringly average C. Rather, a “did you even try?” borderline D, C-. And the thing was, I had tried. I had tried in all the ways they tell you try — I’d read and reread the passage and met with my teacher and not procrastinated and generally done all the things that you also probably did when you wrote papers in high school. But this time, at the moment my teacher handed back that sheet of paper, these efforts seemed to have been for naught.
As grading policy dominates campus discussion, the conversation has focused on grades B+ and above — the grades Yalies tend to receive, perhaps because of grade inflation and compression. But it’s important to consider the role of the grades you don’t see as often.
Some people think that the value of a letter based system lies in its ability to motivate students to aspire to — and ultimately produce — better, A-range work. Personally, I am not one especially motivated by grades in this way. Rather, I appreciate the ways they quickly highlight my weaknesses. In contrast to a gentle B suggesting an array of smaller fixes, that C- had a profound alarm clock effect on me. For the first time in many assignments, maybe even the first time ever, I looked critically not at any one particular element, but at my writing as a whole. I demolished the entire process and rebuilt it on a single page of a Word document. I didn’t skim my teacher’s comments; I read them over and over, mining them for any advice applicable to the next seminar paper.
And yes, I received As on future seminar papers but in my academic memory, those grades had less value and were less noteworthy than that first C- because they did not force me to evaluate my work to the same extent.
The primary effect of that grade was not its impact on my GPA — rather, it had everything to do with the grade’s ability to serve as a call to action. Whatever new grading policy might be implemented, I hope that it speaks to this need for grading to drive perseverance and experimentation.
A job well done should receive recognition — I’m not arguing that Yale professors should give artificially low grades. But it’s unfortunate that we’re so scared of receiving them. There’s so much to be learned from trying hard and failing hard.
It’s unfortunate that it takes a truly bad grade to convince us to look closely and critically at an assignment, to force us to take drastically new approaches. As the debate over grading progresses, consider this sidelined but related issue: We shouldn’t treat bad grades as scarlet letters.
Caroline Sydney is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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