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May 14, 2014

College is the place to dare — not worry about every grade

Writer’s note: I am a journalist in academia, a woman who has traveled among many cultures. I live outside the box and I like it — and I want to share my perspective with you every Thursday.

I hate grading.

At the end of each semester, I am required to submit grades for the students in our journalism classes. As a professor, I hate grades. As a student, I cherished them, worshipped them.

OK. Hate is not the right word though I do love the succinct lilt and assonance in the sentence. Worship is the right word.

And there’s my problem with grades. We’ve created a system that creates students that revere grades. Some students believe those grades measure their accomplishments and determine their value, their worth.

They don’t. You are not your grade.

Don’t get me wrong. I never met an A I didn’t like. I am, and always have been, a straight-A student. Heck, I even like saying it. I’m proud of it.

And, my constant pursuit of perfection cost me dearly at times in my life. I was well into my double-degree program and cruising for an ugly crash before a professor pointed out that it would be impossible to earn 100 percent on 100 percent of my work.

A 90 is still an A, he said. A-minus, I countered. I was uncomfortable with the concept. Do less than my best? That was impossible.

In high school, I had friends whose parents would buy them a car when they got A’s on their report cards. I knew one student whose dad bought him a car for a single A. I worked as a grill cook and waitress to earn the money to buy my first car and pay for insurance and gas.

A’s were expected in our house, not rewarded.

Once I came home with a C on a quiz. Not an exam, a quiz. Dad was not happy. What’s the problem? That’s average, Dad. Not average for you, he said.

Point taken. Not average for you etched in my psyche.

I understand the system. Back then, I needed those A’s for scholarships, to prove I was worth an investment.

Years later, I created a scholarship named in honor of my parents at my undergraduate alma mater. The scholarship is awarded to someone with high hopes, not a high grade-point average. Someone who wants to explore the world. Who believes in public service. Someone with big dreams and the big, tender heart needed to go the distance in pursuit of them.

As an A student, I know the grade does not always reflect the student’s effort or learning. I often earned A’s without breaking a sweat, until I encountered a computer science programming class.

I failed the first exam. I was confounded. I studied like I’d never studied before. Humbled but determined, I tackled the preparation for the next exam. I studied. Did the exercises. Met with a tutor. I got a 35. Yes, out of 100. That definitely did not compute. I remember thinking I could have thrown a dart at the empty circles on the answer sheet and produced a better score.

I like and excel at languages — French, Arabic, Russian — not Pascal. I did my best in that class and my grades said I failed. I failed to earn an A. I earned a C.

When I sit down to calculate a student’s final grade, there are tangibles I can assess. Meeting a deadline. Using The Associated Press style correctly. Hitting the word count. Getting a variety of quotes. Effective transitions.

I also consider intangible, vitally important accomplishments. Did the student do the work? Did he learn from his mistakes and improve? Did she push herself? Did he go outside his comfort zone? Did she risk failing?

When I was an adolescent, my dad gave me a quote by Theodore Roosevelt from a speech he gave April 23, 1910, at the Sorbonne in Paris, France.

I give it to students in our classes now. I add “woman” and “she” when I read it aloud.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

These words are also etched in my psyche. I love the idea of daring greatly. Since I was young, I have never wanted to be someone who has known neither victory nor defeat. (Yes, defeat is a drag.)

I want students to know that they are not their grades. In pursuit of that A and the illusion of perfection, they might be tempted to play it safe. By avoiding failure — or worse — being ashamed of it, they risk missing the deep and valuable lessons they might learn from stumbling.

I do not like to fail. And I am not afraid of failing.

These many years later, I can still taste that C in my first and only computer science class. I do not like that C and I prize that C. I learned a lot in that class. I don’t like computer science. It would have led to a great career — not for me.

College is the place to dare greatly. Figure out who you are and what you want. What you like and don’t like. Find your voice and your path.

Can I live with that C? Yes. That’s the point. I can live with the grade.

It was not the end of the world. It was the beginning of a whole new world and a great adventure.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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