As this rapidly ending semester began, I thought I had finally found the perfect balance of classes taken and pass/fail options selected, an ideal schedule that would allow me to explore new (to me) academic fronts without letting my grade point average suffer. I was wrong, and now I’m going to pay for it. Dearly. And while I take full responsibility for the grade I’m about to get, I think my experience reflects a University-wide attitude problem seldom discussed. Perhaps you’ll agree.
It started with an intro-level science class I thought sounded intriguing – a class which, for the purposes of this column, shall be known as Interesting Science 201 (or IntSci 201). Though I had never taken an IntSci class before, the course description sounded like something I could handle, I was willing to work hard and – I won’t lie – the four natural science credits would round out my distribution requirements nicely. I was so intent on mastering this IntSci material and so sure that any marginally intelligent student with a zest for learning could thrive even beyond the sweet metaphorical walls of the English department that I made a very, very stupid mistake.
Thinking I’d need to devote more time to IntSci classwork in order to do well, I decided to elect a far less interesting social science class pass/fail. I’d do the bare minimum for the (which, for this class, proved to be astoundingly little – I’ve barely glanced at the coursepack, and I’m still getting a solid B-plus), and with the extra time, I’d study hard for IntSci, developing a keen understanding of its basic concepts, which I could then apply to other aspects of my education. I, like my distribution requirements, would be well-rounded. Worldly.
At first, it looked like it was going to work. The professor – a young, entertainingly crass IntSci Ph.D. – was running a tight ship with pretty PowerPoint slides and engaging assignments. One day (the lecture immediately following the pass/fail deadline, if I recall), this all changed. Professor Saucy became Professor Snarky in the blink of an eye, grouchily accusing us all of being history majors who only took his class so we could squirrel away some natural science credits without having to take Boring Science (BorSci) 101 like everybody else. The material got harder. The professor cackled maniacally when asked if he was willing to curve exams.
I’m being unfair. He didn’t really cackle. He just sort of looked at us and scoffed. And I guess I would have done the same thing. Teaching intro courses sucks. It’s more fun to have students who understand the harder stuff. Students who labor over every assignment not because they’re psychotically obsessed with their grade point averages, but because they’re genuinely interested. Students who do not say things like, “Will this be on the exam?” and “Huh?” and “What do you mean, D-plus doesn’t count as passing? That’s, like, almost 70 percent.” It makes sense, then, that teachers of these courses are often the most ruthless when it comes to coursework and exams; they want to separate those in it for the long haul from those who wouldn’t be in it if they didn’t have to be.
But Professor Snarky’s scoff sounded like a cackle to a lot of people, a warning that by God, the average in this class was going to be a C, and anyone who didn’t like it was a lazy (or feeble-minded) liberal arts major for whom excellence in IntSci was humorously out of reach. Many of them took offense and will consequently swear off of the sciences forever.
There are two problems here – one on the part of the professor, and one on the part of the students. The trial-by-fire approach many professors employ in beginning courses makes it exceedingly difficult for interested students of other disciplines to branch out, and it’s very sad that so many choose to express smug disrespect for “easy” degree programs as a means of selling their own.
But students (hello, liberal arts majors) shouldn’t run screaming the moment they encounter a little antagonism from a professor in a subject they’re not the best at. If one professor’s disparaging remarks are enough to make you give up a subject you enjoy, then you need to grow a spine, pronto. Take a class that’s difficult for you. Take some responsibility. Create more work for yourself. Sauntering into class 45 minutes late every day and still pulling off an A-minus is not educational. Earning a C is. If nothing else, you may find you’ve made a valuable mistake.
Henretty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.