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Pass/failing is an act of academic cowardice

October 4, 2019

This piece represents the opinion of the author.
Lily Anna Fullam

As the leaves change color and students trade their flip-flops for Bean Boots, professors begin handing back assignments. Essays and exams return marked up, commented upon, praised and constructively criticized. Concurrently, the school approaches its Credit/D/Fail deadline. At this point, students must choose whether to “pass/fail” a class or receive grades on a typical letter scale. Students may take up to four of their required 32 graduation credits on a pass/fail basis. “D’s” and “fails” factor into student grade point averages as 1.0s and 0.0s. However, if a student receives “credit,” their grade point average remains unaffected. Thus, by employing the pass/fail option, one may receive mediocre passing grades without fear of compromising their overall academic standing.

Some students are honest about their impulse to pass/fail classes. “I don’t want to put all of my efforts into this class,” they say. Or, “I don’t think I’ll be able to get an A in this class.” However, people cite less genuine motivations as well. Students frequently claim that pass/failing divorces the learning experience from the grading system. “I’m not so focused on my grades,” they say. “I just care about the learning experience.” If this were true, students would pass/fail so-called ‘easy-A’ classes at the same rate that they do difficult ones. Anyone can see that classes get pass-failed as a function of their difficulty. We’ve all watched the process: students receive their first grades, become intimidated and excuse themselves from rigorous and potentially humbling academic experiences. Contrary to popular sentiment, this does not de-emphasize grades. It rather demonstrates that Bowdoin students are obsessed with grades. It shows that we are over-accustomed to excelling and are unable to stomach the possibility of B’s and C’s.

For a student body that prides itself on intellectual curiosity and espouses the importance of rigor, the prevalence of pass/fail at Bowdoin is shocking. When he welcomed the Class of 2022, President Clayton Rose discussed the importance of intellectual fearlessness. He encouraged students to break out of their comfort zones and take difficult, unfamiliar subjects for the sake of learning. I believe that pass/failing, in its abstinence from real consequences, encourages just the opposite: it encourages academic cowardice. For most Bowdoin students, merely passing a course is not a difficult task. Consequently, pass/failing allows students to slack off. Rather than putting in the serious work required to get A’s in demanding courses, students evade much of the revising, rewriting, quizzing and serious studying they would otherwise engage with. Taking classes without consequences for our grade point averages therefore deprives us of valuable, challenging learning experiences. Without these experiences, what are we here for?

Of course, in some cases, pass/failing may be necessary. For example, a student with a concussion may need to curb the rigor of their schedule and reduce their work load. In this case, Credit/D/Fail is an excellent option. However, precluding such circumstances, I do not think that students should pass/fail their classes. In fact, without a note from a dean, I do not think Bowdoin should give them the option to do so. I understand that this will have implications for students’ post-graduate options. However, over time, Bowdoin’s reputation will adjust— graduate schools and employers will understand that Bowdoin has become more difficult overall, and adjust their qualifications accordingly. Personally, I’d rather have a transcript with a few B’s than a transcript from an institution which unnecessarily and artificially protects our averages.

For better or worse, we are in a reputable, rigorous and exclusive academic environment. As such, most students should receive B’s and C’s. They should receive B’s and C’s that factor into their grade point averages and affect their standing. And guess what—it’s OK! Bowdoin does not need to replace these grades with ambiguous “credit” marks, only serving to safeguard students’ averages and preserve their egos. Consistent with its self-proclaimed quality and rigor, I implore Bowdoin to stop allowing such a cop-out. In the meantime, out of respect for themselves, I implore students to step up and forgo the pass/fail option.

Ella Crabtree is a member of the Class of 2022.

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17 comments:

  1. BJL says:

    Let me modify Ella’s observation that ‘Bowdoin’s reputation will adjust…’. Yes, it will. By eliminating the option of P/F on four of your thirty two course credits, Bowdoin will be returning to the more rigorous standard it once had. The old policy allowed one to take a course P/F if and only if the course was a fifth course on the student’s semester course schedule. The grade inflation, so prevalent today, did not exist back then.

  2. Aleksia Siverman '19 says:

    This time last year, I got the news that one of my childhood friends had passed away. An hour later, it was time to go to photo class. When I signed up for photo the semester before, I was ready to put in the hours. Now that I was crying in the darkroom, I felt differently. Don’t love the idea of a dean deciding if my circumstances were challenging enough for me to pass/fail a class outside of my major.

    There’s only so many hours in the day. It’s not a “cop-out” to prioritize your physical well-being or mental well-being or another class that you feel passionately about or your honors project or your job hunt (or ect.) over spending time trying to get a good grade on a course you’re struggling with. There’s lots of reasons why students might pass/fail their classes, and, ultimately, they know how to manage time best.

    Also–in my pass/fail photo class, I WAS able to focus on my learning. I was challenged. I still learned.

    I’m grateful this exists for students who want to explore a class, but who want to make sure it doesn’t dominate their time.

    • Class of ‘22 says:

      I would not only agree with Aleksia but applaud her for taking the class pass/fail and prioritizing her health. Last semester I was in a similar situation but chose not to pass/fail out of pride. Like the author, I saw the pass/fail as a cop-out, an excuse. I wanted to prove myself capable of tackling college no matter what was happening at home, and it took a serious toll on my mental health. This semester, I am pass/failing a class because I don’t want to drop it, but I also don’t want to take away from my other classes. I’m not at Bowdoin to push myself until I break, I’m at Bowdoin to grow and learn academically and personally.

  3. Class of 2020 says:

    While I agree that Bowdoin students place an unhealthy and destructive emphasis on their GPA’s, I wholeheartedly disagree that removing the pass/fail option is a solution to this problem. The anxiety around performing well academically seems like it’s high enough already (try asking anyone how they’re doing sometime next week, I’d be shocked if “tired”, “busy” or “stressed” aren’t among the most common descriptions of the Student Body’s emotional state as we move through midterm season). There’s so much to engage in and joy to be had at Bowdoin outside of the four classes that we all take every semester,
    and students shouldn’t be mandated to have a debilitating injury or illness to allow themselves to make time for those things. If you never feel the need or desire to make use of the Credit/D/Fail option that’s great, but there’s also no need for anyone to feel shame for creating the space to pursue the things that will make them most satisfied.

    I would also love to see the statistics you’ve used to determine that the prevalence of classes being Credit/D/Failed is a function of their difficulty.

  4. Class of 2020 says:

    I’m pretty unsure why other people’s choices to Credit/D/Fail a class (not the same thing as pass/fail, by the way) have any bearing on the author’s time or academic experience at Bowdoin.

    For me it comes down to this: why do you think you deserve to shame others for their (valid) academic choices? How do you, as a fall semester sophomore, think you have the perspective to comment on the motivations of the entire student body in such a confidently unkind and assuming way? And, most importantly, why is what any individual student chooses to do with their class schedule, a decision that affects quite literally no one but the student themselves, any of your business?

    “Taking classes without consequences for our grade point averages therefore deprives us of valuable, challenging learning experiences. Without these experiences, what are we here for?” Maybe the million and one other reasons we are here at Bowdoin that are worth far more than that one class we can’t sanely pour all of our time and energy into?

  5. A fellow '22 says:

    I’ll admit, I’m a coward. Your Op-Ed was eye-opening and you’re right about how taking a class Credit/D/Fail ultimately lets you work less hard (because you just need to pass the class). However, I believe Credit/D/Fail actually encourages “intellectual fearlessness”.

    Last year I went out of my traditional academic comfort zone and took Intro to Music Theory with prior instrument experience but little theory background. Between the ear trainings and still being new to college, I felt I was drowning. Yes, I sought out professor help. Yes, I studied with others. I even went into Studzinski to play piano. Five weeks in, I made the difficult decision to take the class Credit/D/Fail—the next day, I felt a huge relief. I was no longer sulking over how badly I did on the assignments or how impossible that chord was to recognize. I could focus on my other classes—my actual intended major classes—and enjoy lecture instead of scrambling for notes. I even started playing piano again.

    Ella—I don’t know you well—but you’re going to be English/Psych right? I implore you to take a Physics or Chem, a CompSci or Math, or hell, even Music Theory. And maybe even take it Credit/D/Fail.

  6. Class of 2020 says:

    So let’s consider the students, like myself, who are coming from unresourced high schools that were not at the academic rigor as bowdoin. I must not only be a coward but also a failure since I dropped a fourth class my first year due to the academic hardships I faced. This is a common thing for first gen students to do.
    Please Ella, take into consideration.

    • Class of 2021 says:

      I appreciate this comment so much because I was in the same position my first year. As a rural, low-income, first generation student, I was incredibly underprepared for the academics Bowdoin presented me. Not only did I have a full-time class schedule, but I was also working 10 hours a week to send money home, and wondering why the hell I was even at Bowdoin. This op-ed is incredibly invalidating to students who already feel like they don’t belong at Bowdoin, and the author needs to check their privilege because the exclusive nature this text takes on is “unbecoming of a Bowdoin student.”

  7. Pass/Fail advocate says:

    While I appreciate the intentions, this piece seems written from a place of privilege. As someone who chose to take some courses pass/fail to learn a new language with mildly less stress, or to leverage time for my “fifth” course (my campus job), I implore the author to consider the vast range of reasons why a student may justifiably take a course Pass/Fail. The subjectivity of liberal arts courses can leave students vulnerable to academic meltdown, especially ones who are science-focused or whose high schools did not place emphasis on humanities. And don’t get me started on the impact of unconscious biases of professors who typically don’t expect certain demographic of students to excel in a discipline. The circumstances may be different, but most Bowdoin students do not come just to coast by. I’m glad the author started this discourse, as it creates a space to correct common misconceptions.

  8. Pass/fail advocate 2021 says:

    Pass/failing is an act of courage.

  9. Class of '17 says:

    While I understand the sentiment behind this article, it’s VERY clear that the author’s coming from a place of privilege. As a first gen, I had to work 2-3 jobs at a time just to pay for basic living expenses. I so sincerely wish I’d had the privilege of whole-heartedly embracing the academic rigor and “intellectual fearlessness” that you so confidently espouse to be the pinnacle of a Bowdoin education. Some of us are dealing with unimaginable hardships, APART from academics – mental health, family issues, personal and professional stress, our financial situations. You seem to equate taking a class pass/fail with laziness and an artificial leg up, but for many students, it’s a way to make it through in one piece. It’s just so ignorant and frankly insulting to suggest that students who take some classes pass/fail are “slacking”. Students choose pass/fail for a multitude of reasons, and who are you to judge which reasons are valid? There’s so much more I could say here, but please consider your peers’ situations before so harshly judging. Maybe take the time to ask your friends who’ve taken a class pass/fail what hardships they’re facing. A little support goes a long way.

  10. P/F is sometimes brave says:

    Wow do I disagree with this. My first semester freshman year I took Logic in the philosophy department, a class which, looking back, was too quantitively advanced for me my first year, yet my about-to-retire academic advisor did not dissuade me. I was enjoying the class and was working hard to understand the material but soon after the add/drop deadline passed the complexity of the work ramped up to the point where I just simply could not understand the material at the pace of the class. I would spend hours and hours studying, go to every help session and meet with the professor regularly and was consistently 1 week behind on understanding the concepts (concepts from the previous week would literally click into place while take the weekly test on the next’s weeks material). The ability to take this class p/f helped me avoid a failing grade on my record right out of the gate at Bowdoin and class taught me a lot about my own abilities, my strengths and weaknesses and how rigorous Bowdoin truly was. Without that privilege I think I would have made vastly different academic choices and been worse off for it.

  11. bowdoin '17er says:

    This is an interesting take but it’s a little reductive. This does not take into account other reasons as to why people take classes pass/fail and, to be honest, sounds like it comes from a place of privilege. During my time at Bowdoin, I took a course pass/fail due to working five on-campus jobs my senior year. It is genuinely a difficult thing to balance academics and work life, and taking classes pass/fail helps alleviate some of that stress. This also doesn’t take into consideration those who have to take semesters off and catch up by taking more than the standard four classes. In addition, while grades really shouldn’t matter, they unfortunately do when it comes to applying for jobs; some students are taking into consideration what their overall grades look like, especially those who don’t have the luxury of job searching after graduation. If one feels the need to take their class pass/fail they aren’t necessarily a coward — they’re doing what they find best for them and I would encourage the author to revisit their argument to include more perspectives on why this option is not only necessary but important.

  12. Ian Woodruff says:

    Cap cap cap

  13. Miles Brautigam says:

    This article is fools gold, and a thinly-veiled display of self-congratulation. To knowingly stir controversy from a non-issue; to heavily court righteous indignation; even to go so far attacking a target as absurd and contrived as people pass / failing class in a moment of academic uncertainty: These are the hallmarks of an oh-so-clever student finding and experimenting with a new frontier in a liberal arts campus’ tendency to perpetually problematize. Any take focussing on the mere content of this article, while ignoring the context, misses the point. The author seems to take pleasure stirring the pot, even pissing in it. Such fun might just be the purpose of a college paper. Judging by all these replies, you seem to be having yours. Look at all the engagement! The discourse! In the end, are such spaces of fiery debate not our utmost intellectual goal? Sarcastic applause, Ella. I hope you don’t really believe this shit.

  14. Care Bear says:

    “To gain a standard for the appreciation of others’ work, And the criticism of your own.”
    A line from The Offer of the College. I appreciate how insightful the discourse is getting, but let’s be mindful about the author’s age before we tear into her as if she’s a seasoned news editor. This may be Ella’s first Orient piece and Ella is a first-semester sophomore. Hopefully, she will learn through the lenses of her peers.


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