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.