Exploring the unfamiliar is real academic fearlessness
October 18, 2019
Two weeks ago, the Orient published a piece by Ella Crabtree ’22 calling Credit/D/Fail at Bowdoin “academic cowardice.” Crabtree bases her argument on the supposition that students primarily pass/fail in order to preserve their GPA, remarking that students do not Credit/D/Fail “easy” classes as much as they do more challenging courses. This is true: Students, regardless of their concern for GPA, would not Credit/D/Fail a course in which they are more likely than not to receive an A. However, I take fault with her conclusion that Bowdoin should eliminate Credit/D/Fail, a move that would negatively impact the academic choices and experiences of a significant portion of the Bowdoin community without resolving the “cowardice” at the crux of her argument.
Crabtree’s arguments that removing Credit/D/Fail would not affect students’ employment prospects and applications for postgraduate education reach for an ideal out of touch with today’s world. Campus recruiters and graduate admissions counselors frequently scrutinize academic transcripts and grade point averages as evidence that students are academically capable and able to work hard. An unfortunate C or two can drop high-performing students’ GPAs by a full tenth of a point or more, making them less attractive to recruiters and increasing the chance that they are screened out by all-too-ubiquitous automated hiring processes. Students importantly cannot Credit/D/Fail major and minor requirements, so in most cases these instinctual or automatic judgements will be made based on a course irrelevant to the work or studies a candidate is pursuing. Yes, graduate applications tend to be more holistic, but overall GPA is still heavily emphasized, particularly in pre-professional fields like medicine and law.
Credit/D/Fail serves a highly positive good at liberal arts institutions like Bowdoin, because it encourages students to engage in Bowdoin’s beautifully diverse collection of departments and coursework. I can attest to this statement from my experience in Introduction to Photography this past spring. I had not “produced” art since 2013, and would not have enrolled without the confidence that I could explore a foreign subject without the confidence that my performance would not be held against me as long as I put in the work expected of all students. Despite taking the course Credit/D/Fail, I regularly put in at least a dozen hours of work on our weekly assignments, and ultimately received a greater vision and appreciation for the art of photography that allows me to call the class one of my most rewarding college experiences.
If Bowdoin eliminated Credit/D/Fail, students invested in maintaining a high GPA for future academic or professional purposes would in turn respond by taking fewer academic risks. Similarly, any students who, according to Crabtree, are using Credit/D/Fail to “slack off” would find a low-effort course to add to their schedules—removing pass/fail will not give students an intrinsic desire to work hard, and certainly won’t make them care about their GPAs any less. In fact, students would be more likely to explore intellectual curiosities and take on additional academic rigor if they had greater, rather than fewer, opportunities to take courses Credit/D/Fail.
I believe Crabtree is also mistaken when it comes to a connection between “intellectual fearlessness” and taking courses for letter grades. Students are not “intellectually fearless” because they read every page assigned to them; they are fearless because they are willing to explore material that challenges their worldview and, yes, as Crabtree describes President Clayton Rose’s speech, “take difficult, unfamiliar subjects for the sake of learning.” Some students may, of course, slack off if taking one of these courses Credit/D/Fail, but many Bowdoin students are simply not hardwired to do so, even those who do have demonstrated a level of courage by engaging with a subject in which they are initially uncomfortable.
Credit/D/Fail at Bowdoin is a system with its flaws and abusers but has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for me and many of my peers at Bowdoin. Crabtree is, of course, welcome to maintain her personal belief that students should take all courses for letter grades but calling Credit/D/Fail “academic cowardice” is an insult to the students who, thanks to the existence of such an option, feel emboldened to explore unfamiliar foreign academic environs—the real “academic fearlessness” we all hope to see.
Michael Borecki is a member of the Class of 2021.
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This is such a well-reasoned, well-articulated response. In my opinion, yours is the most compelling criticism of discontinuing the pass/fail option. I do worry that disallowing pass/fail would result initially in less academic exploration. However, I still think it might be a step in the right direction. I hope it would initiate a culture shift which de-emphasizes grade point averages to the eventual benefit of intellectual fearlessness. It may be giving the student body too much credit, but I believe that Bowdoin students would overcome their perfectionism (and postgraduate anxiety) and continue to take new, difficult, interesting, unfamiliar subjects. Thank you!!!!