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There is no shame in taking a class pass/fail

October 18, 2019

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

I refuse to be shamed for supporting my learning with a pass/fail class.

In her op-ed “Pass/failing is an act of academic cowardice,” Ella Crabtree ’22 accuses students of taking classes pass/fail simply to “safeguard [their] averages and preserve their egos.” She argues that students who simply want to learn without the pressure of a letter grade are “unable to stomach the possibility of B’s and C’s,” and therefore “deprive [themselves] of valuable, challenging learning experiences.” I beg to differ.

I wrestled with the decision of taking my one “fun” course this semester pass/fail or completely dropping it for three weeks. This was not because I was afraid of doing poorly. Rather, I knew that I could do well, yet I’d end up sacrificing too much to get the grade I wanted. Unable to stomach the idea of purposely half-assing my work but completely fascinated by the course content, I hemmed and hawed for nearly a month before registering the class pass/fail.

Crabtree’s piece stresses academics as the utmost pinnacle of learning in a problematically typical Bowdoin way. She asks, “Without these [challenging learning] experiences, what are we here for?” She assumes that academics are the only type of learning worth pursuing at Bowdoin. The truth is that classes are just one fraction of my college experience. I learn just as much through music, extra-curriculars, jobs and relationships with my friends. There are so many different ways to grow that Bowdoin and its students dismiss too readily in the name of academics.

Yes, I’m at college to do school, but I’m also here to literally grow as a human being. Pass/fail makes it possible for me to prioritize my life in a way that I simply could not do without being able to relax about a class. Sometimes you need to “slack off” in one area in order to focus on others.

The fact that I require a pass/fail cushion in order to feel able to focus on non-academic pursuits 100 percent reflects an issue with my ability to let go of the grade. However, this need to do well is a manifestation of the pressures and problems with general “elite” higher education, not specifically with Bowdoin or its students. Taking away pass/fail won’t solve the issues that created perfectionist students who sacrifice everything to submit their best work. It will only serve to increase the amount of stress, anxiety and sleep deprivation experienced by the general student body. We need wider institutional/societal change to fix these issues, and it absolutely does not start with shaming pass/fail students.

Intellectual fearlessness is about challenging the mind. It is not about drowning in homework at the expense of sleep, mental health and every other type of learning. Everyone takes classes pass/fail for their own reasons. I need pass/fail so I can grow in all the ways I want without waking up in the morning unable to breathe from anxiety. I will not be shamed for that.

Riena Harker is a member of the Class of 2020.

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One comment:

  1. Ella Crabtree says:

    I appreciate your holistic take on Bowdoin education, and emphasis on the importance of extracurriculars and social learning. You’re right— my take is predicated on the idea that Bowdoin students should put academics first. Though I stand by it, I understand your aversion to imposing those priorities on other students. Thank you for your thoughtful response!


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