Columns, Opinions

Maden ’18: S/NC is a tool for self-care and equity

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Monday, September 18, 2017

The S/NC grading option is a cornerstone of Brown’s academic experience. It provides students with the freedom to try courses without worrying about letter grades or GPAs. However, the value of the S/NC option often comes under debate. Most recently, a column printed in The Herald, written by Nicholas Esemplare ’18, raised criticism on this very issue. Esemplare writes that, without grades, there’s no incentive to invest in the course material, so students in S/NC courses tend to put less effort into those classes.

Clearly, S/NC isn’t for everyone. That’s fine. Taking courses for a grade, as opposed to S/NC, is part of the academic agency we get here. But that doesn’t mean S/NC, as a rule, fails Brown students. Esemplare’s article contains a key contradiction that made me reflect on the way people perceive the S/NC option and how negative perceptions of S/NC are what actually fail us.

Esemplare states that students shouldn’t use S/NC to reduce their workload, but also believes that it’s wrong for students to do all of the work in an S/NC course. In one instance, Esemplare writes that people often use the S/NC option for “less noble academic reasons” like “reducing their course load.” At this point, Esemplare seems to believe that students should try as hard to earn an “S” as they do to earn an “A.” But then Esemplare writes that it’s “borderline irresponsible” to focus on an S/NC course over a graded course. To Esemplare, there is seemingly no good reason to take a class S/NC. If it’s wrong to use the S/NC option to make your semester easier and you can’t use it to challenge yourself, what is it for?

In reality, Esemplare may have omitted from his article some important benefits of the S/NC option, such as the freedom it provides. Full disclosure: I take all of my classes S/NC. Crazy, right? S/NC helps me because I’m a low-income student, and it’s likely helping other first-generation and low-income students for similar reasons. There’s no need to conflate personal preference with institutional failure. Doing so just makes navigating Brown more confusing, especially for students already unfamiliar with its culture.

While I can only speak for my own experience as a student from a low-income background, the reality is that articles like Esemplare’s perpetuate the idea that S/NC is inferior, which makes it harder for FLI students to navigate course options. It’s important to recognize that other people have unique approaches to their academics and that for some students — especially FLI students — S/NC courses can be great. I use the S/NC option firstly because I don’t feel confident in most of my courses but still want to challenge myself. Secondly, taking courses S/NC also gives me flexibility to support my family during the semester. Thirdly, it reduces the stress associated with traditional grading and helps me manage my mental health. These factors are tied to my identity as a FLI student. I feel less confident with course selection because I’m a FLI student, I need flexibility because I’m a FLI student and I struggle with poor mental health because I’m a FLI student.

You might decide grades are important to you (law school, anyone?). But there isn’t a “right” way to take classes at Brown, despite what the S/NC stigma may suggest. FLI students, in particular, may have alternative mindsets or approaches to course selection. We have to work hard to recognize this and validate these views. That said, there isn’t a problem with disliking S/NC courses or deciding that they don’t suit you. The problem is conflating a personal preference for graded courses with a systemic issue. A systemic issue suggests that there’s something inherently wrong with taking S/NC classes, which creates a culture where grades become the priority. Instead, we should discuss what drives one’s personal preference and prioritize introspection.

In practice, that means providing advice on course selection that emphasizes self-reflection and self-care. When discussing course options, we too often hold preconceptions about what is the right and wrong way to approach academics at Brown. So before we give rash advice, we should ask questions that prompt reflection. Will this class make you happy? What do you want to get out of this course? What other commitments does this course intersect with? The answers are different for everyone, so it’s important not to stigmatize certain academic options.

When I take a course, my number one concern is how it’s going to help me graduate and provide for the people I care about. Will I develop a marketable skill set? Will it help me complete my concentration requirements so I can actually get my degree? Will it be an easy class so that I can put more effort into other courses more relevant to my career goals? The S/NC option can help with all of these things, and it has helped me many times. But it hurts when people with different academic goals don’t recognize that my goals are, in fact, different — or think that I don’t have, as Esemplare states, “noble” reasons for clawing through four years of classes. It hurts because the stigma associated with S/NC classes makes me feel like I shouldn’t take courses S/NC at all. It took a lot of introspection to realize what I want out of my time here at Brown, and it took a lot of introspection to be comfortable leveraging the S/NC option in ways that work best for me. It hurts that the cultural stigma around the S/NC option makes this work feel worthless.

Dismissing S/NC courses as something tangential to a “real” and “proper” academic experience makes it harder for me — and probably other FLI students — to feel comfortable at Brown. For some, S/NC courses are a great choice. For others, maybe not. But either way, self-reflection and self-care should come first. Students should be able to use the S/NC option in the way that works best for them without having to feel bad about it.

Cyrus Maden ’18 can be reached at cyrus_maden@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

Topics: