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Columns, Opinions

Calvelli ’19: Exploration/No Credit

Staff Columnist
Friday, October 12, 2018

On Oct. 2, the Sastifactory/No Credit deadline passed without much fanfare. Forty-nine years after its inception, the S/NC option is so ingrained in the Brown experience that it doesn’t stand out as abnormal. That’s a problem. S/NC is truly unique; Brown is one of just a handful of schools that allows its students to take all of their classes without letter grades. By doing so, Brown is making the argument — simple, but radical to us students who got here in large part due to our transcripts — that a liberal education can be measured by more than letters.

This noble possibility is often muddled amid the practical realities of being a student. It’s time we resuscitate an ideal of S/NC focused on encouraging students to learn freely and follow their academic passions without regard for how they’ll be graded. To promote the idea that S/NC lets us focus more on the learning journey than the end result, I propose we give it a new name: Exploration/No Credit. The label attributed to success in S/NC courses — “Satisfactory” — invokes no high ideal of learning. But I want my education to be more than that! In an ideal world, I would be more motivated by the prospect of intellectual growth and discovery than by having someone tell me I did OK. Of course, S/NC has pragmatic value as well, allowing students to prioritize coursework and stress less about assignments. Yet I think we miss out on S/NC’s important philosophical purpose when these pragmatic concerns form the dominant S/NC narrative.

Sure, just changing the name won’t tangibly affect the grading option, and a new moniker won’t require students to take a new approach to their education. But that doesn’t mean we can’t help realize the ideals of S/NC by giving it a rhetorical update that explicitly promotes a non-grade-oriented approach to learning. Having “Satisfactory” as the current benchmark conveys that the goal of a class is to simply to perform adequately. “Satisfactory” does get out of the letter grade framework, but in reality, “S” is just a stand-in grade, a perfect substitute for an A, B or C.

“Exploration,” however corny it may sound, instead conveys the idea that when freed from the shackles of grades, learning can be an exploratory, individualized and empowering endeavor. “Exploration” is an aspiration, a reminder that the personal growth from our classes is incommensurable with the information ingested while cramming for Midterm 2. An “E” on a transcript would signify more than just a milquetoast, satisfactory performance; it would gesture at how the course inspired you to think differently and reimagine your approach to learning.

To be clear, changing the name to Exploration/No Credit would not be intended to stigmatize or denigrate a more practical approach to E/NC. Students can legitimately use the option to, for example, prioritize certain classes, reduce their stress about grades, do assignments on their own timelines or free their schedules for important extracurricular pursuits. That’s the privilege of the freedom Brown’s curriculum offers; students are entrusted to make of their educations what they wish.

However, it’s also consistent with Brown’s curriculum to try to inspire idealism in the way we think about grades and learning. Maybe calling it Exploration/No Credit won’t radically change our approach to education, but if reframing the option as E/NC inspires one person to work hard in a class for reasons unattached to A’s, I think it would be a success.

I certainly would benefit from that nudge. When I chose to take BIOL 0030: “Principles of Nutrition” S/NC, I told myself I did so because I cared more about cultivating my interest in food than about getting any grade. But after failing the first test, my idealism for learning quickly transformed into a desperate rush for an S. Had the grade option instead been “Exploration,” I at least would have had a constant reminder to stay true to the reasons originally motivating my learning, rather than feeling like I had to meet a satisfactory threshold of memorization.

The more we can do to normalize E/NC as a tool for intellectual growth and exploration, the better. When students get to Brown, they’ve just emerged from a pressure cooker high school in which a single bad grade seemed like the gap between themselves and the Ivy League. If we work early on to disentangle education from grading, we’ll remind students — who inevitably will receive some grades they’ve never seen before in college — that growth is a healthier goal than perfection.

Though students here are independent, we are all shaped by the opinions and attitudes of those around us. Characterizing S/NC as a way to avoid bad grades is unproductive because that gives grades a power and importance that S/NC aspires to move beyond. When it’s standard practice for Meiklejohn Peer Advisors to tell first-years to take their hard classes S/NC, I’m worried that students’ first introduction to the option will crowd out its idealistic purpose and make it seem like just a value-neutral pass/fail option. Calling the successful completion of that option “Exploration” signals that E/NC can stand for more than a workload-management tool.

I remember how inspiring it was to hear former Dean of the College Maud Mandel tell our class during orientation about the possibilities the Open Curriculum afforded us and how S/NC was one of the many tools at our disposal to shape our learning experience. We may not have Mandel anymore (side note: please come back. I miss you). But we can rename S/NC to Exploration/No Credit to remind us that despite the ubiquity of grades and the stress they induce, at Brown we have the privilege of learning beyond letters. Let’s not forget to explore that opportunity.

Aidan Calvelli ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to

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