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Gaber ’23: Grade competition and academic gatekeeping are not the answer

When I was beginning to make my college application list just over four years ago, I had never considered the possibility of going to an Ivy League school. Though my academics and extracurriculars certainly qualified me to apply to highly selective colleges, I lacked the confidence to pursue admission to one of America’s oldest and most prestigious schools. However, my cousin — a Brown alum — pitched the University as a great school for me, especially because it was a non-competitive environment. With her encouraging attitude and my high-strung determination, I decided to try my luck despite my hesitation. Four years later, I am thankful for that turn of events. I am very grateful to have attended Brown. It has been all that my cousin described, particularly with respect to the non-competitive attitude of Brown’s student body. 

However, attitudes present in Brown’s faculty and administration — such as that put forth in Professor Roberto Serrano’s Sept. 14 op-ed — aim to reconstruct the ethos of the institution that I have come to know and love. Serrano claims that “Brown’s grading system and advising culture are suppressing student achievement.” This outlook is problematic and harmful to Brown’s student body. It is rooted in the commodification of student achievement, the encouragement of cut-throat competition and the facilitation of academic gatekeeping.

The point that first struck me in Serrano’s op-ed was his erroneous claim that students abuse the no credit grading system, sometimes with the help and encouragement of advisors, by purposefully failing a course instead of receiving a C. Speculation about students’ abuse of the Brown grading system contradicts the philosophy upon which the system is based. In 1969, students protested for and won the ability to exert more agency over their education by implementing an Open Curriculum and S/NC grading system. They organized around the idea that, as the Open Curriculum’s principles state, “the student, ultimately responsible for his or her own development … must be an active participant in framing his or her own education.” 

Therefore, from 1969 onward, a Brown education has centered on the belief that students can be trusted to shepherd their own education to best suit their intellectual and personal growth. With all due respect to Serrano, I find the insinuation that Brown students are conniving enough to put in the effort to intentionally fail a class in order to improve their GPAs to be a deeply insulting one. The notion that advisors would actually encourage students to take this approach is equally absurd.

Serrano also argues that the fact that failing grades do not appear on Brown student transcripts is “misleading” to future employers and graduate programs. I can understand the point of view that a graduate program would want to know if a student has been able to keep pace with their coursework. Ultimately, however, does it matter more whether a student succeeded on their first attempt at a new subject, or that they eventually mastered the material and completed the required coursework for their future career or education? Especially in the case of employers, the specific classes a student took at Brown is often a lesser consideration than skill qualifications and past job experience. 

Additionally, Serrano brings in a wider discussion on the negatively-connoted phenomenon of grade inflation. Serrano argues in favor of leveling out grading curves to combat what he describes as areas in which a “disproportionate percentage of students are graded with As when compared with the University or department norms.” To his point, I ask a very simple question: Why? In the wake of the pandemic, students are facing increasing mental health challenges, which manifest disproportionately in women and ethnic minorities. Selectively handing out As and encouraging student competition for good grades only adds to this stress and exacerbates inequality. Furthermore, the need to crack down on a high number of As relies on the assumption that most Brown students aren’t hardworking. If you go here, you’re probably academically motivated beyond the need to compete with your peers for a coveted spot at the far right of a bell curve. I find the assertion that “student performances in some key concentration classes deflate” with grade inflation to be shockingly out of touch with the broader context of the Brown student body. 

Along with all these concerns, what I found most troubling about Serrano’s op-ed was his belief that “advisors should encourage students to choose a concentration not only about which they are passionate, but also in which they can excel.” In my opinion, this is blatant academic gatekeeping. We shouldn’t be discouraging students from entering fields that are new and perhaps difficult for them. After all, that is the exact opposite of the Open Curriculum’s mission. Furthermore, since Brown students come from a variety of academic backgrounds with different resources, it is unfair to quickly judge our aptitudes for academic fields that some of us may never have explored before. Barring students from entering difficult fields because they lack experience in them is a privileged stance that discourages students from less resourced academic backgrounds from pursuing their interests. This practice of gatekeeping is also prominent in STEM fields, which women have historically struggled to enter. Serrano asserts that more advisors need to steer students away from areas where they may not necessarily excel, but this is exactly what my first-year advisor did to me. I told her that I wanted to pursue a math class in addition to my humanities-heavy course load, and she advised against it. To this day, it is one of the great regrets of my college career that I listened to her and did not pursue my interest in mathematics at Brown despite not having a particularly impressive STEM background.

In my time at Brown, I have been able to grow into myself and out of my imposter syndrome in spite of attitudes such as those put forth in Serrano’s op-ed. In my experience, Brown has lived up to the picture painted by my cousin of an academically rigorous yet non-competitive environment. Furthermore, everyone that I have met on this campus is deeply concerned not only with their futures and academic goals, but also with their personal enrichment and fulfillment. After all, the Open Curriculum’s principles begin as follows: “At Brown University, the purpose of education for the undergraduate is to foster the intellectual and personal growth of the individual student.” I only hope that this continues to be the purpose of education at Brown, and that this institution does not lose sight of its most profound legacy: a unique and effective emphasis on the process of learning itself.

Yasmeen Gaber ’23 can be reached at yasmeen_gaber@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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