A simple letter

This fall, I earned an A in orgo, an A in second-year ISC, a B+ in COS 217, and a B in MAT 203. I passed my creative writing (poetry) workshop.

Unremarkable grades. They reveal very little about me. Yet I feel some trepidation showing them to everyone who happens across this post. Grades aren’t, I suppose, something we share with others. Not, I think, because they reveal so much, but because they claim to, while actually showing very little.

Because really, what does a B+ in Introduction to Programming Systems mean? I’ve reached some level of skill in, ah, programming systems, but not the skill other Princetonains have reached? Do you feel the sleepless nights of coding and the triumph of watching a program come together in that B+? Do you feel the sparks of understanding (and misunderstanding) in that B? Does my passion for chemical research come through in that A?

Yeah, I don’t see that in a simple letter either.

My fear in sharing grades is that whoever sees them won’t bother to learn the story behind them – as if you’d stopped reading after the first sentence of this post, or if an employer or graduate school looks no further than an inadequate transcript.  When that happens, I become defined by a few letters on a sheet, rather than the story behind them.

Unless we take grades for what they are: ballpark estimates of very specific sorts of knowledge. In our day-to-day lives, a B or C meaning “I’m about this good at multivariable calculus,” should matter no more or less in our estimations of others than an equivalent expression of artistic or athletic skill. Which is to say, not at all. If we see grades for what they are – an extremely small part of multifaceted people – we can share them without fear.

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