Column | Feb. 10

The perfect class

One of the psychology classes I took last semester had a reputation for being a pass/D/fail hotspot that caters to half-asleep seniors trying to get their last Social Analysis distribution requirement done before graduation. I can’t be sure, but I’d wager a guess that somewhere around 40 percent of the class took it P/D/F. In general, when taking a class P/D/F, it seems to be common courtesy to care the minimum amount. It’s the rational thing to, after all. If something toiled and sweated over gets you the same amount of credit as a shoddy, last-minute C-grade piece of work, why put in any more effort than you need to? Why not stick it to the man and artificially skew the grade deflation bell curve to help a (non-P/D/F-ing) brother out?

The thing is, this way of thinking pervades the mindsets of almost everyone who elects to P/D/F a P/D/F-elective course, but never in the P/D/F-only courses that I’ve taken thus far. There are 10 people in my creative writing seminar, a class that you cannot take for a grade even if you wanted to. The class is technically P/D/F, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any professor in the Lewis Center for the Arts who’s ever given out an F, or worse — a D. Logic and precedent would dictate that these classes are populated with slackers — people handing in the bare minimum because there’s no tangible repercussion for doing so.

Surprisingly, this was not the case. During the fourth week of classes, our creative writing class had an assignment due with a suggested page limit of two pages. The average page count of the submitted pieces was four.

During our elevator rides down from the sixth floor of New South Building, our class often breaks the fourth wall and discusses the weird phenomenon. The class is never going to impact our GPAs, but for many of us, it’s the class we expend the most effort for. We submit revisions — often multiple revisions — though we’ve never been asked to. We send in pieces late, not out of laziness, but because we’d never send in something of poor quality. Better to be thought tardy than untalented.

Of all the classes I’ve taken at Princeton, my creative writing class seems to be the ideal of what those glossy brochures advertised to me all those years ago. We’re working closely with a decorated and influential professor. Everyone cares deeply about the work they put into the class, beyond any sort of graded value. Despite the lack of numerical feedback, the dedication to improving and presenting the highest quality work never seems to waver. All classes at Princeton should be taught like the P/D/F-only classes offered by the Lewis Center.

This is obviously not possible. There’s no way that all 400 students in ECO 100: Introduction to Microeconomics can feel as attended to as the 10 in my creative writing class. It took me a while to figure out what it is about P/D/F-only classes that creates that environment. It isn’t the P/D/F status, as P/D/F-elective classes have a very clearly opposite effect. Was it the application process that made sure that everyone in these classes was completely invested? Is it just the very nature of arts classes?

Is it the fact that it’s a small seminar? This is possible; some of the most raved-about classes here are capped at 20 students or so. The ability to get to know a professor really well can make any class exponentially better. However, smaller classes still have grade deflation, and grading starts to become more subjective when a professor knows he must give out a certain number of Bs in his class of 12. The fact that creative writing is also P/D/F-only and also has an application process creates a sort of trifecta of the perfect possible conditions.

More classes should be taught in this style than just arts classes. Small seminars that are P/D/F-only or at least don’t have a strict enforcement of grade deflation allow students to focus on the material rather than worry about their GPA. Application-only classes ensure that everyone in the class really wants to be there and fosters the same sort of environment that Princeton likes to boast about to eager-eyed high school seniors. And I know for a fact that when I talk to one of them as an alumni interviewer someday in some warm corner of a Starbucks, these will be the classes I wax poetic about.

Shruthi Deivasigamani is a sophomore from Cresskill, N.J. She can be reached at shruthid@princeton.edu.

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