All the cool kids have been talking about the mandatory freshman P/D/F policy that’s circling the administration rounds, waiting to become official mandate. The Spec editorial board has officially endorsed the policy, and Bwog’s official classroom/dorm room census has heard opinions ranging from ecstatic to furious. To throw in our two cents to the conversation, a few of Bwog’s staffers have opined away. Note: this is not Bwog’s official endorsement or rejection of the P/D/F policy, and the opinions expressed below are not Bwog’s; they are people who write for Bwog’s. Bwog has no single stance because websites don’t have stances, or thoughts in general.
Alexandra Svokos, EIC:
I realize that I hold an austere perspective on academic rigor. I went to a grueling magnet high school, where stress was expected and I spent 4 years averaging 4.5 hours of sleep nightly. At the end of freshman year, advisors told a friend, who had been earning Cs and Ds, that it wasn’t the place for him. He was asked to transfer out and did so. My roommate’s (again, magnet) school was worse, with a policy that anyone with a below 3.0 GPA was kicked out. Like Columbia, my high school had people from a variety of backgrounds in previous education standards thrown into a pool of high expectations and intellectual challenges, and I came to love and appreciate this approach (go ahead, insert Stockholm Syndrome joke here) as I, and a majority of my classmates, learned to adjust and work harder than we had ever before.
I came to Columbia because (perhaps masochistically) I wanted to continue to be in an academically demanding environment. Mandatory P/D/F would ineluctably weaken Columbia’s rigor (why push for the A when all you need is a C?), and would have affected my decision to come here. I didn’t come to an Ivy League institution, #4 in the nation, to not work hard and be remarkably challenged. I wasn’t expecting a stress-free (or even stress-light) academic experience, and neither should any prospective Columbia student. [If that’s too much to handle, to paraphrase my high school advisors, maybe this isn’t the place for you.]
Alexandra Avvocato, managing editor:
Like everyone who’s currently at Columbia, I came here well aware of the high-stress culture within a high-stress city — and if I didn’t know that when applying, the dire warnings from my family, classmates, and high school teachers wouldn’t have let me escape in ignorance. Precisely because of the stress of Columbia and the amount of work I’m putting into my classes and assignments, I appreciate the accurate, if sometimes painful, feedback on and knowledge of my quality of work. My CC class’s brief debate yesterday put forth that with a first semester P/D/F policy, students would be able to learn how to actually write and do work without the never-ending dread of a GPA “doomed from the start.” My response to that line of thought: you might learn that your writing is a Pass rather than a Fail, and have a great time with your friends first semester in the wide comfort of that pass, but the next semester won’t feel so great when you realize that that Pass is actually a C — or whatever level is the level you’re not happy with; there’s nothing wrong with a C or a D if it’s making you happy.
But based on all the angst about stress at Columbia, most students who need the lower stress of P/F would not be happy with C’s. I have no doubt that first-semester freshmen will still commit to their work under Pass/Fail — that’s been proven at other schools. I don’t think that will significantly reduce the “stress culture” at Columbia for either that first semester or for the next seven semesters. Every person responds to stress in their individual way that a grading policy won’t do much to change: I know of more than one person juggling six classes, several extracurriculars, and an internship who is less stressed and manages their time better than a person who’s taking four classes and nothing else. You choose how to deal with your stress, and you should make your own choices about how to lower your stress, not be told how to do it.
Specific problems that the P/D/F policy hasn’t yet fully addressed include classes for the major. If I’m pursuing a specific major, it’s clearly because I enjoy it and think I have some talent in that field. Why would I want to avoid knowing where I am in those given classes? Beyond any masochistic tendencies, I may simply want the reward of knowing what I’ve accomplished — or haven’t accomplished — in an area I’m so committed to. And as for the argument that a P/D/F policy will allow you to do the exact opposite, or shop around for possible majors or subjects you’re not familiar with — how are you going to know how well you’ve learned the subject or if you want to keep pursuing it if you have no idea how you’ve done after a semester?
Just a “Pass” or a “Fail” wouldn’t leave me with a more relaxed enjoyment of the course; I’d be left frustrated and uncertain of where I stood. I’d rather risk a lower GPA than have little idea of what my work produced — and to be honest, I’m far more stressed when I don’t know something than when I do, no matter how potentially shitty the answer.
Sarah Thompson, daily editor:
I’m one of those people who lived in a poor region of Appalachia, where there was a stronger emphasis on the quality of biscuits over the quality of education. I theoretically could have been one of those students who needed to be eased into the rigors of Ivy League academic life—easing in, however, would’ve been so much harder without grades to serve as a benchmark of how I was doing! I arrived at Columbia knowing that the work would be difficult, and everyone who arrives here should know that and be able to adjust their habits accordingly.
Multiple advisors told me how to reduce stress: I should drop a class, and not bother myself with taking over four courses my first semester. I made a conscious choice to challenge myself, which allowed me to increase my extracurricular commitments in the second semester, as I already knew how to handle five normal classes; I would have been hesitant to do so if any of my classes first semester had been pass/fail. The system in place gives students the choice of reducing their workload with the pass/fail option and the option of taking fewer credits. Rather than mandate all non-Core classes be pass/fail, or impose a credit limit, why not make those other options better known, and let students at an Ivy League institution challenge themselves and see their own progress? Why not have students meet with CPS during NSOP to talk about managing stress? I admire the increasing commitment to reducing campus-wide stress, but students know themselves better than the university knows them.
Serena Solin, daily editor:
The P/D/F policy does not come from a bad place. It is immensely obvious to me as a second-semester freshman that everyone is stressed, and that first semester freshmen have it perhaps worst of all because of the transition from high school. And even students who came from academically demanding high schools are going to have a hard time first semester because college is, by nature, unlike high school. Stress weighs heavy on the entire student population and efforts to make stress manageable are admirable. Fine.
But the P/D/F policy was invented to do one thing: to “cushion the blow of potentially sub-par academic performance during the first semester.” The step that makes no sense to me is the step between cushioning—essentially babying—and stress alleviation.
First of all, the policy would apply only to non-Core and non-language classes, and all students at Columbia already have one free pass/fail per semester. Assuming that the average first-semester freshman takes between four and five classes, that’s one or two extra classes. Assuming that most students at Columbia are “grade-motivated,” or at least grade-oriented, the P/D/F policy would dissolve into one or two extra Ps on a mostly empty transcript. Assuming that no external higher-up will look critically at this transcript—which is unlikely—the policy would, at best, have basically no effect on first semester freshmen. The policy would, however, enforce the idea that first semester should be a transition period between college and high school. I think it is assumed in the policy that most, if not all, of the first semester freshmen would pass the classes to which this policy applies. The point of the policy is to make first semester academically easier. I don’t know if I’m the only one who thinks this is insulting.
The part of the policy nobody seems to be talking about (lowering the maximum number of first-semester credits to 18) makes sense to me. I know that I overreached my first semester, but realized it fast enough to drop the classes I couldn’t handle. I don’t think that will make freshman year any less stressful, but I do think it will help us make smarter decisions, which should be the point. Making every class P/D/F will encourage incoming freshmen to gamble because there will be no consequences, and the transition into consequences—which is inevitable, unless Columbia decides to remove grades altogether—will still come, just a semester later than it should have.
As a freshman coming into Columbia from a fairly rigorous high school, what I looked forward to most was that I would no longer be treated like a child. Nobody was going to go out of their way to make my academic career any easier. I think that most students at Columbia came into college with the same expectations. Your first semester of college does not automatically make you an adult, but it does indicate that you should be well on your way. The P/D/F policy assumes that first-semester freshmen are not prepared to handle the course loads they are going to take on. The policy assumes that incoming freshmen are unadvised and stupid, which is only true to the extent that everyone coming into Columbia is new. The policy overestimates how new we are. It assumes that we have no help. It assumes that we do not know our limits. It assumes that we should have some kind of privilege because we are not as capable as older students, when in fact older students became capable because they were once our age, and learned to deal with the pressure of our university. It assumes that the stress of Columbia is exponentially more intense than what we handled in high school, which is in my experience so far, not true. The P/D/F policy says that first semester freshmen are not prepared for non-freshmen (i.e., non-Core) classes. If Columbia is going to assume that we can’t handle what it has to offer before we even get there, why are we here in the first place?
Fail/pass via Shutterstock