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Obtaining the unattainable A+

by Amanda Vitaro February 28, 2017
Obtaining the unattainable A+

Experiencing the worst tease of your university experience

I will never forget the day I was told that I couldn’t.

It was my first semester at Concordia University. Having just graduated with a college degree in commerce at my parent’s request, I was excited to finally be in a program I was passionate about: English literature. Bring on Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot and James Joyce. Bring on the 2000-word essays, discussion questions and take-home exams.

My moment finally came when my ENGL 260: Introduction to Literary Studies professor handed out the instructions to our first written assignment. After years of memorizing formulas and digesting the 4 P’s of Marketing, I would finally be able to let my creative juices flow.

But my creative train of thought quickly derailed. I watched as the professor stiffened his posture, settled his glasses on the tip of his nose and drew in a deep, powerful breath. He proceeded to warn us not to expect any A+ grades in this class.

His rationale, he explained, was that such high grades are reserved for the level of knowledge and quality of work that graduate students produce. At this point in our academic journey, we should be content with Cs, he said.

I had been judged before writing even a single word. My confidence and my ambition—not to mention my GPA—would suffer for the simple reason that I was in my first year.

Somehow, I managed to get through the hours of reading and thinking required to write that essay. I knew there was a good chance I wouldn’t get a high grade, but that wasn’t enough of a reason for me to slack off. I couldn’t put my name on something I wasn’t proud of and, for that reason, I gave this paper my absolute all.

A couple of weeks later, an ugly “C” stared back at me in bold writing, the ink as red as my boiling cheeks.

Should I have chosen a different topic? Picked a more interesting thesis? Given different examples? After reviewing my essay with both my TA and my professor, I realized the answer to all of these questions was very simple: no. There was nothing I could have done to get a better grade.

Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot wrong with my essay. However, after speaking with my professor and T.A., I realized the ‘mistakes’ I had made in this paper were understandable mistakes that any student in their first year would have made.

As an example of their overly high expectations, I was told I should have explained what I meant by the word “well-being.” With a plethora of ways to interpret that word, how could I not provide a definition in my essay? It was a mistake any newbie could have made.

But how is it fair to penalize my current abilities just because I will be smarter by the time I graduate? Can’t I still have something meaningful to say in the meantime?

When entering a more creative program of study such as English literature, there is no calculator from which you can derive your answer. There is no formula for understanding ideas. The grading scheme of such disciplines is different and less regulated than, say, the John Molson School of Business. This difference, however, should not mean disappointment.

I am not saying I deserved to get an A+ on this particular paper. However, I do believe that it is because of this professor’s high standards for the A+ that my classmates and I received such low grades.

Whether you are a high achiever or not, the lack of A+s in a university curriculum should worry you. To treat the A+ like a hero is to villainize the student mind, and it is precisely this kind of thinking which encourages a disrespectful power dynamic between teachers and students. For the sheer fact we are paying to be here, we deserve a chance to get that A+ if we damn well work hard enough for it.

High achievers should not have to write a revolutionary piece in order to achieve good grades. Similarly, students who are content with satisfactory grades should not have to work twice as hard just to receive a passing grade.

No student should be told their best efforts aren’t good enough at any point during their academic career.

I have since encountered some professors who are willing to hand out A+ grades to well-deserving students. These were the classes which encouraged a strong atmosphere of mutual respect.

The unattainable A+ is an unnecessary tease. On behalf of students everywhere, I urge professors to leave the teasing to their own private affairs, and off the syllabus.

Graphic by Florence Yee

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