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After-action Report

NCSU's Yellow Light from FIRE

Well, that was as bad as I expected. Maybe it’s just because I try to take every thing in stride, or maybe because I was expecting most of it. At any rate, this first semester of college has turned out relatively similar to how I expected.

Chemistry, which I had figured out pretty early on was going to be arbitrarily difficult, was arbitrarily difficult. I scraped through with a disappointing final grade of a C in the class, which I’m perfectly happy with. When I spoke the word Chemistry with a frustrated edge in my tone to my academic advisor, she just told me flat out: “Get your C minus and move on.” Oh, and did I mention that the textbook for this class (which a high percentage of incoming freshmen are required to take) was written by a staff member at NCSU? Seems like a cheap trick to make a buck.

As for the rest of it: Calculus was satisfyingly difficult, and I hope I did well on the final because a large portion of the grade rests on it. I’ll known soon enough. But, in contrast to Chemistry, if I fail it, that’s okay. The remarkable thing about Calculus, though, is that over the last two and a half years of it, retaining my knowledge of integration and derivation became academic survival skills. But with the end of this semester, and pursuant to a satisfactory grade, I can let it all go. My only remaining maths are in different schools of thought, ones more relevant to Computer Science. That’s not to say I dislike Calculus: I wouldn’t mind taking this class again and doing better. But the fact remains that it is the end of an academic epoch more meaningful and longer lasting than any other I’ve found. After all, grades come and go, but Calculus has become a fixture.

As for the rest of my classes this semester, they were, bar one, one-hour headaches that passed by relatively uneventfully.

And that one class was English. Firstly, as an aside, I take great pride in my writing and have been commended for my better-than-competent authorship in the past. So it was with a mixture of puzzlement and disappointment that I spent the entire semester getting a B on each and every paper. Now, to put that into perspective, if my work was a B on some kind of objective scale, then the majority of my classmates’ papers — with the exception of one classmate in particular — that I peer reviewed would have failed dismally, in my opinion. At the risk of sounding elitist, they were more than two letter grades worse than mine.

That said, I have two theories on this. The first, and to my mind less rational, explanation is that some kind of bizarre grading method was being used that championed airtight compliance with the rubric over readability, even when such adherence produced nonsensical posturing.

On the other hand, I suspect there may have been a relative grading scale for each student. Essentially, my teacher knew I could be doing better than I was, and so began giving me Bs to encourage me to go the extra mile and turn in outstanding papers. The problem was, if so, this was never communicated to me, and I never did both trying to achieve an objective whose requirements were unknown to me.

The funny thing about all of this is that I’m not the bothered by it all, on the whole. This is partly because she was right. I could have done better and spent more time on each paper, but I just never did. If anything, that was just due to my habitual underachieving combined with my distaste for the rigid structure of the writing required for this class. This is also partly because in the end I got the kind of praise that doesn’t involve a letter grade. My teacher specifically asked me to sign a release so that she could use my writings as example papers because they were so good.

She may have been trying to stop me from feeling too superior, but that just pumped more air into my already overinflated ego. In a good way.

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Categories: College
  1. Bob
    December 19, 2007 at 1:18 pm

    Sounds about right to me. Like you, I’ve always considered myself a good writer (I hope I am, anyway, since that’s what I get paid for); and like you, I never got stellar grades in any writing class.

    In my case, I think it was a combination of factors. To some extent (and yes, it’s hard not to sound elitist), it’s because I was already beyond those classes. A class that’s supposed to teach writing skills is inevitably going to be rubric-based, and if you’ve already learned how to write in your own way, it’s not going to be easy or fun to force your prose into a rigid template. Brilliant writing won’t help your grade if your topic sentence isn’t two-thirds of the way through the paragraph (or whatever).

    The second problem, for me, was that I was trying too hard. Because I considered myself a good writer, I was rarely content just to do the assignment; instead I tried to show off, and as a result I wrote some really embarrassingly bad stuff. I guess it took me some time to learn that the most effective writing is the writing you don’t notice. If your reader is thinking “Wow, this guy knows a lot of adjectives,” you’ve failed.

    I think it’s interesting that my best writing in school was always the stuff I wrote for classes *other* than English: classes where I wasn’t thinking about my writing, but just saying what I wanted to say.

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