Attending college, funding your education, and planning your future require us to learn to live with the feeling of loneliness. Among other factors, like our school’s architecture (which deliberately hinders socialization), and the excessive valuation of STEM and Humanities at our school (which further increases our emotional disconnection), we notice isolationism in how we are graded. Though politeness may dictate that we should not ask a peer about their grades, GPA silently impacts the toxic academic culture at UC San Diego and other universities. Suffocating in the one-dimensional world of academia, college students elevate GPA from an archaic assessment of work ethic and intelligence into an all-encompassing measure of self-worth.
By ignoring the complexities surrounding a students’ grade performances, we turn our backs on the students who are constrained financially, students at risk for mental illness, students who are minoritized and set up to dropout, and more. This is not to say that we should pry into the details of our peers’ situations; however, we cannot afford to disregard the ways in which structural inequality and mental illness (which are rising for college students all over the country) are burdens on students. It is common to occupy many of these intersections at once, and because of excessive individualism in college, campus culture can prevent students from feeling they can trust their peers to reveal their struggles, as for example, a friend of mine recently spoke to me.
I listened in shock as she recounted to me that her roommate told her that her average grade was a result of “just not working hard enough.” A statement such as this is insidiously harmful. In that moment, my friend was subjected to a fellow student’s judgement about her struggles which he had little awareness of and she had almost no control over. Debilitating social anxiety can prevent connecting with one’s professors. Further barriers for students in the form of low expectations on women and people of color mean that work in general is more challenging. This person is not the only friend of mine who lives and deals with all of the above. I can try and imagine each of their experiences, but in truth the loneliness and difficulties that students experience is something that I, and many of you, will not understand. What remains within our capability, however, is a continual willingness to listen to fellow students’ stories and offer our support.
Grades are more than a timeline of our academic progress. GPA, for better or worse, is a convenient tool for measuring our individuality as it interacts with our sociopolitical context. All the previous stages in my education—elementary, middle, and high school—increasingly valued grades; they told me it was all preparatory, because college might be the most important time in my career. And while the discipline that college demands really does cause me to feel that this is one of my most crucial stages, GPA seems less important to me than ever. The kind of discipline we need to be caring about now goes beyond worrying about attendance, participation, or exams, but towards a different set of criteria: treating people with respect, part of which necessitates responding to the conditions that reinforce marginalization for people who are not able-bodied, mentally well, or able to thrive within traditional learning contexts.
Let’s be more thoughtful about what grades mean for us, so that we might be more thoughtful about what they might entail for others. A high GPA can be impressive, but a willingness to address political issues that surround the grading practice itself will make our shared educational experience more meaningful now and for future students. I want to disagree with popular belief here, by saying that our grades do define us—but not as a result of incapability, lack of intelligence, or of motivation. We need to think of letter grades as what they really are: literally, signs of struggle that can tell us about the conditions that we live in.
Nathaniel Imel is a staff writer at The Triton.