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Learning from a ‘C’

In the fall of 1997, I came to Harvard as a freshman, and promptly received my first-ever C on a paper.  I was crushed.

I went to my TF’s office hours and cried.  “But I worked so hard,” I explained tearfully.  And—aalthough I didn’t say it aloud—getting straight A’s was a cherished part of my identity.  (It didn’t occur to me that this was true of all Harvard students; I took the whole thing very personally.)  If I didn’t get A’s, who was I?

My TF, took my tears in stride. Gently, he explained that the grade didn’t mean I was a bad writer or a bad thinker. The problem was that this particular essay lacked direction and organization.  When it was clear that I didn’t understand, he asked, “What is your thesis here?”

Thesis? I had gone to a pretty good public high school, but it was no college prep school. I hadn’t understood what a thesis argument was, or that it should shape your whole paper. I tended to think of my writing as something magical that happened unintentionally; I had never learned to consciously shape an argument and fit evidence to it.

For the next paper, I went to Scott’s office hours ahead of time. He helped me develop an interesting question, and together we crafted a well-worded argument to answer that question (the thesis!). I learned to make each part of the paper relate to that central thesis. It was perhaps the most important lesson of my entire college career.

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The difference between high school and college, for me, was that college is about critical thinking, not just description and memorization. You demonstrate critical thinking through argument (not magical unintentional writing). Each paper needs to have a central argument, and everything in the paper should help you make, explain, and prove that thesis. It’s the same process I use now, as an academic-in-training; learning what a thesis was, and how to argue well, set me on my eventual career path.

Now, as a TF, I watch countless students go through this same process, usually in their first or second year.  I have been responsible for causing tears now, too. I’m always sorry that the lesson is so hard, but I don’t try to avoid teaching it. Countless incentives push TFs toward ever-greater grade inflation, which hurts everyone by making grades essentially meaningless. I rarely give full A’s – and yes, occasionally, I give out C’s. My evaluations often read, “Grades too hard,” and I’m sure it lowers my Q-evaluation scores. I do it anyway. I do it so that my students learn something important.

I always remember Scott, and how he didn’t flinch from teaching me a lesson I desperately needed.  I now admire his courage. I try to follow his example, not to hurt my students, but to improve their writing and thinking skills. While many of my students don’t appreciate the help in the moment (and make their displeasure clear), I hope that eventually they will understand that I’m doing my best to help them learn.

A TF who gives you a B+ to avoid your tears is not actually doing you a favor. What do you learn from a B+? It’s a way of letting a student down gently, because we who received A’s all through high school are so touchy about anything lower. But those are the grades that really teach us something. Maybe we all need to learn this lesson sometime. Maybe the experience of a low grade here and there is something of a crucible, out of which we arise better than we were before.

As Harvard students, our obsession with perfection drives us; it can also prevent us from approaching learning with humility and grace. If all of my students were perfect when they entered my class, why would they need to take it? A good class is not actually about the substance of the material; it’s about teaching you how to think and write well. If you can sail through every class with a B+, what have you learned? What have you really gotten from those who are supposed to teach you?

If I were an undergraduate again, I would demand honest grading and more of my teachers’ time and attention to help me correct my mistakes and learn from them. A low grade is not a sign that your TF hates you or thinks you are dumb. It’s not a commentary on your worth as a human being, or your abilities. It means that you have something to learn—and don’t we all? I’m not saying it’s easy to get a C. I vividly remember that hurt and disappointment. But it taught me something, and that something is a big part of who I am today. I wish more of my TFs had been like Scott.

Shauna L. Shames ’01, is a Ph.D. Candidate in the GSAS Department of Government.

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