Rant for the day on the pass/fail option

I had a student email me asking about the Tolkien and Lewis course and the possibility of taking it pass/fail.  Below is the response I sent him.  I think I was too heavy handed.  And that I immediately rattled off this sort of a response to something as benign as a pass/fail request makes me wonder what sort of a petty and insufferable man I will be when I am old.

I won’t ask if I am being petty, since I already know the answer to that.  But are there legitimate reasons to take a course pass/fail, or am I right that pass/fail is taken only so students who want to half-ass a course can without suffering the consequences of doing so?

Here was the email (some edits to keep him anonymous):

“As for the pass/fail option:  I really do not like students taking classes pass/fail.  I can only think of one reason why a student would take a class pass/fail:

For whatever reason, a student knows ahead of time that they will not be able or willing to give the class their complete effort.  Perhaps they are busy with other classes, work, have a lot of other thing on their plate, etc.  Some of the competing demands on their time might be serious and legitimate, others perhaps not so much.  But whatever it is, they are planning their semester on the assumption that they likely won’t do enough work in the class to get the kind of grade that they want.  They want to be able to do this without it resulting in a blemish on their transcript or GPA, so they choose the pass/fail option.  It allows for a no-cost safety net if/when they end up half-assing a class.

You can understand, I am sure, why a professor would not be especially enthusiastic about this.

I cannot think of another reason to take a class pass/fail. Why would you want to take it pass/fail?  If you are a good student, you will be able to do very well in the class (no previous philosophical knowledge required).  If you don’t think you have the time to really give the class the attention it deserves, why take it?  If you are not interested enough in an elective course to enthusiastically give it your best effort, why bother with it?  Find something you love and take that instead, since effort follows easily when someone is in love with something.  If you are excited about this class, you’ll muster sufficient effort to do well.

If you are a student of Dr [X], I am guessing you have received great advising and a great education.  So I am not intending to judge you as a student here.  But I want students in my classes, and especially this class, who are “all in”.  I suspect every professor hopes for this, even if the hope is routinely frustrated.

If I may add a story:  I had a young woman take one of my classes a few years ago who was a 3 year A pin award winner (straight As through the first 3 1/2 years of college).  She took my class for fun, it was not for any requirement.  And she did poorly (by her standards) on the first paper.  She seriously considered moving to pass/fail.  The stakes were very high for her — this was a 4.0 student in her final semester, highly involved, a serious candidate for being university valedictorian.  We talked a lot about it, and she decided she cared more about not taking short-cuts than a 4.0 GPA or being valedictorian.  She would take the classes she wanted to take, give them the best effort she could, and let the chips fall as they may.  I was very proud of her for that, and am pleased to say that she redoubled her efforts and got an A.

I should note, also, that some graduate schools look at pass/fail courses with great suspicion (though, if I am honest, I doubt that one pass/fail course would matter much).

All of that said, much to my dismay a student does not need the professor’s permission to take a course pass/fail.  They can do that on their own, whether the professor likes it or not.  If I were king of USU, I would change that rule or simply abolish pass/fail outright.  But, alas, I am a lowly philosopher and not a king (not even a philosopher king — Plato joke).  Anyway, I thought it worth you knowing that I don’t especially like it.  I won’t hold it against you (you will be graded fairly), but I do hope you choose not to go the pass/fail route.

This email was meant not meant to browbeat but rather to encourage; I do hope it is received that way.”

About Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.
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2 Responses to Rant for the day on the pass/fail option

  1. Huenemann says:

    I agree with you! Though here is a second reason for P/F: when a student has to take a class s/he hates. It’s a way to reserve more time for more pleasurable studies. (Did that myself a couple of times! Social science courses, I think they were.)

  2. Kleiner says:

    Yes, that is another reason to opt for pass/fail, though it ends up with the same result (half-assing the course). My question is: should the university allow it? It is worth mentioning that any of these attitudes that motivate taking a course pass/fail are seriously discordant with how the world works. Try telling your boss you don’t really want to be evaluated (or evaluated with the same rigor) on the parts of the job that you just happen to not take that much pleasure in, and see how that goes. And what is the message here? If you don’t like it a lot, it is okay for you to half-ass it?
    Humanities students may not take much pleasure in math courses. BUS majors or engineers not so much pleasure in humanities courses. Does the fact that they dread those courses or take less pleasure in them make those courses less important to the project of making them well-educated people, such that we permit them to half-ass those courses they don’t take a lot of pleasure in?
    I think we know the results — they learn less. For example: suppose a kid that hates practicing the piano. The teacher wants her to practice 30 minutes a day, but she chooses to only practice 15. With the limited effort she might do well enough to get by, but her piano skills will also be all the worse for it. Is it any different with a math, philosophy, or whatever course that a student half-asses by taking pass/fail?
    I cannot imagine USU disallowing pass/fail in general or even in specific areas like for gen-ed requirements. It would lead to “inefficiencies” (students taking longer to graduate). But this makes me concerned about a broader issue:
    A former colleague, who now teaches at a small and expensive residential liberal arts college was visiting the other day. He joked that his job at a pricey liberal arts college was to replicate class differences. His students are not, typically, having to work to pay for college/rent. As a result, they have the time to give max effort in all of their classes (and, if his college is like my undergrad institution, I don’t think there was even such a thing as a pass/fail option). Our students have many more demands on their time and narrower interests. This encourages pass/fail mentality where they half-ass certain courses. But if I am right, the learning outcomes are worse. And thus, as my friend joked, class differences are perpetuated (rich kids at private school get better education, middle class and poor kids at public school get worse). I’d like to see us work against that trend by demanding quality work in all courses, whether the course fancies the student or not. This would not, of course, overcome all of the benefits of a private college education (network, class size, brand recognition, etc etc), but it would be something.

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