What not to love about a 4.0

Opinion by Audrey Bloom
May 25, 2020, 8:22 p.m.

In our high-achieving academic culture, few phenomena enjoy more widespread approval than the 4.0. 4.0? (legend has it) automatic Goldman interview. 4.0? Your grandparents let your new septum piercing slide. To most people on our campus and in this country, a 4.0 means you’re doing a pretty good job for yourself. 

I believe, however, that’s a bit short-sighted. I think a 4.0 can be an indication of a serious academic shortcoming.

Enter the most important experiences I’ve had at Stanford­ — what I like to call being “out of my league.” If you have a 4.0, you probably haven’t had the following experience: sitting down to the first day of a new class and thinking some variation on the thought: “I am the only person in this room who has never done this before.” 

We all know the difference between a class that’s in our comfort zone and one that’s not. I’m a human biology major. For me, comfort is walking into HUMBIO 4A, ready to regurgitate all the molecular goings-on of some different bodily system and moving on to a whole new one the next week. Whatever it is for you, I’m sure you can think of this course. You’re in the class with your usual study buddies, you know the most convenient spot to park your bike outside, and you probably know half the course content already. 

So, then, what is “out of my league”? 

Out of my league was the 12-person political science seminar I took last year where the boy who sat across from me showed up with a well-worn copy of a different political philosopher’s major work each day of class — and I was the outlier. My peers didn’t just namedrop but actually offered in-depth analyses of (what I still think are) obscure events in political and economic history. The level of conversation was so beyond my abilities that I felt genuine fear each time I endeavored to speak. 

It ended up being my favorite class at Stanford and inspired my tutorial topic at BOSP Oxford the following fall. I’m still grappling with the topics, and they still completely blow my mind. 

Out of my league was walking into my first day of French class junior winter after not having spoken a word of French in years. Like many undergrads, I tested out of the language requirement with a mediocre ability to speak the language that had since all but escaped me, but this year I decided I wanted to hold myself to a higher standard. Opening my mouth and telling my intimate class of eight students what I « faisais pendant mes vacances » was embarrassing — at best. But I was able to get back a surprising amount of the language over the quarter. You could too.  

Out of my league is every time I log on to my 14-person Zoom seminar for the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law thesis cohort. The group consists of mostly history and international relations majors, and I come to the cohort with a lot less background in world history than some others have. Two weeks ago, we were discussing the political origins of “the war.” Throughout the entire hour-long seminar, I could not for the life of me determine which war we were discussing.

If you’ve had these experiences, you know they scare you, frustrate you and deliver a blow to your self-esteem. They also teach you to think on your feet, draw connections, ask good questions and be humble to the reality that you know only a tiny fraction of the enormous body of knowledge humankind has produced.

I know there are those out there thinking: I’ve totally had that experience, and I worked super hard, went to all the office hours and came out with an A in the class. The trope of going into a class in over your head and coming out a master of the subject is, I would argue, basically impossible. If this describes you, I’d venture that you weren’t really out of your league in the first place. If you start a class in the true “out of your league” zone, you are probably going to end the class in almost the same place. The nature of learning is slow, gradual and nonlinear. If this weren’t enough to render subject mastery over the course of one class impossible, the pace of the quarter system is. 

This exercise of taking classes truly out of your comfort zone is one of letting go as much as it is one of digging in. Stanford students know how to put their head down and learn, what comes less naturally is accepting the imperfection of our academic record that, paradoxically, might evince such learning. The “out of my league” experience is an invaluable part of true academic growth and of taking advantage of the breadth and depth of opportunities available to us at Stanford (or any institution of higher education), and, importantly, it’s different than simply fulfilling your WAYS requirements. This essential kind of learning is not happening if we finish every class with an A. 

I want to acknowledge how difficult it is to purposefully put yourself in situations where you expect to get a less-than-stellar grade. It is further challenged by the post-graduation opportunities that seemingly demand a spotless academic record. We’re all reminded of this, especially upperclassmen, as we anxiously apply to coveted internships, consider post-graduate fellowship opportunities and ponder when in the world we’re going to fit in studying for the standardized test requisite for admission to the graduate school of our choice. 

Despite these pressures and the worries they create, and despite our knee-jerk reaction to earn the best grades possible whatever the personal cost, I urge you to consider enrolling in a class you know you won’t be good at. 

And the best news is, with Stanford’s grade inflation, you might be able to get the best of both worlds. 

So go out there and get a B. It’ll be worth it, I promise. 

Contact Audrey Bloom at audbloom ‘ at’ stanford.edu.

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