Furthering the case for S/NC, or redefining the Stanford experience

Opinion by Cole Dill-DeSa
June 30, 2020, 10:06 p.m.

With the end of the school year a couple weeks behind us, I have begun to reflect on the nature of this past quarter and the remarkable effort put forth by the student body to adjust to a new learning environment amid this pandemic. Zoom meetings have become commonplace in my life, framing the essence around which I plan my week, and much the same can be said about the reality we all face regarding bridging our physical distances with the wonders of the digital age: Facetime is essential, virtual birthday parties are the new standard and “unmuting” yourself to speak has become habitual.

Moreover, many of us find ourselves having to carefully manage our newfound places within our family and our new living situations or even readjusting to the current Stanford. Regardless of where you are, there is now a new aspect to our lives that we were obliged to balance with our classes, our summer plan frustrations and maintaining our various relationships with those at Stanford. All of us are split between Stanford and what we now call “home,” and we all assume the sole responsibility for balancing that burden.

In light of this, the University made the right decision when it decided to instate an S/NC grading system for students this spring, and with the University’s unclear take on what classes will look like for fall quarter, we may see a similar situation when classes resume in September.

Before the quarter began, Thomas Slabon argued that an S/NC quarter provided a unique opportunity. As many renowned thinkers have put it, a university education is supposed to encourage the student to commit to a refinement of the self. However, our current mindset tends to conceptualize the University experience as merely a means to an end. Put simply, if I want a certain GPA for graduate school, I will do what needs to be necessary to earn that mark without asking the question: why do I presently want this? In his piece, Mr. Slabon indicates that our current culture at Stanford is missing an element of candid self-reflection and an essential grounding in the now.

I agree with Slabon’s primary conclusion: the adoption of S/NC this quarter was an opportunity to experiment with liberal attitudes toward education and to challenge ourselves with classes and ideas that, under normal circumstances, we would be too constrained to pursue. 

However, I would like to further argue that an S/NC grading system not only helps structure a more ideal educational culture but also encourages a healthier work environment. This promotes our well-being by refocusing our mindset on the essence of what college is supposed to be: personal growth and self-refinement. I feel that Stanford’s academic environment often overlooks these values.

Recall your memories from Admit Weekend, NSO and other aspects of your introduction to Stanford, and I ask you to remember what we were told about life at Stanford. “The Stanford Duck,” it was said, “is a caricature of any Stanford student. Calm, cool and relaxed on the surface, but beating relentlessly to stay afloat underwater.” At the time, we were sold that idea as if it were the “cherry on top” of an otherwise outstanding opportunity — that we were to be the next generation of leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators and artists granted that we unremittingly devote ourselves to our education. We were told that our time at Stanford is limited only by our complacency in our efforts to “make the most” of our time here, under the pretense that the value in attending Stanford is limited to the opportunities you gain through your association with the Stanford University “brand.” 

Two years later, disillusionment settles in as I witness a mental health crisis managed by an administration that continually puts its “brand” ahead of the health of its students. As I reflect on my time so far at Stanford, the idea of fronting composure while inside you struggle, raging against an abyss of self-doubt, discontentment and insecurity, is terrifying. Why does our university’s culture accept this as a standard of what a Stanford student should be? What values stand to be gained by participating in a system that forces us to internalize our struggle? Our struggle should be heard, accepted and assuaged. The Stanford Duck does not beat against the strong current trying to stay afloat because it wants to, it does so because it is forced to, and this seizure of personal determination undoubtedly has implications for our personal well-being.

Mental health problems are rampant at Stanford University, the source of which is undeniably linked to the pernicious nature of the academic environment of the University. No amount of additional resources for struggling students, funding for mental health programs or advocacy campaigns will change the fact that Stanford University itself is the cause of systemic issues that pervade campus communities now and will continue to do so in the future.

Reforming our grading system is an essential step to providing a healthier, happier place for all of us. S/NC should play a much more integral role in the Stanford experience — not only does it encourage us to realize the conceptual purpose of higher education, but it allows us the liberty to better fashion our experience in such a way to promote our well-being and sense of purpose. 

There are many ways in which this can be realized: For one, Stanford can allow S/NC courses to count for any major, raise the S/NC unit limit and implement a hybrid academic year that oscillates between S/NC quarters and “graded” quarters. For example, a typical year under this plan would start with a fall quarter as completely S/NC, transition to a Winter quarter with a traditional letter grading system, conclude with a S/NC Spring quarter, then start again in fall with letter grades. Another interesting option can take its structure from the Yale Law and MIT undergraduate experience, in which student’s first years are graded entirely S/NC. This allows students a more gradual entry into their academic learning environments and provides a wider margin of error when making important first-year decisions that define their academic experience. Yet another example can be taken from Brown’s grading system, which allows students to “opt-out” of traditional letter grades entirely. The reasoning for this goes back to Slabon’s original point regarding the philosophy of higher education and learning: to cultivate, discipline and expand the mind and soul.

I have genuinely enjoyed our experiment with S/NC so far. This has been a quarter in which I’ve felt comfortable to test myself in many different aspects — inside and outside of class — in large part because of the flexibility allowed by the S/NC grading system. I took difficult classes on the basis of pure interest, for once I felt like the workload was manageable and I even read for pleasure. All in all, this quarter has been an eye-opening experience regarding the potential this university has to provide to its students a truly defining experience. Stanford’s capacity for change is endless and incredibly exciting.

As our experiment with Zoom, S/NC quarters and distance learning moves forward, let’s begin to think about what we can conclude from our experience. Stanford’s culture has always been the subject of disapproval, discontentment and speculation, but never before have we been privileged enough to have the opportunity to experiment with something completely new and potentially life-defining. Let’s seize this opportunity to make our home a better place.

Contact Cole Dill-DeSa at coledd1 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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