Say no to bird courses; say yes to academic idealism

"You study hard now, get good average, get into medical school and become a doctor. You don't make the grades — secretary!"

As I reiterated these words from my professor to my counsellor, she was aghast at the harshness and direct nature of his supposedly motivational speech. "And what do you think about this?" she asked. I stared at her for a second, not understanding her question. "Um," I paused. "I … think he's right?" Don't you find it ironic that, while we were brought up in an educational system that relies on grades as the main criteria for evaluating whether or not we are "good" students, the idea that "grades are not representative of who you are as an individual" just never seems to die? When I first came to U of T, my grades, as predicted, dropped about 15 per cent from the mid-to-high 90s that I had consistently held in high school. I remember feeling as if my life had spun out of control, because suddenly, the one thing I knew how to do and do well — studying and getting good grades —had turned its back on me. Without the stellar grades that had often defined me as being "smart," I felt that I had lost a big chunk of myself. My self-esteem plummeted, and I began to listen religiously to the voice telling me that grades do not define me as a person. It didn't make me feel any better. The reality was — and still is — that without a competitive GPA, you would have a hard time getting into any professional or graduate school after undergrad. Similarly, while companies generally care less about your GPA, it is nevertheless a weighty component of any job application, since in the absence of job experience, GPA becomes a strong indicator of your abilities. With marks so heavily emphasized, it's not surprising that students tend to "play it safe" by choosing easy courses that guarantee a high mark. Apparently, for the small price of boredom that accompanies these so-called "bird courses" that you probably don't give a hoot about, your chances of obtaining a slightly more promising future than "secretary" are somehow significantly improved. I mean, let's face it. It's not like anybody came to U of T looking for a small, personable and cozy environment. With course averages that must be maintained annually through bell curves and the number of As given for an assignment typically fixed by a quota, being near the top academically becomes almost a matter of life and death. It's not about choice, but about waking up to reality. As my friend often tries to remind me, "You can't fight the system; you have to work it." But wait a minute — why does this sound so wrong? Aren't we supposed to be benefiting in some way from investing so much in our education? Aren't we here to learn what we are interested in, so that, equipped with the necessary knowledge, we can then be sent out into the world to make a difference? You know, be a global citizen, fight corruption and injustice, cure cancer ... leave a legacy? While it's sometimes difficult to maintain such optimism, I, for one, still stand firm for academic idealism: the idea that our course and program choices should not depend on the likelihood of getting a high GPA, that what matter most are curiosity, courage, perseverance, and how we foster our own personal and professional development. In large institutions like U of T, it's not easy to be recognized for your efforts, because if you look around — in libraries, in lectures, at office hours — everyone's putting in a lot of effort. What I had failed to realize initially was that rather than seeing this as competition (ways in which you are not "good enough"), it's imperative to see it as high expectations. In that sense, it is your responsibility to raise the bar of your own achievements so that, subsequently, the demands and expectations of this particular academic environment will be met with glory. For this reason, I encourage you to take control of your education. I'm not feeding you the old cliché, "Take courses because you are interested in them." Rather, I'm telling you to take courses because you are serious about learning the material, and because you are serious about doing well in them. Don't make excuses or blame the school when you don't do well: go to office hours, hunt down your profs no matter how elusive their presence might seem, and put your all into the course. Believe me, not too long ago, I used to be one of those students who did nothing but complain whenever I got a bad mark. The lowest point of my academic career came recently, when in two writing courses I'm currently taking, I was harshly criticized for my writing abilities (and unfortunately I have the marks to prove this). My writing skills, like my marks back in high school, had so far consistently defined me as a person. It was then I realized that what I was really lacking was humility. Unless you fully accept responsibility for how well you do in a course (which hardly ever happens if you consider it a "bird course"), you'll never be serious enough to tackle every obstacle in your learning, and succeed. I am still working hard in the two writing courses, and I'm proud to say that I'm glad I took them. All the useful knowledge and skills I'm gaining, I've decided, are worth the stress, the hard work, and the occasional harsh criticism. In that sense, I've realized that my grades really don't represent who I am as an individual. GPA is just a number, but the personal challenges I will conquer will allow me to go further than where my GPA alone would ever take me. - Lucy

8 comments on “Say no to bird courses; say yes to academic idealism

  1. I still continue to feel like I am being defined by my grades, even though I try to remember that they are not a reflection of my value as a person. It’s just really hard to not feel completely dejected when you do poorly on a test or assignment.

    The dilemma between taking bird courses to get good grades versus taking courses that are actually meaningful to you is interesting. You made some good points about both sides.

    As a side note, the whole dream of going to U of T and becoming a doctor is a) way too common to be healthy and b) highly unrealistic for many people. I was once among them but I am glad I got out of it because I didn’t even want to be there.

  2. …bird courses that you probably don’t give a *hoot* about… Haha – love that!!

    And I completely agree with this post. As someone who also received the shock of seriously lower grades in undergrad, I know how terrible it feels when you’ve measured your worth in terms of marks.

    Now that I’m all old and everything, I must say that my grades have almost never been relevant to my career – people are interested in what you’ve done, and, yes, sometimes, who you know.

    Marks in university have only once in my life had any kind of relevance, and that was to get into grad school. (Even then they sometimes look for other things like experience, volunteer work, and a solid personal statement.)

  3. Lucy,

    I love this post. I think its the kind of issue that students struggle with all the time – this idea of being more than the grade the university stamps onto you. I struggled with that issue for a long time, until my little epiphany (I wrote about it here:

    And I think, for those of us whose dream it is to go to law school, or any professional school for that matter, for those of us who haven’t been coerced pr convinced into it 🙂 … marks being a defining factor become a big problem. To me, its not so much that I’m allowing marks to define me anymore, but somehow, now, I have to convince others not to define me by my marks. I have to convince law school not to define me by my marks, not because my marks aren’t good (they are) but because there is so much more to me than the number on the transcript. It becomes particularly challenging, because they have too many applicants, and no time to interview each person, so they miss out on the really stellar people who are much more than the marks on the page…

    When marks become the tool that others define you by, I think it becomes all consuming for an individual, because you can change your own mentality, but its much more difficult to change the mentality of the person who holds the admission to your future.

  4. I could not agree more! However, though the article was very much in truth, it will not stop me from filling my last semester with useless classes. In all reality i can not afford to have my GPA shortened just because I work a full time job as well as take care of my nephews. I cannot compete with those that have more time to study. Yet, I do believe that my work ethic is just as strong and my mind is just as sharp. I just feel it is unfair that it will not be reflected in my GPA if i do not take those fluff courses. The whole point of college is to prep ones self for a career but most importantly its the time one begins to advertise themselves to companys and schools for the next move in a career oriented life; therefore, GPA is not just a number….its society’s way of ranking us for their own personal gain. Whether the GPA system actually works is debatable.

  5. I think it is a balance. It is not as black and white as you write about. They matter or they don’t. Bird or non bird courses. It matters, but it doesn’t define you. Take hard courses, take easy courses. Some easy courses you might like. Just because they are easy doesn’t mean you don’t like them. Take 2 easy so you can take the one hard one you really want, etc..

  6. I’ll add, for graduate school, they don’t matter as much as people think. Research matters so much more, your marks in YOUR field matter more. Average GPA’s to top schools, Harvard, Yale, etc.. are often ~3.5/3.6.. That means people got in with 3.3, etc.. and considering inflation in US, it says something: your major GPA matters, LORs matter, research matters, your maturity, how you come off in interviews, your personal statement, standardized tests, etc.. *the* courses you took, and how well your interests match faculty interests.

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