Bell curves are a pretty big deal around here. That’s not a particularly contentious claim—curves are a hallmark of higher education and are a good way to keep things difficult, yet in perspective. The notion of curving exams, papers, and final grades is sort of just accepted. I find, however, that sparing a thought for the reality that curves serve to obscure can make them far more difficult to merely accept.
Along these lines, I have a question: When was the last time you did objectively well on an exam? And you know what I mean by objectively. Everyone does; remember high school? Back in the day, you had to do objectively well to earn a high grade on a test, but college does away with that convention. It used to be the case that a “C” fell somewhere in the 70s, represented something considered average, and was not desirable. Now, the average, anywhere it may be, is something that many aim for and is often rewarded with a B or higher. In such a subjective and relative system, the average is something reassuringly concrete, and is thus more gratifying than it should be given that it often does not speak to the reality of, as is usually the case in absolute terms, how badly you goofed.
In my own experience, the result of this odd emphasis is that I, too, often pat myself on the back for doing relatively well when, looking at things objectively, the only logical course of action is to chain myself to a desk in Harper and study eternally, pausing only to self-harm and weep. I realized this recently when, sure, I got around a B on a curved Gen Chem midterm—“Not bad,” subjective Ajay said—but the average also happened to be a 48/100. “Actually, that’s pathetic,” objective Ajay countered coldly. Needless to say, subjective Ajay (pictured) was crestfallen; he knew, though, that his jerk of an alter ego had a point.
With each passing assessment I grow increasingly less willing to accept in good conscience doing objectively poorly, even if my performance translates to a relatively good result. Considering I go to the U of C, this is somewhat unfortunate. I realize I have not been here long, but with nigh on a whole winter quarter under my belt, things have gotten bleak enough for me to possess a strong appreciation of the reality that this place can be almost unbearable at times. Even with generous curves, it’s tough and unrelenting in a way that no self-effacing T-shirt slogan could ever adequately express. And now I can’t even accept the only compromise it’s willing to offer me—to tell me I’m doing fine when, in real terms, that isn’t the case.
Aside from detracting somewhat from any feelings of accomplishment I might have, there is one serious consequence of this issue in my life. We’re told from a young age that, when it comes to deciding what to study in college or what to do with your life, you should do what you love and what you’re good at. I signed up for Gen Chem thinking it’s a topic I enjoy and that I’d be good at it—with a curve, I’m doing fine, but in raw terms it’s not pretty. I went into Hum both intrigued by the subject matter and thinking my analytical reading and writing was fairly strong—with the scaling I’m assuming to be involved, I’m doing fine, but looking objectively at my work while knowing what is expected of me merely reveals more flaws than ever. I truly enjoy both of these subjects and I know my eventual major is going to fall somewhere on the barely-overlapping Venn diagram they form, but it’s proving impossible for me to really say which one I’m “better” at—the one that seems more like my calling, if such things exist.
But, then, if something is a calling, should it necessarily come easily to me? Pursuing my interests is surely more important. Here, where everything is hard and where, for me at least, there seems to be no clear indication that absolute success is possible, maybe the enjoyment I find in a subject is all that should matter, as that’s the only thing capable of drawing me toward it. After all, there’s certainly no course of study that fully sidesteps the rigor of this institution, so it would be fruitless to try and follow good grades to a degree.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m glad the U of C is as hard as it is, because the only end result of all the momentary hardships it puts us through is that we all are fully and implicitly encouraged to end up studying things we truly enjoy—how else could we convince ourselves to keep enthusiastically coming back for more in the face of the ever-present threat of our hopeless inadequacy being shoved in our faces?
Maybe I’m just a dumb first-year thinking he reinvented the wheel, but I have definitely taken some solace in this appraisal of things and I sincerely hope all my fellow undecided students partake in it as well. And I hope that those among us who are already on set paths came to the same conclusion I have at some point, because it’s oddly reassuring and makes me truly happy I’m here. For now, anyway; I have a math midterm tomorrow.
Ajay Batra is a first-year in the College.