On Being Perfect (97% of the Time) in Library School

By day, I am an academic advisor for medical students. I enroll students, counsel student, and generally make sure at least one small slice of the next generation of doctors are educated and engaged. I’m changing the world, right?

By night (and weekend), I re-enter the world of academia as a student. My non-work hours are currently a jumble of novels for my Readers’ Advisory class, textbooks for my LGBTQ resource class, and discussion boards for my MLS Foundations course. With each group project, Book Talk, or discussion post comes a grade, of course. Like most people, I find myself, from time to time, obsessed with those numbers. Few people, in my experience, get to graduate school because they slacked off and didn’t have a drive to succeed. Indeed, we’ve been primed from an early age to seek the highest grade, believing in some way that that number or that grade could validate our education experiences and reify our intellectual “superiority”. We were our grades and our grades were us.

It is perhaps easy to see how this single-minded devotion to something as abstract as a 4.0 could lead a person astray. If your single focus, your definition of success, is summed up in those two digits, your world becomes myopic. Risks become more calculated (perhaps not even taken) and your comfort zone becomes home, all in the belief that this is how you maintain perfection.

If I haven’t made it clear already, let me put it bluntly – I believe most grading schemes are abstract scales designed to reward and punish students in ways that are completely out of proportion. Yes, perhaps some form of grading is necessary to ensure comprehension and readiness to graduate. But far too often, grades become the be all and end all. And that, I think, is highly unfortunate.

Given that my time in library school is my second time in a master’s program and that I work in higher education, I feel that I have a unique vantage point concerning grades. Indeed, there are several mantras I try to keep in mind. These are there things I tell my students (and myself) about grades and now, I’m telling you.

1. You are more than that number.

Yes! Hard to believe isn’t it? For much of this semester I was riding a high where every assignment I submitted was deemed “perfect” (whatever that actually means) and I had 100% on all my class. Humblebrag, right? Not quite. Come midterms, I was almost certain that my perfect streak was coming to an end. And I was right. With a 97% on a written assignment, my perfect streak was gone. While I had tried to tell myself from the beginning of the semester that grades were just numbers, I was shocked at how deeply I felt the disappearance of my 100%. It was in that moment that I had to repeat this mantra, which I’ve said many times to students, to myself.

2. Your education is more than that number.

This is almost as important (if not more) than the first point. If you allow your education to be subsumed by the pursuit of perfection, you won’t learn. More to the point, you probably won’t learn what you need to learn. You won’t take those risks and enroll in the courses that scare you with their difficulty. You won’t take the chance that might change your life. As someone whose first graduate transcript is home to a bright shining C, I implore you, don’t be afraid of intellectual risks. The payoff is sometimes greater than what can be seen in a GPA.

3. Your career will be more than that number.

Remember that C I just told you about? When I first knew that was what I’d earned, I was, to be honest, crushed. But it hasn’t stopped me from having an exciting and wonderful career in higher education. I’ve worked in higher education for six years, led a statewide organization, and won awards for presentations I’ve given. Now, my time in the world of library science is just getting off the ground, but I can only imagine my experience in higher education is applicable to the world of libraries. If you can show that you are capable, determined, and devoted to the core tenants of our field, you can make your mark. Don’t feel that one experience in graduate school will be a scarlet letter you’ll have to tote around for the next 50 years.

Ultimately, grades are just the language that higher education has chosen to talk about performance. While society at large may place outsized weight and import on them, student and educators (including librarians) don’t have to. Changing the conversation about the importance and necessity of grades can come from us, on the inside.

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