Grade anxiety: a reflection

Much to my own surprise, in 2017 I started a third course of graduate school in my lengthening professional career. I was 29 when I finished my first graduate program, 40 when I finished the second, and I’ll be 50 when I return to the workforce in 2020. This means that over the last twenty years, I’ve earned a lot of grades. I’ve also watched classmates earn grades, and we’ve all talked about the many anxieties that arise when serious students are getting letter grades for academic work.

“You have to get that demon out,” a professor told us last year, when she heard a few people getting anxious about their grade in her class. She rightly told us that grades are not what it’s about, that learning and insight and growth are what it’s about… And yeah, she’s right. Of course she’s right.

There also have been harsher critics of students who want so passionately to get good grades. It’s easy to scorn us, to call us narcissistic, to say that we are foolish, vain, or just silly when we worry about how we’re going to be evaluated. Some of the critics are grade-obsessed themselves, and are anxiously cloaking their own behavior by critiquing it as loudly as possible.

And so I say this: yes, of course, like almost any behavior, worrying about grades can be taken too far, or done for the wrong reasons, or simply be maladaptive, even ridiculously so. But there are positive, even healthy, reasons to be preoccupied with grades. I’ll offer two of mine.

My first reason is practical, and straightforward: next year I am eagerly looking forward to having a faculty advisor, and a study carrel, and the time and support to do a thesis on a topic I’m passionate about. To get that opportunity, I need a GPA of 3.75 or higher. No, there will not be one single parishioner, search-committee member, or bishop who will care about my seminary grades when the time comes for me to work as a priest. But 3.75 is a number that matters next year, and I don’t want to let myself down and not get to enjoy that great experience.

Second, I have spent my life doing jobs that defy objective evaluation (musician, psychotherapist, faith leader), and while grades also are not objective, I think they can convey something truthful, something useful, about my work, and they can help me be not only a better student, but also a better theologian, a better preacher, a better elder than I would be if I never got useful, specific feedback from someone who knows much more than I do about the subject I’m studying. (“Elder” here doesn’t mean older person—though I am not as young as many of my classmates. It is the meaning of the word “presbyter,” which is the root word for the English word “priest.”)

Given all this, I strive to find a happy balance between grade panic and grade apathy. I do want to do well, and I do want to get good grades, and I do think that there can be legitimate reasons to value highly the educated opinions of my teachers.

But there are some don’ts, too. I don’t care what grades others get, and though I can be competitive in various areas of my life, I always have the most fun competing with my past self, not my present companions. I don’t think good grades guarantee a good priest, and if getting C’s in seminary prepared me better to save lives and make a difference, then I would be happy to get C’s. I don’t think grades will save my eternal soul, or please God, or make my dad love me more. My dad loves me perfectly well, and unconditionally.

So yes: I like getting good grades, and I like learning how I can make okay grades into good ones. And I allow myself to feel nervous about stuff like that 3.75 hurdle. I want to clear it! But in the end, I’m just another person, another reader, another writer, not particularly noteworthy or unusual, and I don’t sweat the occasional B.

But if turning that B into an A helps me learn something thoroughly, or makes me a better preacher, or opens me up to a radically new (to me) idea, then sign me up as a grade-anxious person. I can own that.

And then, when I’m done with seminary, my transcript can happily vanish into a storage folder in the VTS hard drive, never to be seen again. I’ll be busy as a priest getting feedback of all kinds from the people I serve, and no doubt at least one parishioner will think I’m a D- priest. And they’ll probably be touching a truth in their assessment. I’ll administer the sacraments to them, and feel thankful for whatever they can teach me.

And I may go home and worry about it a bit — I’m an average human in that way. But God will be with that person, and with me, and one day we will gather around a Table beyond all grades and evaluations and judgments, when everyone looks only to the Light, and rejoices.