On the Difference Between Pursuing Grades and Exploring Interests

At this time of year, the pressure builds up for most college students. Spring break is over for many students, there are multiple deadlines for papers to be turned in and preparation for exams is in full-swing. But perhaps this pressure could be reduced if more students took a deeper interest in their classes. Arguably, students who are driven solely by grades come away from their college experience with a lot less knowledge than students who are motivated by interest.

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Exploring my intellectual interests is something that motivates me. I have posted before about how inspired I am by studying linguistics and how it is my aspiration to teach linguistics. In February, I applied for grant funding for graduate study and writing my research proposal felt great, chiefly because it involved my own original ideas, informed by the literature I read. All questions have to come from somewhere and in academia, you have to know what has been said already to generate new research.

However, I recently found myself losing sight, just a little, of the bigger picture and having to be particularly intentional in reminding myself what it is. Of course, grant funding is highly competitive. I am awaiting the decision, which I will hear in the next few weeks, and in the mean time my work is keeping me busy (hence, the sparsity of recent posts on my blog). To get funding, I need to get excellent results in my undergraduate degree and even then, it may not be awarded to me. Naturally, this has been on my mind quite a lot and I have been working solidly during Spring break: writing, writing, researching, and writing some more.

The idea for this post arose when I realized that I have been working so hard, focusing on getting the grades so I can continue my academic career, that my enthusiasm kept dipping. Personally, I find the more I fixate on pursuing grades, the less creative I become in exploring ideas. Grades are important, yes, because they are a measure of academic excellence. But I would argue that there are two versions of doing ‘well’: a materialistic version where you check all the boxes, such as being at the top of the class, a straight-A student, achieving a 4.0 GPA….etc. We hear a lot about the “straight-A student” as the benchmark for academic excellence, perhaps more so in high school contexts than in college. To me, this implies that the system prizes material scores over the other version of doing well: exploring ideas, learning because you want to learn, and not simply because you want a good transcript.

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While traditional grading systems, such as the letter grade, are deeply rooted in the education system, my personal opinion is that academic institutions should place less emphasis on students getting a perfect test score and, instead, focus more on intellectual interest.

Being engaged with what you are learning results in better work. Yes, it feels great to do well in an exam, but scoring perfect grades should be merely a byproduct of study that is motivated by wanting to know more, by curiosity and absorption. As I wrote above, I found that placing too much focus on the endpoint spoils the journey and results in work that is less creative and less intellectually engaged. I’d rather focus on the second version of doing well, and then the first comes much easier!

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The ‘curse’ of the smartphone

Two months ago, I joined the 21st century. The keys on my trusty Nokia phone (which, at 14 years and counting, could be described as a senior citizen) began to freeze. One key went first and then another one. It made texting very difficult when I couldn’t use the most commonly used letter in the English alphabet (e, if you’re curious). Gradually all the others followed suit, in a kind of arthritic surrender. My phone switched on and off with no problem, but without the use of its keys, it was nothing more than a useless relic. Thus, I succumbed to the thing I have been resisting: I bought a smartphone.

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Everywhere you go, you see people glued to their phones. A few years ago, phones were functional: you could make calls and send texts and that was the limit of their capabilities. Does anyone remember the game, Snake? I used to enjoy playing that! But that’s so old-fashioned now, when today’s phones are all-singing, all-dancing pieces of technology.

In class, it is standard for people to pull out their notebooks and pens, followed by their smartphones, which they place on their desks as though they are a life-giving force to which they need to be permanently connected. One thing that really bugs me about smartphone use is when I’m talking to someone and they are staring at their phone. Whatever happened to manners? Put your phone away!

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Since purchasing my smartphone, I have made a conscious effort not to become somebody who stares at their phone all the time. It can be tempting to check it when I hear the ping of my email alert, letting me know that another message has landed in my inbox, but when I’m busy working at home, I leave it upstairs and out of earshot. Admittedly, despite my reluctance to get a smartphone, it has its uses. I like the to-do list app I downloaded because it allows me to stay uber-organized. But I won’t relinquish my Filofax anytime soon! Technology is useful but not when it becomes something from which we can’t tear ourselves away.

In the wise words of Steven Spielberg:

“Technology can be our best friend, and technology can also be the biggest party pooper of our lives. It interrupts our own story, interrupts our ability to have a thought or a daydream, to imagine something wonderful, because we’re too busy bridging the walk from the cafeteria back to the office on the cell phone”.

What do you think? Are smartphones the source of a modern-day affliction or do you love your phone?