"I know you're disappointed John, but I'm not making a change. Chase the learning, not the grade."
I remember feeling equal parts confused, angry, and disappointed as I walked out of my professor's office that fateful day in January of 2004. The previous semester I had given my best effort to the social welfare policy course. I enjoyed the readings. Fully invested and committed myself to investigating the topics we discussed as a class, and I had a 90.5 average going into the final paper for the course. When I submitted my paper, I was confident that I was simply putting the cherry on top of the sundae that was going to be the one "A" I had un-doubt-ably earned during the first semester of my Social Work doctoral program.
Needless to say, I was beyond disappointed when the official grades were posted for the course. The grade I earned was a measly, stinky, good-for-nothing..."B." After going the entire holiday break rechecking the grades I earned on each assignment, and assessing my dilemma from every possible angle, I decided that I had to stand up for this injustice by scheduling an appointment with the professor. I just had to find out what I earned on the final, and how I could have possibly not received the grade that I KNOW I rightfully earned (insert the sound of the world's most tiny violin- right here, right now).
As I now know far too well, as a professor who's been on the other side of these situations for well over a decade, this was not going to end well for me. Not because I didn't have a case, but because since much of the nature of grading, especially writing at advanced levels, is subjective my odds to change her mind were slim to none. Long story short, my professor was more dismissive than attentive to my concerns, and very flippantly told me to "... chase the learning, not the grade." This was done to encourage me to not become labeled as a "problem student" in a very small cohort of doctoral students. I walked away from the conversation as angry as I could ever remember feeling about an academic situation (at the time I was only 25 years old). I was determined to never allow myself to feel so small ever again. As I'll share in future blog posts, I was definitely wrong about that, because I've had numerous situations since that time that were significantly worse. I did walk away with a very valuable yet unintended lesson though. It's all about perspective.
The Lesson Learned: Chasing the Learning and Paying it Forward.
After the course I had a new determination to not allow any grade I earned to upset me. I shifted my focus on taking the professor's advice literally and strictly focused on "chasing the leaning" for the rest of my academic career. I earned my PhD on time (2007), and have gone on to encourage and teach many students the benefits of the principle for the past 14 years as an advisor, professor, and now department chair. It was unpleasant at the time, but the professor's flippant advice (that I don't believe was said in a spirit of encouragement) was perhaps the most important lesson I learned during that very important time of my life and career development.
What that lesson taught me was that as long as I chased the learning the grade should, and often does, take care of itself. Chasing the learning forces you to: read every article (for yourself, not the assignment/grade), manage your time so that you put the learning first (not the part- time job/social life commitments, etc. that often trip up students at every level), and lastly, chasing the learning forces you to BE YOUR OWN JUDGE on whether or not you were actually successful in the course. Wow, what a concept! As I often tell young people, "Only you know whether or not you are doing your best" in any given situation. By truly embracing the notion that satisfaction can be found by giving your all and being satisfied with the result, you can free yourself from "the chase" that often leads many students to leave college with a great GPA (often north of 3.6/4.0) but also with anxiety problems, performance issues, no self confidence, and an inflated (but very shallow) sense of self based on a subjectively assigned number/grade/accomplishment. In this day and age of over-glamorized social media representations of our "real" life, and less and less authentic, genuine, relationships it is my most sincere hope that every student who I've had the chance to encourage to "chase the learning, not the grade" has applied that principle to their lifelong learning both inside and outside of the classroom.
I gave my "last lecture" to the students at my former institution a little over a year ago during the end of the year Social Work Convocation/ Graduation ceremony. You shouldn't be surprised to know that I began the talk with a specific challenge, "Chase the learning, not the grade!"