Winter 2010

Go Ask Alumni

Grade expectations

For this installment of “Go Ask Alumni,” we asked you to tell us about the worst grade you ever received at the University, where some say grade inflation never reared its head—but read on.


When I entered the College in 1948, even my relatively rare exemption from Humanities II didn’t fully console me for being required to take English—my best subject and planned field of study when I got to the divisions.

Our first assignment was to assemble a number of discrete paragraphs about the Battle of Gettysburg into a coherent narrative. Before the papers were returned, the instructor told the class he had given only two As, and I looked around the room to speculate on who had the other one. Imagine my chagrin when the papers were returned, and I not only didn’t have one of the two As, but in fact had a D!

Lesson learned (and applied throughout my career in advertising and public relations)—good writing starts with good thinking; expository organization trumps literary style; and there’s almost always someone else who can do it better.

—Laurence (Larry) Kaufman, AB’50, AM’53


I remember scrambling and negotiating hard to try to earn a D (i.e., a passing grade) in calculus my first term. My roommate was in the same section and managed a D+. I was jealous. But I could also tell you about the party my roommates and I used to throw every year in the Shoreland: the “Dare to Be Stupid” party. To be admitted, a person had to bring a paper or test marked with a poor grade, a rejection letter, or something equivalent, and we would tape them all to the wall. The idea was not to revel in our intellectual lows (anti-intellectualism wasn’t really in the U of C spirit) but to admit our weaknesses and bond over them. There was also a little bit of that Chicago thing of being at a college that would break us down and then build us back up again.

—Katie Skeen, AB’91, AM’02, PhD’03


It is a joke to say there has not been grade inflation at the University. While I was a student in the Graduate Library School during the Vietnam War, male students who were subject to the draft appealed, even with tears, to faculty not to send them to Vietnam by giving them a grade below a B—even when they deserved it. Other students whose employers reimbursed tuition based on their grades frequently made the rounds of all faculty whose classes they were in to be sure they got As if at all possible, pleading financial need.

—Peggy Sullivan, PhD’72


For winter and spring terms, there was dumbbell math. I was not the only person who had failed math in the fall. There were about six of us, all women if I remember correctly, and our professor was a young man from New York who had endless patience and wore plaid lumberjack shirts. He was very nice, though my feelings about the subject did not change, and I clearly showed no aptitude. Somehow I got by with the minimum grade. Maybe a few years later, the professor married one of our “math flunkies” club. I guess the lesson is that logic is more romantic than one thinks.

—Sally Kaplan Spector, AB’68


It was 1962, Humanities 1. My first quarter as a student. I’d already impaled myself on the entry exams. The assignment: go to the Art Institute, spend time looking at El Greco’s Assumption of the Virgin, and write about it. John Cawelti was the teacher. I got the paper back, a C. Along the margins, in large scrawled letters, were his cryptic comments: “Blah, blah, blah” and “BS,” repeated several times over several pages. Those were his only comments. Shattering, but a useful lesson. I found some sort of voice a few papers later, on Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and went on to take other wonderful courses with Cawelti. The College shaped my life, and I became a literature and writing teacher myself.  Though I never wrote that kind of comment on the margins of a paper, I did often retell my story to students.

—Paul Skenazy, AB’66


I don’t remember the grade, but I remember the comment verbatim. It was my first written assignment for the course Liberal Arts I, a Core course taking the place of humanities and social science in 1969:

“Miss Kermish, this paper is flawed by a lack of development and a formulaic repetition of concepts.” Ouch.

—Nikki Kermish, AB’73


Spring 1964. Second-year Mathematical Physics, for all physics majors. Professor Roothaan. About 25 students. Grades: 2 As, 4 Bs (I got one of them), some Cs, the majority Ds and Fs. Result: Professor Roothaan was no longer forced to teach undergraduates.

—Rick Brazitis, AB’66


The worst grade I received was the worst one could receive, a failing grade. At that time there was a language requirement for mathematics majors, to wit, one year of a scientific language (French, German, or Russian). Since German was renowned as a tough course, and since I had not had the usual French in high school, I chose Russian. Truth to tell, I had no interest in languages at that time (an attitude that has changed since), and little aptitude anyway (a situation which, alas, remains). For the semester exam we were allowed to bring dictionaries; I assumed that only elementary vocabulary would be needed, so I bought a pocket dictionary. Big mistake! There was one key word in the text that was not in my dictionary, which I could not figure out from the context, and without which I couldn’t make sense of the text. Hence, failure. The Spanish have an expression, “Lo barato sale caro,” meaning “cheap things turn out expensive”; and thus it was with my pocket dictionary.

—David Reid, AB’71, MAT’73


In the second quarter of a year-long Core sequence in Science and Technology in Western Civilization, the professor assigned us a paper on Galileo’s Starry Messenger. I no longer remember the prompt, or why I wrote a lousy paper and turned it in one class period late. I didn’t expect an A, but neither did I expect the grade I got: “1 [out of 12] - 2 = 0. (Note the charitable math!)”

It seemed abundantly clear that I was never going to graduate from college. The final outcome was a happy one, though: my second and third papers were judged good enough that they let the grade for the first paper drop, and I ended up with a B in the class. I still avoid the topic of Galileo at parties.

—Jessie Ferguson, AB’02