We Can Handle the Truth (About Grades)

We live submerged in information. Even when we don’t know it, we know how to get it. Anything is a Google search away. Arguments over facts still happen, but at least I, and my smart phone, know how to bring them to a quick and decisive end.

I have had two great frustrations at Harvard Law School. Like many of my classmates, I arrived here last August with a little anxiety, a lot of pride, and overwhelmed awe at my presence at this institution. This was Harvard. I am the first in my family. In my excitement to be here at the best, among the best, I thought that everything would be the best.

My first great frustration was finding that Harvard is a bureaucracy like any other large institution, and like its august companions, it keeps its secrets. Issues that seem to be fundamentally important in an academic environment are obscured. Grades aren’t important, says one professor. You should study hard and not worry about joining too many organizations, says another. No, really, no one cares about grades, say the 2Ls and 3Ls at those organizations I went ahead and joined. Well, unless you want a clerkship, someone else interjects. (What’s a clerkship, and why do grades matter for that but not other things? That’s another tangle, one I have not yet completely unraveled.)

Here I was—1L, part-student, part-detective, fully broke, thoroughly confused—and I asked the most salient question: “So how are exams graded here?”

You already know the answer, or rather how there is no answer. All that is clear is that some portion of the class receives a Pass and a smaller portion receives Honors. The first number is greater than 50 percent and the second is greater than 0 percent. That is all I can say definitively. Apparently, there is another grade called a Low Pass that a small or possibly null set receives. There is an even more mysterious grade called a DS that may be even rarer (or not, depending on which of my guesses about LPs is correct). Someone then tells me that the DS is assigned with names attached to exams. But I thought the system was blind! There is a shrug, a smile, and we both take another drink.

What does this all mean? It means a nontrivial expenditure of mental energy on my part, puzzling over the standard by which I may (or may not, depending on who’s right, see supra) be judged. It means this particular inefficiency of thought, multiplied by 559 similarly-situated inductees.

This brings me to my second great frustration with Harvard Law School. Law students talk about law school. 1Ls obsess over law school grades. All the time. I am guilty. I do not deny that this is unhealthy. I am writing about it now, at length. Last semester, we also talked about it, at length, repetitively, with no resolution. Remember what I said about arguing over facts? This time, the magic Internet could not help us. It was exhausting, and then frustrating. The answers are there, locked in some office not too far away, in the heads of those luminaries we see every day, but they’re not for us to know. Those who know are not allowed to tell us. This school doesn’t want to make us anxious or anything.

Please, put us out of our misery. Law students in grade-anxiety mode must be the most unattractive creatures on Earth. Free us to talk about anything else. All I am asking for is a little transparency: distribution, what is set and what is discretionary, what is blind and what is not. We will soon belong to a profession built upon rules. Can you please tell us the rules before we start the game? It may be too late for this 1L class, but August will come around again and a new batch of us will arrive. If not for us, then for them. Think of the children.

Geng Chen is a 1L. Her column runs every other Tuesday. 

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