Cambridge students campaign against public grade-shaming

Momentum is gathering on a campaign started by Cambridge University students to stop the traditional practice of publicly posting exam results next to students’ names. As things stand, students are privately emailed their results before these are publicly displayed outside Senate House and in university publications. A petition has been signed by over 700 students requesting that the practice be stopped, or that the opportunity to opt out is better publicised and more accessible, saying that the tradition feeds into a culture of ‘grade shaming’.

We live in a time of extreme self-publicising, and there may well be many students who are more than happy for others to see their marks, however the key here is that self-publicising allows for self-editing, for better or for worse. When autonomy is removed, this can easily lead to anxiety and distress. Of course, this may be misplaced: most people are more concerned with their own marks (and maybe how they sit in comparison to the rest of the course as a whole) than with actually attaching certain marks to certain people and judging them on that score. But that knowledge on one level doesn’t actually remove the emotional or psychological distress.

Some have argued that the policy leads to hyper-competitiveness in education. This is quickly met by the counter-argument that education is already competitive, and so are the workplace and the so called ‘real world’, so you’d better get used to it, kid. And that is true, but in these places there are more factors at play than the letters or numbers used to label your academic achievement. We all know from being at uni that our high school accolades, invaluable at the time and that got us here, don’t actually mean much once you’re in the door. Equally, when we’re out in that real world which apparently exists somewhere, there is so much more going for us than grades. And there will be some things which even a First can’t protect us from.

In the meantime the most important thing is to consider the wellbeing of students over the dictates of tradition. The ‘Our Grade, Our Choice’ Facebook page which has been set up in support of the campaign contains testimonies of the negative consequences of the practice. Given the reputation of Cambridge as an institution, expectations are high, and pressure comes not only from others within the university, but family and outside commentators. Not achieving the grade you hoped for, then, can seem like not only only failing yourself, but all these others, and making grades public only accentuates this. As one student notes: “There are very few pros for publishing class lists, but the cons can be devastating.” Another writes that their grade was “enough to trigger such deep depression that I never knew I could experience. But when I found out that it was actually published and that everyone could see my failure, I had never felt so ashamed of my existence… No one should have to go through the confusion, sorrow, self-loathing, and fear that I went through.”

While everyone’s education will have successes meted with disappointments, these should be dealt with personally with relevant parties, and not in reaction to public humiliation. Motivation is one thing, but as the above student notes: “being reminded of your failures is not the way to discipline oneself to do well.”

[Caitlin MacColl – @turningtoaverse]

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