News & Opinion


Please, Let’s Get Real About Grade ‘Shaming’

The Daily Beast

May 21, 2015

Wherever one goes, there is “shaming,” or the possibility of “shaming.” Or the accusation of ‘shaming.” You are “shamed” if you are a celebrity, and look terrible in an outfit, and someone snarks so. You can be “shamed” for too much sex, too little sex, too long a skirt, too short a skirt, tattoos, your terrible apple pie bake, your shitty car.

The badge and charge of “shaming” lurks everywhere. It has become linguistic lichen—easily lobbed as an accusation, and infuriatingly deadening on impact. It’s the perfect, vacuous grenade for our social media-drenched world.

You are “shamed” if you say something, do something, wear something, which someone mocks. We are a world waiting to be offended, and if not offended, shamed. We either have our heads down, having been shamed, or a furious expression on our faces, offended.

Suggest that someone doesn’t drink to excess, so as to help maintain their personal safety and you are accused of “victim shaming,” when of course you are merely suggesting that not being drunk or incapacitated might mean you are more likely to be aware of your surroundings.

This is not “victim shaming,” but “common sense.”

And now, apparently, it is “shaming” to have your exam results posted on a board alongside your classmates’.

Under the banner “Our Grade, Our Choice”—a slogan a brilliant satirist could not have better conceived—a group of aggrieved Cambridge University students has asked university authorities to stop publicly posting their exam results.

The template letter, which the campaign is encouraging students to send to their senior tutors, says, “We are writing to express concern about the current practice of distributing a student’s results, in the form of class lists, publicly by the university.

“We believe that this practice deprives Cambridge students of autonomy over their examination results, and promotes a culture of grade shaming which is to the detriment of a student’s welfare. We also believe it neglects the various factors that affect exam results.”

By this, the campaign means the added “unnecessary stress” students endure during exam time because they know their results are going to be posted publicly.

Please note that Cambridge is one of Britain’s, indeed the world’s, leading universities, and students there have already excelled, extremely competitively (and some with extremely competitive parents pushing their ickle dears to do so).

Competition and succeeding are not unknowns to this academic elite. Students from Oxford and Cambridge can be found in politics, the media, and other arenas of public life—many highly achieving, competitive, and happy to display their alpha faces to the world.

Yet they also, apparently, must be protected if they trip up in their onward charge to fulfillment.

The petition against the public posting of the results is rather hilarious in its alarmist wording.

It says, “The current system completely ignores the right of privacy for Cambridge students, and their welfare. It removes any autonomy from students over their examinations results—results which students work so hard to achieve.”

First, sorry for my snigger. Anyone who has once been a student and who has subsequently gone into the workforce to pay rent or a mortgage, knows the student concept of “hard work”—unless studying medicine—is not even relative to the real world’s definition of hard work.

As for privacy, students tend to study in classes and together, and a feeling of collegiate, shared pain when it comes to final exams and their aftermath is often extremely healthy—and if not that, inevitable, as everyone will inevitably gossip with each other about it in person or via social media.

It is ironic that the least private, Facebook-dependent generation is arguing for privacy, when they invade their own privacy day in, day out.

What they really mean when they ask for “privacy” is they want to control their images, their face to the world, and anything that might imperil that face—in this case, some bad exam results—must not be public knowledge.

Students do not, as the petitioners say, have autonomy over their results, because their work, rightly, is adjudicated by others. Those results will be known by employers. The student enters the world with them, and the results’ significance is judged by others. Only an entirely spoilt, entitled generation would claim otherwise.

If they have done enough revision, and if they marshal their wits and nerves enough (and no, this isn’t pleasant, but hey, that’s life, kids!) they will sit for their exams, and do their best. And then they will leave the exam, and commiserate with their friends, and get on with other stuff.

And there, top of the petitioners’ list of why the results should not be published, is that whiney phrase, “grade shaming.”

Are our young people all now so totally infantilized, so inured to the idea they may not be absolutely brilliant at something, that a sheet of grades, with their names and others, must be censored?

What does “grade-shaming” actually mean? Clearly those who composed this petition mean that if you get a bad grade, and that is on a piece of paper which is seen by others, it means you are immediately shamed in front of your peers.

The obvious answer to this cosseting fallacy is only if your own ego dictates it so.

“Shamed” is the wrong word. You may be disappointed, you may be envious of others’ one-letter success above yours, you may be sad, or even shattered by a bad result.

You may feel ashamed of yourself—probably wrongly, but you may blame yourself for a poor performance. Exams are hard, they’re stressful, you put a lot into them. The results can seem like the cherry on a cake, or the end of the world.

These are all natural feelings—not nice ones if your results suck, but ones which (here’s a newsflash, students) adults have from time to time. Getting your exam results is a formative experience, for sure.

But just as you will face and negotiate difficulties in life, in public and private, so you do—around your peers—when you get your exam results.

The “shaming” label, ridiculously melodramatic in the first place, merely heaps unnecessary cod-psychology onto an emotional moment.

What more likely happens is that you see your name with a grade you won’t be happy with, then maybe see the grades of classmates that they may be happier with, then think like all dramatic young people, “Oh no, my life is over,” and about a day later realize it isn’t.

In fact, you quickly realize that your final grades, monumental in the moment, are not going to be the pivot on which the rest of your life is based. You move on.

The strange cultural minting of “shaming” is the negative flipside of the glorification and hero-worship our social media age has propagated. They are both absurd extremes, and they are becoming ever more wildly applied to areas of our lives, with people furiously crafting their own online faces to the world.

The publication of exam results on a piece of paper is not “shaming.” The “shaming” criteria have been dreamt up by a band of self-appointed cultural zealots, and run the risk of making institutions like universities bastions of utter craziness.

Studying at college is a collective experience—it is one of the great collective experiences. You are forced to be around people who are not your family. For many it is the first experience of living away from home. And you work, live, succeed, and fail together too. You may enjoy this, or hate it and swear never to live with anyone again. But the totality of that experience will always outweigh whatever your final grade is.

Of course, the Cambridge petitioners are marinated in every toxic juice of victim culture mixed with self-interest, so wouldn’t buy an ounce of that.

They cite people’s mental health (a bad grade may “trigger an episode”), and their gender (women are graded worse than men, they say, and the publication of grades underscores sexism).

More mistily are invoked factors that affect a grade not visible by that “shaming” banner grade, and then—we are told—a student may not wish to be known by the name the university has on record, particularly if they are trans.

The absurdities in this list make any sensible person want to bash their head against a desk.

You cannot govern a community of any kind based on imagined needs of imagined people. You must be sensitive to all needs, but a kind of micro-managing “what if?” madness sets in when you argue for what the petitioners desire.

A student can already ask the university if they want their results conveyed to them privately for whatever reason. Presumably those people, whatever their reason for doing so (mental health, gender transition issues, whatever) will have done so, already.

If they are masquerading with double identities for more undefinable reasons, I am at a loss as to why the university should pander to them.

As to the sexism question, one could argue if a sheet of paper reveals Cambridge’s rampant misogyny, far better that is published publicly and the university “shamed” into action than ignored (which would happen if results are conveyed individually).

The university already has in place a system that, as a spokesman put it, “If any student feels uncomfortable and wants their name to not be published they can ask their senior tutor for exemption.”

Indeed, as the Guardian reports, at Oxford University since 2009—when 40 percent of students opted out of having their exam results known publicly—all results are now sent to them privately.

This will probably happen also at Cambridge, as the university struggles to accommodate the wishes of the student body.

I was particularly struck in the Guardian report by the words of Nadia Ayed, a psychology student at Cambridge who signed the petition. “Many individuals will find it distressing,” she said of the publication of results, “and it can induce negative psychological effects, such as lower self-esteem, shame and anxiety, which hugely affect wellbeing.”

Ayed added that the system also encourages competitiveness, “with people not wanting to share their notes, and an ‘in it to win it’ attitude among students.”

Yes, as in life, Nadia, which can indeed, at moments, be a great big mound of tough cheese.

But you learn to deal with, or alleviate, your “anxiety” and “negative” feelings. Your anxiety can’t be the predicator by which the rest of the world is forced to live. Take responsibility for yourself.

And yes, there may be “competition” among students (although some of that may be in your head—most will likely be trying to do as well as possible, just like you).

But competition—which has such a terrible rap these days—can challenge you, challenge others and lead to fulfillment, or we wouldn’t cheer on football teams, or runners in marathons, or participants on quiz shows, or presidents whom we support when they win elections. Or people who triumph over all kinds of odds. Or ourselves when we do something we are very proud of.

Just what kind of world do these highly public yet highly private, highly ambitious yet highly fragile, young people think they’re entering?

If their skins are so easily pierced by the publication of exam results on a board, they should know that one day they will cringe that they were ever “shamed” over something so trivial. And they will no doubt tell us all about this moment of private self-discovery on Facebook.