I received “A” grades on our mid-term and final exam, and an “A+” on my final paper, the only scores enumerated in the class. The professor gave me a “B+” for the course. I was in shock. After speaking with him, I learned a valuable lesson.
I’ve written a few stories about various incidents in my scholastic life, including memories of making my French teacher cry in high school, the trauma of first grade, and “The Punch” heard round the world. There are many more of these stories in a lifetime of schooling that some may think privileged, others think mundane, but to me feels like constant trauma. But in the one case I opened with, at least I learned something.
I took the class about a third of the way into my doctoral studies. The professor was renowned on campus, a septuagenarian emeritus still teaching the occasional course. He had been to over 130 countries in the world by this time, with more still to come. He was a legend (and still is, last I’ve heard). I enjoyed the class, and as noted, did very well on the tests and class paper. Then I got my grades.
Surely there must be some mistake, I thought. So I wrote a carefully worded email to the professor, something slightly more tactful than: “What the H…?”
He reminded me the syllabus for the course clearly specified that 20% of the grade was based on “class participation.” Over the years this has most often been interpreted as showing up for class and doing all the assignments. At least this has been true in my mind and in practice I’ve never lost a grade due to my hesitancy to speak up in class. [As an aside, this hesitancy became acute in high school during the “Let them eat cake” incident I’ve yet to write about.] But here the professor was being literal. I rarely spoke up in class. I would not get my grade increased. My “A” work resulted in a “B+” on my transcript and GPA.
Mind still boggled, I asked him why this speaking up in class was so critical. Since I was pursing the degree while working as a full time professional in my field with many years of experience, the young college bucks weren’t offering much insight with their often-mundane questions for me to learn much. Besides, speaking in class had always been the bane of my scholastic existence.
Because, said the staid and wise professor, those younger students can learn from YOU. Your work experience, your life experience, your views help them. They gain from your participation. They gain from your insights.
Okay, I admit the flattery was nice, but his comment struck home. While I could surely learn from them (despite my earlier pronouncement), I could also offer valuable insight from which they could learn. I could help others. I could help students see different viewpoints, myriads of which I had been exposed to during my working, not just academic, career. I could be useful.
That thought stayed with me. I could be useful.
A year later I eagerly took a second course with this professor. This time my “A” grades resulted in an “A+” for the course because I spoke up during class.
I’ve since become much more open discussing issues and offering my viewpoints. Some appreciate it; some wish I would keep my mouth shut. For the last several years I’ve been part of the Lincoln Book Study Group, a subset of the Lincoln Group of DC. We meet monthly to discuss whatever Lincoln book we are reading, parsing it chapter by chapter. Sometimes the discussions get passionate, but always we respect each others insights arising from our varied backgrounds bound by our interest in Lincoln. I’ve learned a lot from these amazing men and women, including that I’m sometimes wrong.
Now when I’m in a group I do try to listen better (still not my strongest point), but I’m also less hesitant to offer my own views. We all learn when we all participate.
And it all started with that one time I got a “B+” instead of an “A.”
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.