I was walking through the Exley lobby when I overheard a tour guide telling his group that due to student petitions, the University no longer posts the names of the highest-performing scholars in the sciences. According to the tour guide, that decision exemplifies the Wesleyan mentality of collaboration, decreases the cutthroat competition found at other colleges and universities, and removes the emphasis from grades, placing it instead on learning.
Why, then, do we still have the Dean’s List? Released last week, last semester’s list contains the names of the approximately 140 students, or about 18 percent, of each class who had earned a GPA of 93.35 or above as of last semester. The email sent to the students who made the Dean’s List read, “The Dean’s List honors [your] accomplishment, and recognizes your hard work, intellectual engagement, and love of learning.”
It does? I’m pretty sure the Dean’s List simply recognizes a GPA of 93.35 or above. It certainly might recognize hard work, but it could just as easily measure taking easy classes and having the luxury of not holding on-campus jobs. It might recognize intellectual engagement, or it might be the product of memorizing facts and bullshitting essays. And love of learning? I’m not really sure what that even means.
This is not to say that we should not have grades. Grades, too, can be criticized for reflecting not achievement but memorization and wealth, but that question is not the issue of this article. The issue of this article is the public recognition of students with a certain GPA.
Let’s deal first with the students on the Dean’s List. Perhaps the assumption is that students who are recognized will be sufficiently motivated to keep achieving, but that is simply not the case. According to Alfie Kohn, author of “Punished by Rewards,” rewards and recognition are threats to continued motivation.
“There are at least 70 studies showing that extrinsic motivators—including A’s, sometimes praise, and other rewards—are not merely ineffective over the long haul but counterproductive with respect to the things that concern us most: desire to learn, commitment to good values, and so on,” Kohn writes on his website, summarizing findings that he publishes in his book.
In other words, the Dean’s List not only fails to motivate students to excel in the long term, but also fails to cultivate what it professes to produce (or continue): hard work, intellectual engagement, and love of learning. Students who are on the Dean’s List might in fact be there because they love learning, are intellectually engaged, and work tirelessly, but being recognized for these things might ironically make them less likely to occur in the future; students who are already intellectually engaged are likely to become less concerned with love of learning when the extrinsic motivator is introduced, and those who are not engaged are unlikely to become so.
Some will of course argue that the Dean’s List is not simply about motivating students, but also recognizing the hard work and accomplishment of students with high GPAs. Don’t they deserve to be lauded publicly for what they have accomplished? That is a fair question, but I’m not quite sure why recognizing those students publicly is necessary. Why can’t it be enough that they know what they’ve achieved? Their professors know, their parents know, and their advisors know; does it have to be on the website? This is not a cry for humility or modesty, but one for privacy: The Dean’s List violates students’ right to keep their grades private.
Moreover, there is no equivalent of the Dean’s List for arts, sports, or other extracurriculars. It’s fine to place the value on academic success—it’s a university—but publishing the names of students with high GPAs takes away from other students’ major creative accomplishments, such as writing and directing plays, designing clothes for fashion shows, and producing films. Perhaps an even larger problem is that the Dean’s List does not even recognize the highest academic achievers who do not receive grades, such as students in the College of Social Studies and the College of Letters.
Grades are important, if you want them to be. But reporting your GPA to your employer can stand on its own; although your being listed on the Dean’s List website might look impressive, it is unlikely to strongly influence someone’s decision to hire you.
Let’s deal now with those who are not on the Dean’s List. We’ve established that students who have been recognized are unlikely to reap enormous benefit from that recognition, but what about those who do not find themselves on the list? Are they likely to be suddenly motivated to succeed because of it? Maybe, but probably not: If a student is hell-bent on making the Dean’s List the following semester, ze is more likely to select easier classes—ones in which ze is relatively sure ze’ll get an A—rather than try to cultivate intellectual engagement or love of learning.
And what about the effect on our community? The Dean’s List does not exactly produce cutthroat competition, and most people do not pay attention to it except for the week it comes out, but in that week—and possibly beyond—it merely breeds resentment and an uncomfortable feeling of competition. Why is this necessary? If it is helpful neither to the awardees nor to the non-awardees, and might in fact be detrimental to both parties, why have it at all? The potential harm is great; the potential benefit is slim.
I’m far from the first person to feel this way. In March of 2011, Rachel Pincus ’13 wrote a Wespeak titled, “The Open Dean’s List: It Doesn’t Get Much More Un-Wesleyan Than This!” I agree with Pincus, who says, “It seems inimical to Wesleyan’s values of collaboration, community, and learning for learning’s sake to force the quantitative discussion of individual students’ grades into the open.”
Wesleyan does bill itself as the type of place that fosters collaboration instead of competition and emphasizes joyful learning rather than cramming for the sake of a grade. It bills itself as the type of place that values creative contributions to campus just as much as academic ones, the type of place that encourages growing and learning over quantitative measures such as grades. For the most part, the University delivers. I rarely share grades with classmates and almost never feel that anybody is in competition with me, or I with them. When friends are performing or excelling in a non-academic pursuit, their success feels as valid and important as anything someone does in the classroom. And then the Dean’s List comes out.
Davis is a member of the class of 2017