Grades

Today is the seventh anniversary of my first degree graduation. A BSc in industrial engineering. I worked hard for it. Focused and determined, I rarely took time off.

I would work in all three of my summer holidays. As a first year I’d develop an automatic preventative maintenance program for a metal factory. The skills I used there I had in my quiver before I finished high school. Most of my time spent would be spent typing up a hardcopy manual so that I could handle the information digitally. I learned to touch type out of sheer necessity. The result an MS Excel spreadsheet that would estimate the condition of every single maintainable part on three different steel rolling mills. It would astonish my supervisor at the time. Back then, I wondered what I’d learned at university that was supposed to have helped me. My brutally hard year, didn’t seem to bestow on me any actual skills, only some social capital.

The following two holidays I would attempt to supervise a team building our university’s first solar car. This was a dream come true in the beginning. Who wouldn’t want to build a car powered by the Sun? It was a futile exercise in being constrained by people who supposedly knew what they were doing and utliamtely working hard but aimlessly.

Looking back, I enjoyed my degree but only because of a handful of courses where I was stretched beneficially by the lecturers. Some insights, like a buddhist koan, I still wrestle with. Others I look back on with bewilderment about time essentially wasted and stress piled on unnecessarily. The sole learning of some content was just to pass an exam made difficult so the course did not appear too easy. The goals were most certainly not about learning.

Where else was time poorly spent? The more I thought about it, the more I recognised it wasn’t only the time lost that bothered me. It was the grades. These now somewhat arbitrary lines in the sand that I think did the opposite of what they were intended. Shallow over deep understanding, fear of application rather than inspired action.

Either you finish with a first class pass or a third class pass. A second class pass means nothing. A first, means you’re academically excellent. A third means you had something better to do. My father told me this was the unwritten classification of graduates when he studied at university.

In my schooling, the highest possible grade was an A+, meaning above 90%. At high school this was really good and achievable for a few. By university above 75% was an A, and this was much harder to obtain. Above 90% was reserved for the exceptional. A B grade at this point was unremarkably a small 5 percentage point window between 70% and 75%. And from 60% up, the hallowed C.

I never had the desire of being a straight “A” student. I only wanted to do well in the subjects I enjoyed. In grade 9 (the year South African students typically turn 15) I was faced with a decision. For the coming year students had to focus their course load. The conventional wisdom was, and probably still is, to drop the subjects one was bad at.

Afterall good grades are how you get into university, a good job, and then a good life.

Right?

My conundrum. Was that my best subjects were not ones I was particularly interested in. Accounting and Biology. My dad, as always, left the choice up to me, but also shared the transcript to a recent speech Steve Jobs had given. In it he spoke about connecting the dots later, doing what you love first. And so I did. Choosing Art and Computer Science.

I didn’t do well in them. My art teacher, one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, told my parents that I couldn’t draw. And by the end of high school I didn’t get an A grade in Art, although managed one in Computer Science, thanks to some national bell curve adjustment magic.

I loved those classes though. I look back and think of all the wasted time in school. The pacing was too slow, the content dry and largely irrelevant, and teachers were worn down by a system that continually fought against them. But my chosen courses, despite their difficulty were an oasis in the desert. I loved them and still connect to their added value.

Computer Science turned out to be a class where our most sophisticated programs were hacks. We’d created custom software to browse this new thing called ‘Facebook’ whilst making it look like we doing class work.

One of my classmates made a management system for the school to handle the logging of morning latecomers. He was the school’s worst offender. He built in an exception that would periodically reduce his ever accumulating total of offences. He still got into trouble for being tardy, but less so.

One assignment had us designing games. It was open ended and amazing. So much so that well over a decade later, whilst catching up with a good friend who was in the same class, we dug up the original files and played them on our now high resolution laptop screens. They still worked, and they looked good thanks to our minimalist graphics. A double delight. School was never supposed to deliver on this level.

Art class was even better. For a few hours a week we’d be set free in a woodworking and metal lab. Our teacher, a maverick, was concerned about our safety in and around the machines but also the over-sanitised nature of our ever politically correct and safe society. I loved the classes and if I have any edge to speak of, it was here the sharpening began. I would not leave with an “A” for this class and yet is has always had infinitely more value to me.

What are grades for? I don’t want to tear down the system. But I think they’re given too much weight. In coming months I’ll be looking for a job. The first thing HR will ask for will be my transcripts. From which they will attempt to gleam what I’m good at and suited to help them with. They’ll see reports from three different countries, vastly different assessment systems, and somehow decide as they compare me to other candidates with only more added complexity.

My official transcripts, a record from the past, won’t reveal the courses that were taught well. They won’t show a fair representation of my ability against the world, let alone the tasks that I might be able to do for them or learn to do.

I’m envious of people in professions where a portfolio speaks for you. A collection of one’s pieces and projects hightlighting their interests, skills, perhaps even their mettle.

I’ve decided to share all my grades. Yes all of them. I have been unable to think of a legitimate reason as to why I should be hiding them as social predicate has dictated to me. So here they are.

All in one table.

Why not seperate them? Would it matter if I did? It’s interesting how their value isn’t so clear.

I’ve bolded the courses that I absolutely loved. Asterisks appended if I thought they were lifechanging.

Report Card
Course % Grade
English Home Language 82 A
Afrikaans First Additional Language 50 E
Mathematics 90 A+
Life Orientation 88 A
Information Technology 83 A
Physical Sciences 77 B
Visual Arts* 76 B
Mathematics: Probability, Data analysis, Geometry 78 B
Advanced Program Mathematics + Statistics 59 D
Chemistry I 64 C
Mathematics I 50 D
Intro. to Mechanical Engineering and Design 72 B
Engineering Drawing 80 A
Physics I 60 C
Mechanics 63 C
Electrical Engineering 75 A
Mathematics II 51 D
Fluid Mechanics I 56 D
Applied Mechanics A 60 C
Computing Skills and Software Development 82 A
Mechanical Engineering Laboratory I 57 D
Thermodynamics I 64 C
Applied Mechanics B 60 C
Introduction to Materials Science 73 A
Mechanical Engineering Design I 72 B
Operations Research 58 D
Industrial Engineering Design* 68 C
Industrial Engineering Laboratory 60 C
Mechatronics I 70 B
Business Management 50 D
Operations Management Techniques 62 C
Mathematical Topics 54 D
Manufacturing Technology: Process 61 C
Principles of Organisational Behaviour 77 A
Society and the Engineer 67 C
Design Project* 72 B
Research Project 60 C
Operations Management Systems Integration 63 C
Manufacturing Technology Systems 63 C
Business Studies 70 B
Decision Support and Intelligence Systems 70 B
Systems Management and Integration 68 C
Basic Computer Organization 73 B
Data and Data Structures 76 A
Limits of Computation 63 C
Database Fundamentals 80 A
Operating Systems 51 D
Programming Languages 67 C
Analysis and Applications of Algorithms 71 B
Algorithms and Artificial Intelligence 62 C
Software Engineering 75 A
General Chinese Beginner I 93.7 -
Speaking Beginner I* 96.5 -
Listening Beginner I 93.3 -
General Chinese Pre-intermediate 86.8 -
Speaking Pre-intermediate 91.4 -
Listening Pre-intermediate 87.9 -
Reading Pre-intermediate 82.4 -
Intermediate Chinese - C+
Quality Engineering - C+
Production Management - B
Introduction to Decision Making - B
Industrial Practice - P
Ergonomics - B+
Systematic Prodcut Design and Development - B
Quantitative Analysis - B
New Horizons on Chinese Philosophy - B+
Human Computer Interaction - B-
Manufacturing in China - B
China Studies: Industry, Society, and Culture - C+
Sustainability Lab 90 -
Finance, Accounting, and Control 80 -
Videogame Design and Development 70 -
Social Innovation 90 -
Healthcare Management 93 -
Managing Technology Disruption 90 -
Mobility* 93 -