Sunday, March 16, 2014

Embrace those B's, Ladies

I was visiting one of my favorite colleges (Davidson) the other night. Had given a talk, and was having dinner afterwards with some students and faculty.

One young woman mentioned that she done very well in math in high school, and that she wished she had been able to take some math in college.  She was an Econ major, but had taken zero calculus and then took just the one required baby-stats-by-cookbook course.  (UPDATE:  Why so few women economists?)

I asked why she had not "been able" to take any math in college.  I knew for a fact Davidson offered math courses. (In fact, they do stuff like this, there). The young lady, obviously shocked, said, "I might have made a B!  Those are hard courses!"

I couldn't let that go.  I may have pointed out that she had just said that she was "really good" at math, and most people don't say that.  For a woman to say she's really good at math, she must in fact be really good at math.  And I may have said something like this was her only chance at an education, and the ridiculous courses (I may have said "underwater basket-weaving for beginners") she took instead were a giant waste of time.  Who cares if you get an "A" in that crap?  For my big finish, I said "Nobody cares about your G.P.A.  You have wasted more than $150,000 here, avoiding an education."  I may have been a jerk, in other words.

It was quiet for quite a while after that.  It's possible I was out of line.  But it's also possible I was COMPLETELY RIGHT.


“Maybe women just don’t want to get things wrong,” Goldin hypothesized. “They don’t want to walk around being a B-minus student in something. They want to find something they can be an A student in. They want something where the professor will pat them on the back and say ‘You’re doing so well!’ ” 

“Guys,” she added, “don’t seem to give two damns.” 

So maybe the better question is: Why aren’t men scared off by rigid grading curves? Male students could be more overconfident — effectively, college bros shrug off gentleman’s C’s (or, more often today, gentleman’s B’s) as unrepresentative of their true brilliance.

Please spread the word.  The "game" in college is NOT to maximize GPA.  It's to maximize education, subject to the constraint of maintaining a decent GPA.

My own rule in graduate admissions:  never accept anyone with a 4.0.  And it's better if the person has gotten at least one "C."  If there is no C in the record, it means the person is going to be just another loser who is really good at taking courses.  If you could get a job taking courses, that would be the sort of person you want.  But we want people who will take risks, and learn new things that are too hard to master on the first go.

(If it matters, this is self-serving, yes.  I made two C's:  one in an intermediate Art History class that was completely over my head, and one in Real Analysis.  Finally, I made a "B" in my Intro Econ class.  Nobody told me I was doing well.  Because I wasn't.)

An extended discussion of the problem can be found in Megan McArdle's terrific new book, THE UP SIDE OF DOWN.  It's really great, and it argues that students need to be encouraged to fail.

Or at least get a "B," fercrissakes.

(UPDATE:  Claudia S. points out, on twitter [ @Claudia_Sahm ], that my "lecture" was almost certainly completely ineffective, and even counterproductive.  And Claudia is right, of course.  If someone is unsure of themselves then being yelled at in public by a creepy old guy like me is not really helpful. Another reader pointed out that this scene from Big Lebowski is apropos...   Further, if the young woman had taken a course in math and gotten a "B," then she would no longer have thought she was "really good" at math.  My point is that you should not just take courses in things in which you are already "really good", and courses in high school don't count!  You need to try to get better at OTHER things.  Staying inside your comfort zone is the whole problem!  Figure out what you are "really bad" at, and then go take THOSE courses, to get better.  So, either the young lady was "really good," and would make a good grade, or she would find out it was hard, and she wasn't really good, and so she needed to work hard to make a decent, maybe not even good, grade.  That's why I look for a "C" in the transcript, as long as the course is a difficult one.  Take something you are not "really good" at.)


LLM said...


Claudia Sahm said...

Goodness, I was not trying to call anyone out (though the video is funny) … I do think your message to her was VERY important. Still it's worth considering why you even needed to say that to her.

I think it's fascinating how people do or don't take signals from grades (or other forms of critique). I was trying to convince my 8-year old daughter the other day that getting really good grades in one subject does not mean she is not good in another subject. I say it even though I know I was guided by that thinking.

I did not even know what economics was until my first semester in college. I went to college thinking I would major in English since I had been quite good in that subject. (And now I write in Fedspeak, sigh.) I ended up triple majoring in three of my four classes first semester: econ, poll sci, and German (math was the fourth). And yes I graduated with a 4.0 so I am one of those "losers" who you wouldn't admit but I also studied abroad and was in a sorority so I may just have been sleep deprived and overly efficient. I have not gotten many bad grades save from junior high home ec and general equilibrium in grad school but I do take too much signal about my worth from grades and critical feedback. (Of course, my grades did pay for my college and help me jump out of a pile of RA applications, so they were not a waste of my time either.) But thankfully I have had lots of good mentoring and that has served me well. My undergrad advisor wrote a letter to me (and all his graduating advisees) that was basically like an open reference letter -- reminding me what intellectual and human qualities I added. I still take it out and read it sometimes. If she is one of those types who uses grades to motivate and judge herself she may need some new tools to deal with the B's and the cranky professors who lecture her at dinner :).

All that said I do applaud the post and the fact that you did not quietly let her comment go.

blink said...

The male-female graph could probably be reproduced if students were instead divided according to whether they report "trying very hard". If women try harder in their intro. courses, then their grades will be better correlated with ability and that makes the correlation with choice of major both sensible and desirable. Maybe the message should be: "Hey, men! Don't blow off your intro. courses!"

I have to call your bluff about looking for 'C's. This only adds noise; anyone capable of earning an 'A' can just as easily produce a 'C' in the same course. But doing so may jeopardize scholarships, award-eligibility, and the opinions of saner reviewers of the transcript.

Pelsmin said...

A few comments:

First, Claudia, there's one that that I, and all men, took from your statements. Loud and clear. Don't ever let you cook a meal for me. Or sew a pillow.

Second, Mungo, you don't have to worry about being too harsh. I'm sure the young lady has had plenty of people tell her how wonderful she is (sounds like an impressive person to me) but few-to-none tell her that she's screwing something up in her life. Doesn't happen anymore. She'll recover.

Lastly, the best attitude I've heard was from a college classmate who made top grades and went off to Stanford for grad school. I asked if he was again the top student in his class. He responded that he wasn't even close. Instead, he had received special clearance to take about 130% of a full course load, so he could take every class that interested him, even if he couldn't make it to every session due to overlaps. They let him do it and he had a ball. And 20 years later he's doing great.

Anonymous said...

I think you advice is great for a tenured college professor. Let me ask, what risks have you taken lately?

Really, given how little useful anyone, no matter what courses they take, learns in college, it is much smarter to play the game and get better grades which will help in the future.

Your prospective is based on your worldview that as a college professor you impart useful knowledge. This is unlikely. And the cost of college, while grossly inflated, will not go down if someone take hard courses in which you make a lower grade.

Anonymous said...

If what we teach doesn't matter, I wonder why the math and econ students place better than the econ students, and the econ students place better than pretty much everyone else?

The game, in fact, is to go convince someone that you have skills worth being paid for. We had a math-econ guy with a 3ish gpa take a very nice hedge fund job last year. I told him he could drive his Audi back to the reunion next year and drive the kids who won all the GPA-related awards.

For med school it's tough because you basically do need the high grades. But the "lack" of women in STEM is not from the lack of opportunities for them to succeed, that's for certain.

John Covil said...

In Computer Engineering, "I could get a B" was an expression of irrational hope.

Andy said...

Once I was in charge of interviewing "fresh outs" for engineering department... I had a very similar policy on GPA... a 4.0 in engineering meant "Either this person is a genius and has no business here... or this person 'gamed' the system (or just plain cheated).

The folks out of EE school with around a 3.0 were bright and also very used to working hard to achieve...

JWO said...

Please spread the word. The "game" in college is NOT to maximize GPA. It's to maximize education, subject to the constraint of maintaining a decent GPA.

I think not because the things you learn are not very applicable to most lives. College is a long test. Your GPA is more important than what you learned.