I returned to New York from India in flip-flops. It was January 9, 2014, four days before the start of my senior spring. And I was freezing. My aunt, who picked me up at JFK, suggested I get off at White Plains mall on the way to her house and buy a pair of shoes. I agreed it was a good idea. She would drop me off and pick me up in a bit.

So I got into a store, and found a pair. As a sales representative went to the backroom to find a 10 ½, I pulled out my iPhone and began scrolling. There was an email from my residential college dean, carrying the ominous subject line, “meeting.”

“Dear Abhimanyu,” the email began. “I have been reviewing all student transcripts and see the disappointing grade you received I HIST 985 (sic.). We should meet soon to discuss what happened, as well as to discuss your academic plans for spring term….” Further down in her email my dean implied I would have to take an extra class the coming semester beyond the number I may have planned, in order “to graduate.” She concluded by thanking me in advance for calling her secretary and setting up an appointment.

What the hell was she talking about? I had received grades for all but one Fall 2013 course: Studies in Grand Strategy, by far my favorite course, and the one I had easily put the most effort in.

What made the email weirder was that it wasn’t preceded by the customary email from the registrar’s office: the one informing you a new grade has been posted. So I logged into SIS to see what was going on. And I saw an F. I refreshed the page. It was still there, staring at me.

“Sir here it is. Ten and a half.”

“Sorry, I… I need to go.”

I hurried out the Aldo, found a place to sit, and looked up Yale Phonebook for Professor John Gaddis’ office line. Professor Gaddis is director of the team-taught Grand Strategy course. I left a voicemail. I also emailed him.

And I began to think. So the various grad school applications I had sent a month ago were all meaningless now. Because even if I were admitted, they would ask for my final transcript, and certainly wouldn’t stomach an F. I guess the Yale fellowships I was going to apply to in a week were also now out of bounds.

So what, precisely, was I going to do after graduating?

I had thought through that question fairly comprehensively the previous six months, and had made several back up plans, factoring in a variety of possible disappointments. But an F? That changed everything.

My aunt’s call. Was I done? Could she pick me up? No, I needed another hour. Something had come up. I’d explain later.

I tried to think through how I could have got an F. Perhaps Professor Gaddis was pissed at me for something? Hmm. Maybe it was that one part of my group presentation he didn’t like?

This is ridiculous. The grade has got to be a mistake. But if it’s a mistake can it be changed now? Like, once a grade is in the system, can it be revoked?

Ok one at a time.

So I texted my buddy from the course. Had he got his grade? Yep. A-.

A new layer of thoughts unraveled. Who the hell did I think I was, considering myself good enough for a graduate-level course? Serves me right for not being pragmatic, for not taking a gut instead, for not being strategic about my transcript in this, my all-important senior year. I had planned on writing my senior essay under Professor Gaddis. I guess that wasn’t going to happen now: No sense writing your senior essay under someone who’s given you an F. So now I’d have to request another professor.

The imminent hurly-burly of January shopping period suddenly seemed hurlier and burlier—and colder and darker.

I checked my email again. Professor Gaddis’ reply (cc’d to my dean). “This certainly is an error of some sort,” it began. My grade hadn’t been reported to the registrar’s office yet, the email continued, and so how I could have been told I had received an F was a mystery to him, Professor Gaddis explained. And, as a matter of fact, I had received an A.

After frantic coordinating involving many actors, the F was removed from the system, my correct grade entered.

***

In my journalistic work I have interviewed terrorists; I have been to the home of one of Kashmir’s most notorious separatist leaders (Kashmir being the territory India has fought wars over with Pakistan and China). But I can swear I have never felt as scared, as shorn of hope, as isolated as in that hour following my dean’s email. You might think this is silly or frivolous to say. But in those moments, nothing felt silly or frivolous—only scary. I didn’t want to face anyone.

Later, once things were sorted out, I called the registrar’s office asking for an explanation. I was told the system sometimes enters an F, by default, when a professor hasn’t submitted a grade. If that is, in fact, the case, I should say it’s a remarkably stupid system, and should be changed right away. Why not leave the space before the particular course blank, or with something such as “not yet reported?” Why, of all grades, is F the default entry? And if it is the default entry, shouldn’t deans be told or know about it, so they don’t send soul-crushing emails to students when none is warranted?

Yale is almost as perfect a place as there can be. But like any place, it contains sources of anxiety—for purposes of this article sources of anxiety stemming from university policies. These policies overwhelmingly and rightfully take a blanket approach—the same rules apply to every student. The blanket approach is a result, in part, of necessity: after all 11,000 students attend Yale (5,000 attending Yale College), and the university simply doesn’t have the resources to address every student’s anxieties (warranted or unwarranted) at an individual level.

But a handful of issues are just too sensitive, and merit a more customized, empathetic approach. In recent years there has been a lot of debate at Yale (and elsewhere) on the university’s approach to sensitive issues. An F—actual or fake—is a sensitive issue. And while no two issues of such a nature would likely benefit from the exact, same reform, the faux-F incident indicates how—at the broadest level—Yale might embrace a more empathetic, bespoke approach: thus alleviating unnecessary, undeserved student anxiety.

I wish my dean had checked with my professors and confirmed my grade before sending her email. I wish she had phoned me to ask what had happened in the particular course before writing me—making the matter seem decided. I wish she had adopted a more engaged approach by taking context into account: How likely was it I had scored an F in the backdrop of a sound transcript? And how likely was it that I, or any student, would score an F in the particular course at hand: Grand Strategy, one of Yale’s most selective courses, one requiring essays, references and an interview for getting in? Particular Yalies may sometimes be altogether unsuitable for particular courses. (I would fail any course involving singing, for instance.) But after a student has been willing to cross many hurdles to get into a course, and has succeeded, one would think he or she is unlikely to fail it altogether.

An F (at least in college, at least at Yale, for most Yalies) isn’t as relatively mundane a matter as falling ill and requesting your dean for a Dean’s Excuse. It’s exceptional, with potentially exceptional consequences for one’s career, and should be treated with the requisite care. It isn’t as if Yale deans are dealing with F students ten to a day, and that as a result they are but compelled to adopt formulaic responses.

I wouldn’t wish the tumult and despair of that hour upon anyone. It wasn’t easy.

***

Comforted by the changed look of my SIS screen, I locked my iPhone, went back into Aldo, got the pair of shoes, and got the hell out the mall.

 

 

The article has been edited from its earlier iteration that appeared on February 28. Where the earlier version referenced other incidents as well, the current version focuses exclusively on the faux-F. It is hoped a deeper exploration of this one incident, alone, will be useful for thinking about a reformed approach to sensitive policy issues more generally.

 

Published by Abhimanyu Chandra

Abhimanyu Chandra is a staff writer for The Politic from Laurel, Mississippi. Contact him at abhimanyu.chandra@yale.edu.

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