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Died: Pass/ No Record, 34.

W. Victoria Lee

I don’t have time to eat, I don’t have time to play my favorite computer games, I don’t have time to hang out with my friends; heck, I don’t even have time to sleep. And it’s only the second week of class. One might wonder why I’m living an MIT upperclassmen’s life while I’m still a freshmen. I can only sigh and say that I have just parted with my best friend: pass/no record is gone.

The class of 2006 is the first class to receive only one semester of pass/no record in more than 30 years. At first I thought it was no big deal, but now I begin to realize the toil of it. Amid piles of problem sets, I miss terribly those insignificant but friendly “P”s on Websis, regardless of what they really are underneath. When the clock strikes five in the morning and I still find myself battling physics, I can’t help but raise my arms and ask in anguish: Why, why, why did pass/no record have to go?

The pass/no record grading system for first-year students began as a four-year experiment in 1968 and became permanent in 1973. Except for changes regarding the standard of “pass” and the introduction of credit limits, the system remained unchanged until now. The consideration for doing so, however, surfaced in late 1999, when many felt that a lot of freshmen did not really learn the material or took harder classes without doing the corresponding amount of work. Some professors also felt that because the pass/no record grading system, many freshmen did not establish good study habits to prepare themselves for their significantly harder sophomore year. Indeed, last semester, when I had a choice between playing computer games and studying for next week’s exam, I often found myself succumbing to the temptation of computer games because “it’s only pass/no record.” But I have to admit, we had a great time together. Those sleepless nights of carpal tunnel syndrome-causing computer game playing, those endless hours of myopic glasses-thickening movie watching, and those constant sounds of gossiping instant messaging are the beautiful memories that it left me. But our blissful moments did not come without a price. Struggling to recover from my deficient working habits last semester, as well as my frown-inducing grades, I realize the change is a wise one.

Compared to students from the past, who had the luxury of a full year of ease, I can’t help to lament my misfortune as a member of the class of 2006, the first class to experience the change, and to mourn the early demise of our much beloved friend. But in earnest, I am already grateful for one semester of transitional adjustment. Most colleges do not even have a similar grading system for freshmen. Some universities, especially public institutions, even have pluses and minuses carry weight when calculating grade point averages. If an A minus is .3 points short of an A, to have a perfect 4.0 or 5.0 requires one to strive for solid As instead of just hanging on the border. I think I would easily perish in that environment.

But then again, MIT is not just any institution. Over the years, our academic curriculum has proved to be one of the most rigorous in the world. Students often talk about surviving MIT, not just graduating. To do well requires even more effort, superb time management ability, a superior work habit and probably an unusual brain. The pass/no record grading system provides a sheltered environment for freshmen, who come from widely different backgrounds, to adjust to the rigorous MIT lifestyle. Undeniably, without one semester of pass/no record, I would surely have died.

Nevertheless, there are many occasions when I wonder if I am doing the best I can, putting forth all my effort and absorbing as much as possible, or I am just doing the minimum to get me a passing grade. Of course, just because I was lazy, doesn’t mean the rest of the freshmen were as unproductive as I was. But the temptation to do less is real. Whenever problem sets are due, I hear people who have not completed the work brag that they’re not on grades. Whenever there is a conflict between the release of a new movie and the need for quiet study time for next day’s exams, I see more people opt for the movie. Some also take a temporary break from their academic life in pursuit of their social life, because they feel if they don’t do it during pass/no record period, there won’t be any other opportunity for them to do so.

Looking at my classes for the spring semester and the amount of work they entail, I begin to regret that I grew a little too close to my friend, pass/no record. I have greatly enjoyed my time with it and I will always cherish the wonderful time we had together, but it is time to move on. Now is the moment to get my act together and do some serious learning. It will be hard to go through MIT without my friend by my side. I know there will be times when I feel like collapsing, there will be times when I feel like crying for its return, there will be times when I feel dreadfully lonely in its absence. But I have to be strong. I will make new friends. Look! Those resonance structures are already beckoning me to join their organic company. So, farewell, pass/no record, I’ll miss you, but I know we’ve parted forever.

Pass/No Record was pronounced dead on February 4, 2003. It is survived by its only living relative, Jr. Sr. P/D/F.