Penn Student’s Annoying Email the Latest in Ivy League’s Obsession with Numbers

A few days before Christmas, some poor Penn student in computer science professor Steve Zdancewic’s “Programming Languages and Techniques” class didn’t like the grade Zdancewic (or, probably, one of his 16 assistants) posted for him, and, yup, immediately dashed off a bothersome email to say so.

Less important than how or why The Daily Pennsylvanian posted this email—the student sent it to the listserv for a class of 200-odd students, duh—is the dark, hilarious content therein. Shall we?

“It’s possible I’ve made a calculation error . . .  but I do not believe so.” Or, YOU ARE WRONG. The two subsequent emails are sort of tedious—Zdancewic tells him what’s what and that’s that, then the student basically calls him incompetent, and that he (the student) is “confused.” And so on. Still, it’s sort of amazing to see this example, in fine detail, of the Ivy League’s historic and rather total obsession with its own quantification. This is a habit seen in the daily newspapers’ endless admissions coverage—e.g., see here, and here, and here, and here, and here—plus, it goes without saying, the U.S. News & World Report rankings and its imitators, which are always world-stoppingly important and intrinsically meaningful.

But take anything the Ivy League likes. Harry Potter, let’s go with. (Bear with me.) The New York Times once published an 18-year-old’s complaint about how the Ivy League and its array of imitators constantly compare themselves to HP. Or an element thereof, like Hogwarts. (To which some bothered Penn students replied!) A very big deal, all of it. Anyway: HP is attractive, and immediately so, to an adolescent child for the same reason the Ivy League is attractive, immediately so, a few years down the road. Both are bound by seemingly but not actually meaningful numbers. Which is sort of exhausting to explain, but let’s try. There are . . . SEVEN books . . . THREE magical schools . . . in one of which are FOUR houses . . . SEVEN hor-whatevers . . . THREE death things; there are . . . EIGHT schools . . . TWELVE colleges at one of them . . . TWELVE houses (different!) at another . . . THREE real schools . . . that accept TWO PERCENT of applicants, etc., etc.

Or take the Eduardo Saverin character in The Facebook Movie, humblebragging: “I made the second cut.” Not “the cut” or “the next cut”; “the second cut.” Or take your excessively groomed college tour guide mentioning, to the shared awe of every baby boomer parent born west of Pittsburgh, how many millions of books the university library contains, as though a prospective student might make a decision based on that figure. Or “self-help bro” (and ’00 Princeton alum) Timothy Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek, which kind of makes fun of itself. Or, back at the turn of the century, Dr. Pierce’s Five Foot Shelf, and Princeton’s greatest invention, the SAT.

Never numbers as in grades, though. That implies a concern for the quality of one’s work or an interest in the material. Which, well! If you read the student’s email, it sounds like he’s negotiating the price of a plane ticket, or checking his taxes with his obviously incompetent accountant. Or, for that matter—in some distant, horrible future—wrapping things up at 200 West Street before cabbing it to his extremely classy West Village 2BR.

9 Responses to “Penn Student’s Annoying Email the Latest in Ivy League’s Obsession with Numbers”

  1. Student Says:

    Why are you being so hard on this guy again? He felt as if he got a lower grade than he should’ve and so asked the professor for clarification. Barring the whole name-calling in the next few emails, I don’t see what he did wrong here. I also got a grade lower than expected this semester and so had to email the professor with the numbers that I had asking her to double check. Students do this in every college if you didn’t know.

    What’s actually news to me in this article is that the homework for that class was 50% of the final grade. Now that’s the real news.

  2. J.K. Trotter Says:

    You’re right that it’s normal-ish to email a professor about a grade. But what I think makes this email so representative (at least of the striving-ness of the Ivy League) is that it concerns no what the student learned or did not learn (at all), but the numerical representation of his achievement, and how that positioned him within the rest of the class. Which (this whole anxiety) is itself sort of vulgar, but also the topic of zero discussion, anywhere.

    And is this “learning”? Maybe, sure. But it seems accidental. Plus there’s usually one reason why certain students care so much about maintaining a certain GPA: because a certain class of employers—finance and consulting—uses that index as a strict measurement of one’s employability. Which is fine, I guess, if you consider working at those kinds of places desirable. It’s problematic, though, because if you willingly applied to and in fact attend a certain group of schools, you almost certainly do.

  3. Bad Reporting! Says:

    34th Street’s Under the Button posted this…not the DP. 

    And profs – yes the prof is the one entering the grade – miscalculate grades all the time; so it’s reasonable for a student to inquire about a possible error.

    Stop trying to make a name for yourself in your second article!

  4. Princess Ivy Says:

    No way! This is Ivy Gate at its best: snarky, smart, and just a wee bit goofy. We (the royal we) love it!

  5. B - Dartmouth '14 Says:

    This is Trotter’s best article thus far. It has the elements of a proper IvyGate article, just needs some tightening up.

    Trotter is taking a lot of bashing because IvyGate’s been quiet for a while and many of his articles simply aren’t up to par with previous standards. In other words: people are disappointed.

    If, however, he can continue writing articles like this one, I think we can look forward to things from him.

  6. J.K. Trotter Says:


    “34th Street Magazine, the [Daily Pennsylvanian]’s arts and entertainment weekly magazine was first published in 1968.”

    No more name-making, promise.

  7. Bad Reporting! Says:

    Yes, The Daily Pennsylvanian is the publisher of 34th street and UTB.  But The Daily Pennsylvanian newspaper (which you obviously meant since you italicized it) did not publish this.  You’re attempt to defend this is not only incorrect, but even if correct, would be a bit silly.  Would you say News Corp published something you found in a WSJ editorial???

    And we can debate the sad “gradization” of Ivy Academics all day long, but it’s a reality. If the student felt short changed, he had a right to ask a question.  Just because he misunderstood the grading system doesn’t mean you ought to try and belittle him.  Please keep you promise. 

  8. Anonymous Says:

    This spat over who actually published the email is sort of irrelevant.  Under the Button is the blog of 34th Street magazine, which is the arts and entertainment magazine of the Daily Pennsylvanian (should be italicized).  Sure it would have been more specific and accurate to say that Under the Button published it, but the important point isn’t who published it; it’s what the author says. 

    On that matter I tend to agree with you, Bad Reporting, as well as “Student.” 

  9. Student75 Says:

    That’s unfortunate, it seems like “almost” every semester I have this same problem.  Generally, it is a significant percentage that the professor mis-calculates.  What bothers me most is, when you tray to tactfully state your position with valid documentation (your itemized grades and their grading policy) they take offense.  They imply that the student didn’t look at the grading procedures at least that is what this recent one did.  My debate was my calculation of 95% compared to her 76%.  Calculating grades are simple percent problem, what makes some professors think we can’t calculate.  It is very irritating and I understand people make mistakes, but to get mad at the student because the professor made the mistake I think is completely absurd.  It makes you wonder why globally we are in the shape we are in?  Especially, if it was a class of which the student detected numerous fallacies in the instruction and raised questions.  We are talking math where the final answer is a fact and  not philosophy where its an opinion. I knew the way the class was going my grade would be calculated incorrectly based on the wrong answers she kept putting on the board.  I’m glad I’m anal about my grades.  Every time this happens, I’m right and awarded the correct grade that I “earned”, but I hate having to go back and forth with these dudes to prove my point!

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