Pictured: That number that I like

Pictured: That number that I like

Today, I got back an exam and a couple papers from much earlier in the semester. I actually wasn’t expecting to ever see them because the professor who teaches those two classes is not well renowned for his tendency to return graded material. (He is well renowned for other things, like being a genius and like being very interesting) For the most part, the grades I got back today were pretty good. In particular, I totally aced my midterm exam two months ago. That didn’t surprise me; I felt pretty good about it at the time, and I don’t often feel good about exams. Still, it was good to see that number that I like at the top of my exam. It made me a little sad to read through my essays, though, because my life was so much cooler back then in those long past days. Who would have thought that I’d ever feel nostalgic about midterms?

There was one paper that I deliberately didn’t look at to find out my grade. I didn’t feel like it. That paper was not exactly the most brilliantly clever paper I have ever written; in fact, it was pretty stupid. I figured I don’t really need to know what I got. If my grade is higher than I expect, there’s nothing for me to worry about, and if it’s not, then that knowledge is just going to depress me. There are only two ways that seeing poor grades can help a student to do better in the future. One is if the student doesn’t know what he or she did wrong, and that isn’t the case in my situation. I know exactly why that paper was stupid; it was stupid because I didn’t have a good argument. The other way is if the student will respond to poor grades with motivation to do better, and I had already made the resolution that I shall never again write such an idiotic paper. That decision isn’t contingent upon the exact grade I got, so I don’t need to know the exact grade. At least not now.

Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrodinger

Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrodinger

This isn’t the first time I’ve deliberately avoided looking at a graded paper. When I do this, I refer to it as Schrodinger’s Grades. Schrodinger was a physicist with four given names (Erwin, Rudolf, Josef, and Alexander, in that order) who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1933. His most notable work was in quantum mechanics, he didn’t like the Nazis, and there’s a crater on the moon named for him. What, you may ask, does Schrodinger have to do with my stupid Shakespeare paper? I will tell you. (The reason has nothing to do with Nazis or moon craters)

Schrodinger is perhaps best known for his thought experiment called Schrodinger’s Cat. In case you aren’t familiar with it, the basic point is that there’s a cat inside a box and you don’t know if the cat is alive or dead. As long as you don’t open the box and look, the cat is actually both dead and alive. (If you do open the box, it is either alive or dead.) This scenario is described in his 1935 article with the delightful title Die gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechani. (The Present Situation in Quantum Mechanics) Schrodinger helpfully informs us exactly how the cat in the box will (or will not) die: “In a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small that perhaps in the course of the hour, one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges, and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid,” says Schrodinger. Thank you, Schrodinger, for explaining this to us. Incidentally, it is worth noting that hydrocyanic acid is a deadly poison.

Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrodinger, looking like the kind of person who would be cruel to hypoethetical cats

Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrodinger, looking like the kind of person who would be cruel to hypoethetical cats

After the publication of this scientific article with the aforementioned delightful title, Schrodinger received harsh criticism from PETHA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Hypothetical Animals. Except not really, because there’s no such organization.

Schrodinger’s point with this thought experiment had to do with physics, not college grades, but I would like to suggest that the principle remains the same. As long as I don’t look at my grade, it is both a good grade and a bad grade. Once I see it, though, it will be one or the other. Given the fact that I’m reasonably sure it will be a bad grade, it would be in my best interest to avoid this situation and to maintain the current state of matters, in which the grade is also good.

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