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Increase Rigor for Everyone?

Bi-modal distribution.jpgThe problem with Phil’s call for increased rigor at the College is that the student body breaks into two groups: kids who work hard day in and day out, like the sophomores in the Social Entrepreneurship class that I audited last summer — an impressive bunch who were to a man and women prepared for class each day, and were called upon to prove it; and students for whom the focus at the College is on areas other that academics. Professor Mark McPeek wrote on his blog:

… a very large group of students at this elite Ivy League institution really do not care one bit about their education.

A student summarized for me this situation, which I have heard described on many occasions:

I think at any college you can take bogus classes or majors, or hard classes and difficult majors. My girlfriend took two of the easiest majors she could find here, tailored her classes every quarter to the easiest ones being given, partied all the time, was your typical frat-going-partier, and now hopes to graduate as Phi Beta Kappa. Few things instill more anger and a sense of injustice than thinking of the chem major with a B average being considered less of an “honor” student than the student I have described my girlfriend to be.

Professor Randall Ballmer’s course Religion 65, the locus of the Clickergate scandal last year, was notorious as a gut, as one student wrote to me last fall:

The fact of the matter is that Religion 65 is one of the most widely acknowledged lay-ups in the entire course catalog. 287 students signed up for the course because they believed that it would be incredibly easy in terms of the amount of work that was demanded of them. A friend of mine took the course last fall and went to class three times — once on the first day of class, once for the midterm, and once for the final — and received a B.

I don’t know how the effort curve would actually appear in this bi-modal distribution, but upping the stakes for the College’s students who are already working extremely hard could have unintended consequences. A demanding professor whose courses attract diligent students reports on a recent class discussion concerning this topic:

You should have heard my students today during our discussion of “rigor.” They went bananas! They perceive themselves to be under enormous pressure as it is, mainly from employers who will only talk to students with high GPA’s and who care just as much about demonstrated leadership in extracurriculars. So they’re going 18 hours a day, and — they say — the mental health issues in the student body are widespread and severe. The prospect of increased “rigor” in their courses makes them start blowing gaskets.

At the same time, they note that a number of subtleties are getting lost in the discussion: Dartmouth as an undergraduate community that is nicer to be part of than other college communities; the danger of lowering Dartmouth GPAs while competitor schools keep grades where they are; the extra intensity that comes with the D Plan; the fact that, even if rising SAT’s don’t explain rising grades (in the sense that SAT’s went up first, then grades), nonetheless, the Admissions Office systematically increased the SAT average by a standard deviation or more, meaning students are in fact better now than they were; the way students “mix” courses, taking one or two hard courses and a layup in the same term — maybe we should weight courses by their demands, so every course doesn’t confer the same amount of credit.

All in all, the students have strong reactions and considered views on this. I wonder if they’re getting their views across?

Perhaps Phil’s attention should be turned towards the subset of professors whose courses year in and year out make the layup lists put together by many of the College’s organizations and teams.

Addendum: An undergrad weighs in:

I completely agree with your last point. I find it hilarious that the discussion regarding academic rigor has centered on early morning Thursday classes and somehow changing the behavior and culture of the student body. The fact of the matter is that academic rigor starts from the top. A portion of the classes offered today at Dartmouth are complete jokes — either because the professors don’t care or because they are incompetent. Phil should instead focus on actually holding his faculty accountable. Perhaps he could start by publishing course reviews and making sure that classes like Religion 65 don’t get approved. “Academic rigor” has started to sound like an attack on the student body, when really it should be directed at the men and women responsible for our education — the professors.

Addendum: As if on cue, Bloomberg had a story today about a recently minted alumna, Katy Feng ‘14, taking a coding class in Boston — and working hard in it:

In a Boston basement that houses a new kind of vocational training school, Katy Feng says she’s working harder than she ever did at Dartmouth College. The 22-year-old graduated last year with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and studio art that cost more than a quarter-million dollars. She sent out dozens of résumés looking for a full-time job in graphic design but wound up working a contract gig for a Boston clothing store. “I thought, they’ll see Dartmouth, and they’ll hire me,” Feng says. “That’s not really how it works, I found.” She figures programming is the best way to get the job she wants. Hence the basement, where she’s paying $11,500 for a three-month crash course in coding.

Feng sits in the class five days a week from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., tapping on a laptop and squinting at the syntax of the programming languages JavaScript and Ruby. Homework swallows her nights and weekends—a big change from Dartmouth, where after a few hours of class “you could just do whatever,” Feng says. “This is definitely like, you’re doing it all day long.” [Emphasis added]

Good to see that Katy is definitely like, getting some work done for a change.

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