Hyphenated courses up for debate

The Williams faculty is debating the advantages and disadvantages of hyphenated courses in the academic curriculum. Currently, if a student is enrolled in a hyphenated course, he or she will only get credit for the first semester if they pass the second semester. Members of the faculty are currently divided in their opinions concerning the way hyphenated courses are administered.

Most introductory and some intermediate level language courses as well as Art History 101-102 and Chemistry 103-104 and 201-202 are hyphenated courses. In order to get credit for the first semester alone, a student must petition the Committee on Academic Standing.

The issue was first addressed by CAS after members expressed concern about hyphenated courses. They were primarily concerned that different departments treated the hyphenated course more strictly than others. CAS brought its concerns to the attention of the Committee on Educational Policy, a student-faculty oversight committee chaired by Professor of English Karen Swann. After reviewing the issue for a number of weeks, CEP did not come to a final decision but decided to address the issue at a recent faculty meeting.

In her speech to the faculty, Swann outlined the issues discussed by CEP since the fall. Swann said, “One thing that came out of [the CEP’s] discussions was a strong consensus about the educational value of year-long courses. It seemed to us that such courses set a premium on integrated and cumulative knowledge.”

However, CEP recognized the need to separate the educational value of hyphenated courses from the way course credit is allocated. CEP agreed it did not make sense to give credit only after the completion of two semesters of a course when Williams measures student work based on a semester model. CEP decided that there is indeed an educational value for year-long courses. “But,” Swann said in her speech, “we also came to have reservations about whether the hyphen — in its character as a rule about granting credit, rather than as an indicator of a year-long course — is necessarily the best way to further the laudable aims of year-long courses.”

There are varying attitudes from one department to another towards gaining credit for hyphenated courses. A member of CAS, Associate Dean for Academic Programs David Edwards explained, “Some departments use hyphenated courses essentially to signal to students that the material covered in a particular year is of a piece, and that it makes educational sense, as you plan your year, to plan on taking both halves.”

Edwards noted, however, that some departments are stricter than others about following through with a hyphenated course. Some departments, for example, will not give approval for a student to get out of such a course after the first semes

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ter, whereas others will grant it readily. “My concern as a member of [the CAS], was that we would sometimes see students who had done poorly in a hyphenated course in the fall and were required to stay in that course for the second semester.”

He added, “We wondered, in some cases, if it was in the student’s best educational interest, particularly in courses in which information was gathered cumulatively, to continue with the course.”

Yana Dadiomova ‘00 had no problems dropping her hyphenated course at the end of the first semester of this year. After being accepted into the Mount Sinai Humanities for Medicine Program, Dadiomova was required to drop the second half of her Organic Chemistry course. Dadiomova explained she had to fill out a form, get it signed by the Chair of the Chemistry Department, and then return it to the Registrar. “My experience was the easiest thing I’ve ever done. I thought there would be more red tape, but it was really very easy.”

Sean Connor ‘01 has had no problems so far with his hyphenated Latin course. “There haven’t been any real headaches about people needing to drop or worrying about credit.” However, he added, “If it’s true that if you drop you don’t get credit for the first semester, I think that’s a little ridiculous. If you’ve completed a semester, you deserve some sort of credit for that.”

Professor of Classics Charles Fuqua said, in the past, courses at Williams were much more structured than they are today. It used to be common, for example, to require the completion of History classes one through eight. Similarly, English, political science, and economics major courses were much more structured than they are currently. Fuqua explained there was a switch in the early 1960s towards more electives and a looser educational structure. “I think now people are beginning to move back again towards putting more structure into the curriculum.”

Fuqua explained the educational value of the hyphenated course structure in such elementary courses as Latin and Greek. In Latin, for example, students have learned only one type of complex sentence by the end of the first semester. It is not until the end of the second semester that they are able to read the second book of the Aenead.

Concerning courses at Williams in general, Fuqua said, “I think we could use a little more shape. But shape doesn’t necessarily mean control.” He added, “I don’t think we have to get rid of hyphenated courses, but I think, in the context of my own department, that we could look into better administration of them. We could also think more about what we’re trying to accomplish in administrating something.” Fuqua distinguished between the educational purpose of the hyphenated course and the way it is used administratively. He said in the future the Classics department will look more closely at the way hyphenated courses are used.

Associate Professor of German Gail Newman believes there is an educational value in the hyphenated course and that it should be taken seriously by students and departments alike. “Students should be aware from the beginning that taking a hyphenated course involves a particular kind of commitment, just as they are aware in other sorts of courses that other sorts of special commitments are involved.” Newman says she believes there may be some appropriate cases for a student to drop the second semester of a course, but the decision should be given serious thought. She added, “I don’t think it’s necessary either for the hyphen to be eliminated, or for it to be strictly enforced across the board in order to achieve some abstract ideal of equity.”

On the current situation of hyphenated courses, Edwards said, “Right now with the way it is, you could take a course in the fall and if you decide not to take the second half of it in the spring you don’t get credit for the work you’ve done. That seems to me to be unfair.” He added, “At the same time, it’s important to signal that pedagogically to get the most out of a course you should take it over a full year and plan ahead.”

In her speech at the faculty meeting, Swann made it clear that CEP is now looking to the faculty for input into the future of hyphenated courses.

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