Key issues need to be on CEP agenda

The Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) has announced this is the “most important year” for Williams’ academic mission. The biggest challenge will be to ensure that policy changes are conceived and actualized in such a way that they improve the academic part of our schooling without compromising our complete education. As faculty, administrators and students meet over the next year in a comprehensive curricular review, here are some ideas on what we should do in some key areas:

Winter Study

While students generally love it, professors often hate it. In some ways it is easy to see what precipitates the yearly complaints from professors that winter study is a waste of time. Academic rigor and winter study do not often appear in the same sentence, at least not in a positive way.

There are several ways in which winter study could be reformed to increase academic rigor. Professors could have the option of tailoring a semester-long class into a winter study class so that only dedicated students would sign up. Likewise, the College could insist that students take some or all of their four winter study periods as graded courses. This again would force at least part of the student body to put ample effort into their classes.

Yet I agree with neither of these options. Why should Williams maintain winter study in its current form? Why is a comparatively recent development in the Williams calendar and curriculum so important?

I think the key word in defining the role and goals of winter study should be exploration. Freshman year, I took a physics course that most likely represents the one and only time I will take physics in college. Students should have the chance to take classes from departments they would normally avoid and learn – and even almost fail – without penalty. Winter study thus serves as one of the few chances for the much talked-about but often unrealized concept of “learning for learning’s sake.”

Does this always happen? Certainly not, but the fact that this is not the experience every student has should push us to make it occur more often rather than to eradicate the opportunity Williams has to instill this important value in its students. Furthermore, the College’s mission, in the words of Mark Hopkins, to “regard the mind….as a flame that is to be fed, as an active being that must be strengthened to think and to feel – and to dare, to do and to suffer” should supersede any pressure to focus solely on academics.

Even learning for learning’s sake has its limits in the classroom. Unconscious learning and experience should be valued just as much – and perhaps even more – than that which we can read, perform in a lab or write about in a paper. Winter study highlights the often ignored fact that the existence of the residential college asserts that every individual, whether classified as student or professor, is actually both a student and a teacher.

As a college committed to the liberal arts education of undergraduates, Williams must seek to increase opportunities for learning outside the walls of Morley, Griffin, Hopkins and Bronfman. Winter Study provides the college with the chance to emphasize that academics alone do not comprise an education.

In this respect emphasis should be placed on experiential education both inside and outside of the classroom. The college should encourage cooperation and joint learning in the pursuit of all kinds of knowledge and experiences. It is impossible to eliminate all complaints about these four weeks in January, but it is a mentality and attitude – amongst both students and faculty – rather than a calendar that should be changed.

Division Requirements

Three courses in three divisions serve as the method through which Williams fulfills its commitment to a broad-based liberal arts education. Just as each department sets its own major requirements, each student designs his or her own course of study.

Does this mean I may leave Williams without ever taking math? Sure. Is this bad? No. Rather than dictate what I should know, Williams asks me to define what is academically important to me. Personal responsibility and accountability – concepts with more long-term value than facts – flow from this academic independence.

Nevertheless, we still need to vigorously examine what we miss by letting students choose a smattering of courses. When I was looking at colleges, I rejected schools with course requirements and a core curriculum as too narrow and confining. However, I have come to realize that even if one seeks it out, it is far too easy to leave Williams without broad-based knowledge unifying the sciences and the humanities. As it currently stands, one must take several courses in each division and hope they fit together in order to gain anything of the like. Although taking classes in this way allows a student to gain more in-depth knowledge of each subject individually, there should be a class that connects them as starting point for further study.

Core courses and broad surveys are never without controversy. How can we pick certain works – “classic” or otherwise – to represent knowledge we think we should have? Rather than try to avert controversy, controversy should be the foundation for a two semester optional interdisciplinary course.

We should read and learn “across the curriculum” canonical works of humanities, social science and science along with works earlier and currently dismissed. We should have the chance to read political theory and art history along with scientific theory. We should have the opportunity to see how Western and Eastern thought converge and diverge.

Neither the pursuit of knowledge nor the development of thought is linear, and we should not seek to institutionalize it as such. But we should have the option to take a course that introduces cross-curricular approaches to the past and present, which embraces controversy as something to be explored rather than hidden.

Classes and Credit Hours

For the sake of simplicity alone I would advocate maintaining the 32-class requirement instead of converting to a credit hour system. Despite the numerous times people from other schools have spent trying to explain to me the differences between a 15-credit and 18-credit semester or between a three-credit class and a four-credit class, it is still all nonsense to me.

But more importantly, the credit hour system as I (sort of) understand it implicitly states that the hours spent in a classroom or lab are more valuable than the time spent reading, writing or researching beyond the gaze of a professor’s eyes. I know that my science majors spend many more hours a week in Morley and Bronfman than I do in Griffin or Hopkins, but I do not think that justifies classifying our courses of study differently.

Although tutorials only meet one hour per week, I put more time into my tutorial last spring than I did for my other classes. I have also put more time and effort into lecture classes than seminars. Students should neither be rewarded nor penalized for the hours spent in or out of a classroom precisely because education is not quantifiable. Classes, regardless of department or format, should be equal. Receiving knowledge in different forms should be regarded as a benefit, not as a drawback.

The College should, however, seek to maximize the different forms of classroom experience. When the faculty voted on this year’s course offerings last spring, one professor noted that the number of tutorials offered has been steadily decreasing. Initially intended for sophomores, tutorials are often difficult for anyone but juniors and seniors to get into. It is imperative that this trend not continue, that tutorial offerings and other more unusual class formats are encouraged and increase.

Likewise, I would recommend the abolition of GPA requirements for writing theses. It is great that we have the choice to engage in such a project; however, the reality, at least as stated in most departmental guidelines found in the Course Catalog, is that grades (among other factors) determine one’s readiness to engage in such a project. I do not doubt that each department weighs the grade component differently; however, regardless of weight, receiving an A average does not correlate to initiative and receiving a C average does not demonstrate incompetence.

Desire and willingness to explore and to try should be the fundamental concern throughout our education, from first-year class choices to independent studies, from winter study to senior year theses.

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