Encouraging intellectual risk taking

The Committee on Appointments and Promotions (CAP) announced this past Wednesday at the faculty meeting that it would spend a significant portion of its time this year considering how and when to implement workload reduction/reallocation. While the exact nature of this change will vary within divisions and from department to department, it will result in making the teaching load commensurate with that of peer schools. This strategy should help increase faculty satisfaction, thereby bolstering retention, enhancing the College’s image and, eventually, strengthening faculty recruitment. Beyond the practical intentions of this move, it also embodies the expectation that our faculty will immerse themselves in the courses they teach even more than they currently do.

The faculty also learned from Professor Stephen Fix, chair of the English Department and head of the tutorial program, that there will be a significant increase in the stipends rewarded for the creation of new tutorials this year. Furthermore, unlike in the past, faculty may now reapply for these grants in order to create new tutorials.

For many, and perhaps even most, professors, the workload reduction is the more consequential of these announcements. Yet the pedagogical and philosophical weight of the latter can be read as both incentive and imperative for maximizing the beneficial results of the former. Additional money, while no doubt helpful in covering costs of course development, also symbolizes the College’s strong commitment to enriching the experience of education for faculty as well as the students they teach. These funds enable professors to spend their summer exploring their chosen subject, finding material and creating syllabi.

Students ultimately see only the final results of this progression in the form of the tutorial taught, but the stipend enables the process. In providing for this exploration, the College acknowledges that a high-quality curriculum requires not only commitment but also time to explore, to test ideas and fail; time to try new methods, to filter and make mistakes and time to throw away, rewrite and finalize. This inclusion of mistakes as a necessary part of the process may seem out of place, but initial forays into a given subject matter, even one a professor knows well, may not succeed. An idea may not work as a tutorial or it may not work in the form originally conceived. It may need to be refined in order to be taught within the parameters of the discipline or enlarged to encompass new or unexpected perspectives.

Despite these incentives for faculty to rejuvenate their teaching, refresh old thoughts and re-examine the possibilities for courses, the opposite sentiment, a fear of failure, pervades the general atmosphere of learning at Williams. We spent the last year evaluating our curriculum and will spend this year implementing what is termed “curricular innovation,” but how much innovation regularly occurs in the classroom? How often are students asked to try something new, something that may not work out, something with unknown answers, something that may fail? How often are students encouraged or offered incentives to take risks?

While the College’s divisional requirements ensure that students take a variety of classes, the fear of a bad grade from a difficult course often outweighs the potential benefits of such a class, particularly when it is a course from an unfamiliar discipline. It is no secret that there are easier and harder classes within each division or that students prioritize GPAs over curiosity when choosing courses. While acknowledging the reality that grades do and will continue to matter to students, we need to encourage our students to take more academic risks.

On a macro level, one way to encourage students to test out new terrain and leave the comfort zone of known disciplines might be to allow students to drop one course from their transcript. This is not an unproblematic proposal: the most obvious concern would be that students would take a course and not do the work because they intend to strike it from their record. But this does not have to be the result. Perhaps the class cannot be struck until senior year, in which case the student will need to work in all classes since a more challenging one might emerge. Perhaps the student would need to explain in writing the work undertaken, the challenges pursued and the reason the grade should be dropped.

On a micro level, professors could drop a weak paper or count it less if it demonstrates a concerted effort to investigate something new, approach a question from a new perspective, or defend a bold thesis. Likewise, if by senior year a student desires to explore an idea and a faculty member supports their project, it is absurd for departments to turn them away and prevent the pursuit of interesting ideas in the form of a thesis simply because they do not meet a GPA cutoff. Low GPAs do not necessarily reflect an inability to do good work; it may in fact demonstrate a greater willingness to take risks, no doubt a necessary part of evolution of new ideas, concepts and theories. Likewise high GPAs do not necessarily correlate with brilliant theses as those with consistently good grades may receive them by never experimenting.

Another way that we can encourage risk, self-challenge and exploration across a student’s entire four-year program is to adopt a transcript format similar to the one at Dartmouth College, one that takes into consideration not only the individual grade but also the average grade given in the class. We cannot ignore the fact that different professors grade differently, and that familiarity with these tendencies impacts students’ choices. We can take steps to alleviate these realities by printing not only a student’s grade on their transcript, but also either the mean or median grade in the class. Of course, we can never eradicate the primacy of grades, but by allowing graduate schools, fellowship programs and job recruiters to look at GPAs in context, the College can encourage students to risk taking a class with a reputed tough grader.

Sometimes reducing the fear of failure is not about offering incentives but reducing the barriers, real or imagined, to experimentation. Just as a goal of the workload reduction is to enable faculty to spend more time preparing courses and working with students in the classroom, an intellectual environment that rewards risk-taking would encourage students to think more creatively and critically about their coursework.